If you work in a large company, you may have noticed how at the beginning of the day, sleepy people queue up at the coffee counter to get their morning fix of caffeine. These people describe themselves as not ‘morning people’ and it is hard to engage them in any meaningful conversation before they have consumed at least one cup of coffee. Towards the end of the working day, you will notice another queue building up at the coffee counter, but this time it is a different crowd. These are the ‘morning people’ who wake up early for a workout at the gym or a quick run. By mid-afternoon, their energy levels have dropped and so they are in need of a quick boost of caffeine.
Everyone has a noticeably different rhythm of sleeping and waking- known as circadian rhythm– which is why psychologists divide people into two general chronotypes: morning larks and night owls. Morning larks rise early, are most active in the morning, grow tired more quickly by late afternoon or early evening and go to bed early. By contrast, night owls need a few hours to fully awake in the morning, become active in the evenings, and sleep late. They tend to be novelty seekers and have personalities that are consistent with outgoing extroverts. Most children start out as morning larks. If you have children, you know how it feels when they wake you up in the early morning. When they turn into teenagers, they become night owls, going to late-night parties, and this continues until their early twenties, when they turn back to morning larks once again, or sometimes stay as night owls.
Personality chronotypes depend on how alertness and concentration levels vary during the day, or what is known as the concentration curve. Concentration is defined as the amount of time you can focus on a single thought or mental activity. Concentration levels vary depending on who you are with, what you are doing, how interesting it is, and whether you had a nice bottle of wine for lunch. But, more importantly, concentration and alertness depend on the time of day. For morning larks, alertness and concentration levels start high and decline as the day progresses, while for night owls, this happens in reverse: alertness and concentration levels start low and rise steadily with the passing hours. So, how does our personality chronotype affect our perception of time?
Alertness levels vary during the day for each chronotype. In my book “The Power of Time Perception”, I show how the speed of time we experience in our mind depends on our alertness level. It follows that the speed of time changes for each chronotype as the day goes by. Scientists have confirmed that the internal clock of morning-type people generally runs faster than that of evening-types 1. For the morning-type person, alertness levels are normally at their highest in the morning and then start to drop until it reaches its lowest levels in the evening. As the alertness levels drop, the brain’s information processing speed decreases and the internal clock slows down, so time intervals shrink and time appears to pass quickly. With the feeling of abundant time early in the day, morning larks tend to be more productive and can achieve more in the morning than in the afternoon. Therefore, an hour in the morning will generally feel longer than an hour in the afternoon.
The opposite happens for a night-type person. Alertness levels are low in the morning and start to increase towards the afternoon, reaching their highest level in the evening. This means that the brain’s information processing and internal clock start to speed up as the day goes by, so time intervals stretch and time gradually slows down as the day passes. For night owls, mornings fly by and afternoons drag, which makes them more productive in the second half of the day.
Alertness and concentration levels in each chronotype affect performance and a number of studies have confirmed this. A study on professional Olympic swimmers, who tend to be night owls, found that they were 2.7 seconds faster when swimming for 100 meters at 10:00 p.m., than swimming the same distance at 6 a.m. Another study looked at 16 Major League Baseball players- nine owls and seven larks- and compared their game statistics from nearly 7,500 innings during the 2009-2010 seasons. The results indicated that when morning larks played early games (before 2 p.m.) or when night owls played night games, they both hit higher scores than when game times conflicted with their chronotypes. The performance of night owls suffered the most when they played in day games 2.
With that in mind and, since it is not easy to change your chronotype, it would be advisable to organize your life around your chronotype for optimal performance. This means playing to your strengths and using your prime time for the activities that require higher levels of concentration, while shifting the less demanding activities to that time of the day when your concentration levels are low. Match your work routine to your chronotype to optimize productivity and slow down time when you needed it most.
For more information about how our brains experience time and how to slow down time, please check ‘The Power of Time Perception: Control the Speed of Time to Make Every Second Count’ which is now available on:
To measure how fast time runs in your mind, check this new Online Speed of Time Test. You will receive a detailed report about how your personality affects your time experience!
References & Notes:
- Esposito MJ, Natale V, Martoni M, Occhionero M, Fabbri M, Cicogna P. Prospective time estimation over a night without sleep. Biol Rhythm Res. 2007;38:443-450. doi:10.1080/09291010601068776.
- W. Christopher Winter. Sleep type predicts day and night batting averages of Major League Baseball players. American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). http://www.aasmnet.org/articles.aspx?id=2306. Published 2011. Accessed May 18, 2016.