Owls and Larks: The Importance of Sleep Chronotypes

Elizabeth Kolbert reviews a couple of recent books on the science of sleep and hits on something that increasingly fascinates me, which is how different people have very different sleep patterns. One of those books discusses how those distinct patterns can put one quite out of step with normal society.

Till Roenneberg, the author of “Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired” and a professor of medical psychology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, also blames the modern workday for our general drowsiness. But Roenneberg sees this not so much as a by-product of industrial capitalism as a quirk of human physiology.

Each of us has an internal clock, or, to use Roenneberg’s term, a “chronotype.” Either we’re inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn, in which case we’re “larks,” or we like to stay up late and get up later, which makes us “owls.” (One’s chronotype seems to be largely inherited, although Roenneberg notes, not altogether helpfully, that the “genetics are complex.”) During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time—let’s say 9 a.m. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can’t—they’re owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate. This is what Roenneberg refers to as “social jet lag”—each workday, owls fall asleep in one time zone and, in effect, wake up in another. By the time the week is over, they’re exhausted. They “fly back” to their internal time zone on weekends and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Monday, they start the process all over again.

For larks, the problem is reversed. Social life is arranged so that it’s hard to have one unless you stay out late on Friday and Saturday nights. But, even when larks have partied till 3 a.m., they can’t sleep in the following day—they’re larks. So they stagger through until Monday, when they can finally get some rest.

According to Roenneberg, age also has a big influence on chronotype. Toddlers tend to be larks, which is why they drive their parents crazy by getting up at sunrise. Teen-agers are owls, which is why high schools are filled with students who look (and act) like zombies. Roenneberg advocates scheduling high-school classes to begin later in the day, and he cites studies showing that schools that delay the start of first period see performance, motivation, and attendance all increase. (A school district in Minnesota that switched to a later schedule found that the average S.A.T. scores for the top ten per cent of the class rose by more than two hundred points, a result that the head of the College Board called “truly flabbergasting.”) But, Roenneberg notes, teachers and school administrators generally resist the change, preferring to believe that the problem is insoluble.

I’m an owl and I have always been one. I was that way before I was born, according to my mother, and remain that way today. I can force myself to fit into a normal work schedule, but if I don’t have to (and I no longer do), I will revert back to my normal pattern very quickly. When my job with the American Independent News Network ended in November, 2011, I was back to my normal pattern within a week (it probably helped that I was leaving for Vegas immediately after being told we were all being laid off).

With individuals having such differences, I don’t know how we can design things for both school and work that would allow each student or employee to follow the schedule that actually fits their chronotype. But I’m betting that if we did so, we’d see productivity in both spheres go up considerably. I am simply more productive at night. I write better and more clearly.

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  • leni

    Definitely an owl. I have to take sleeping pills every night or I will not fall asleep until 2 or 3am. 9 am would be a dream start time for me. I keep ending up at jobs with 7am start times. The cruelty of larks knows no limits!

  • leni

    And as an afterthought, early risers can get up whenever they want and have a bit of free time in the morning rather than us designing everything to torture owls. Doesn’t that just seem more fair?

  • dingojack

    Current local time: c 1:38 am.

    One of the earliest memories I have is hauling myself upright in the crib and holding on for dear life, whilst thinking ‘It’s late, I should be in bed’.

    I guess, like my mother, I’m an owl then.



  • Ben P

    And as an afterthought, early risers can get up whenever they want and have a bit of free time in the morning rather than us designing everything to torture owls. Doesn’t that just seem more fair?

    Only if you can convince businesses to open at seven so I can actually get things done in the morning before work rather than simply surfing the internet for an hour before I get ready.

  • otrame

    I wonder what percent of owls marry larks? My ex is a lark. I am most certainly an owl. While that is not the reason for our divorce, the constant tension on the subject of when to go to bed did not help.

  • matty1

    There are other related factors like some people sleep in separate blocks rather than a solid eight hours and some need more sleep than others. My natural sleep pattern is three sleeps of three or four hours each with perhaps 10-20 minutes in between.

  • TGAP Dad

    I haven’t read either of the books on the subject, nor seen the data. But I have seen instances of people, including bona fide scientists, writing books claiming definite authority on a topic where the research has been all over the map. The most notorious of these are diet books, but pas examples have included sleep as well. I think I’ll call these “interesting hypotheses” until there is actually a comprehensive body of high-quality, peer-reviewed research on it.

  • Moggie

    I’m fascinated by the idea of segmented sleep – or, to be precise, that it’s been almost entirely forgotten. There are numerous references in literature which suggest that it used to be the norm, or at least common enough that one could refer to “first sleep” and “second sleep” with the expectation of being understood. Yet today the idea seems alien.

  • marcus

    leni @ “The cruelty of larks knows no limits.”

    And they’re so goddamn self-righteous about it as well.

  • Moggie “…or at least common enough that one could refer to ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’ with the expectation of being understood. Yet today the idea seems alien.”

    When explaining it, refer to it as “before leak” and “after leak”, then people instantly understand. Also, they hang up on you.

  • leni

    @ Ben P do your laundry or dishes or work out or whatever unholy business you larks do in the morning when you aren’t tormenting owls!

  • D. C. Sessions

    After 25+ years with an owl, I solved the problem by pairing up with another lark.

    Better yet, I have a job where being able to overlap my day with India (UTC+5:30) is valued. Since I’m at UTC-7:00, this means that I can have teleconferences at 05:00 local while they’re still at work. Of course, the owls can also call them at night when the India crew is arriving. Equal-opportunity sleep deprivation!

  • frog

    I’m an owl. If I have a week off from work, I rapidly slide around into a bedtime past midnight, often closing on 3 am. It’s a little weird when vacationing, but it means I have lots of time in the evening to blog about my day’s adventures.

    OTOH, I have no problem making myself wake up early, and being productive in the first few hours of the day. I am also annoyingly cheerful most mornings, without benefit of caffeine. It’s just not what happens when left to my own devices.

    When I was in high school, I would stay up late (1 am), but then I would get up at 6 am to get to school by 7:30, because the one thing I hate more than waking up early is dealing with rush hour. (Note I am a NYer. The morning rush runs from 7-10 am.)

    When I get up early, I want a nap in the late afternoon, ideally from 4-6. It is notable that today I slept until 11:15, was fairly productive all day, and here it is closing on 6 pm and I am not the slightest bit sleepy. Yep, definitely owl.

    My mother is an owl. My dad was a lark. This didn’t create any problems in their marriage other than Dad being a heavy snorer who was already sawing acres of forest by the time Mom headed to bed. Many a night I heard “Bill, roll over!” from down the hall (I was of course lying awake in bed, because it was too early to sleep). They solved this after the kids moved out by sleeping in different rooms.

  • TCC

    I’m actually sort of able to adjust to both types pretty easily. I’m probably an owl by nature, but I’m a teacher (and commute 35-40 minutes to work, to boot) and have young kids that are definitely larks (okay, one’s definitely a lark), and I’ve gotten pretty used to either 1) staying up somewhat late and functioning on less sleep or 2) getting to bed early. Part of me thinks that I would prefer working a schedule that wouldn’t require me to get up as early, but I know my kids wouldn’t let me take advantage of it. I do generally keep roughly the same sleep pattern when off of work for vacations and holidays, though.

    I’m not sure what my wife is – she doesn’t really like staying up late, but she also doesn’t like getting up early, either, so there’s a wrench in the binary for you.

  • lancifer

    My wife is currently on the night shift at work and I quickly started staying up all night with her now that she is on what we call “Standard Vampire Time”.

    I am an owl and so is my mother. I had trouble getting up for school after staying up with her watching the “late show” (movies back in the sixties not the current talk show).

    It has plagued me ever since while I try to function on the 8 to 5 schedule of modern society.

    I envy you Ed.

    Luckily I teach afternoon and evening classes at the university but my engineering work often requires me to be up when I’d rather being going down.

  • abb3w

    And then there are those of us who, absent the pressures of conformity to work and other social impetus, would quickly revert to a 28-hour circadian. (Such people with irregular hours are useful for helping maintain connections between Larks and Owls.)

    I wonder if there’s correlated differences in cognitive styles.

  • catbutler

    I am most definitely an owl. I only rarely fall asleep before midnight and if left to my own devices (like when my wife goes out of town) I quickly revert to a 3 or 4 am bedtime.

    She is a lark at bedtime and an owl in the morning, if that makes sense. Unfortunately she’s a teacher so our mutual weekday wake up is 6 am (the 3 cats aren’t helping either—talk about creatures of habit).

    Shorter—I never actually sleep.

  • dingojack

    Lance – “Luckily I teach afternoon and evening classes at the university but my engineering work often requires me to be up…”

    Could you afford to just do full-time teaching? It must be hard only seeing your wife when one of you is going to work and the other is coming from work (never a person’s best moments).


  • magistramarla

    I used to be a lark, but having autoimmune issues has made me into an owl.

    I have so much pain when I go to bed I have a difficult time getting to sleep and staying asleep.

    It’s easier to go to sleep if I stay up until I’m exhausted.

    I tend to get my best sleep between 6am and 8 or 9 am.

    It’s a good thing that I’m no longer teaching.

  • I’m totally an owl. If left to my own devices (and I’m self-employed so generally I am) I’m never in bed before 2am and often as late as 4 or 5 am. The only exceptions are times when I have to be up early or I’m sick but then I sleep 12+ hours anyway. My ex is the opposite, even on weekends he’s usually up early, sometimes before I’ve even gotten to bed at all (this was not good while we were together).

  • I’m either a Lowl or an Ork. I take naps when I’m tired and try to sleep at least 5-6 hours a night. Given chronic bouts of pain in every part of my body, five to six hours sleep is a goal, not a reality. I’ve always been able to get up early or stay up late if required by circumstances to do so. I used to drive from Boston to Omaha without more than a few brief catnaps at rest stops and then join right into whatever family circus I was there to attend.

  • zmidponk

    Definite owl here. My typical working day sleep pattern is going to bed at ~4am, getting up at 8am. Luckily, though, I’ve never really needed much sleep, so I don’t suffer all that much from the relative lack of sleep, but my days off do sometimes see me sleep until about noon, especially if it’s been a busy week at work.

  • cptdoom

    Totally a lark here, always have been. My mother used to tell the story of asking me, as a toddler, why I was up so early and I replied “when the sun is up, I am up,” and that’s pretty much how it’s always been. I can go to sleep at 3AM and I am up no later than 8:30.

  • baal

    I’m more of an owl but was surprised by abb3w’s comment. Left to my own devices (like a 5 day vacation), I run happiest and most productive on a 30 hour day. Awake for 20 hours sleep for 10.

    I had a 5 week stint over seas a few years back and the work day started at noon. I found that absolutely excellent. I never needed an alarm and felt like I was getting to sleep in every day.

  • Abby Normal

    My body seems to like a 36 hour clock. I spent a couple years with no regular time commitments and that was the routine I fell into, awake 24 hours, asleep 12. It wasn’t unusual to wake up with the sun on the horizon. But I’d always have to figure out which way was west before I knew if it was rising or setting.

  • JustaTech

    I’m a (mild) lark. I don’t want to be up with the sun, but I am non-functional after about 9-10pm. In college I pushed it to midnight, but I slept in later then too. My husband is an owl, although his work schedule has pushed him earlier. (In a 3-man office, when the boss is in by 7 and you stroll in at 10, it’s hard to explain that you’re planning on staying until 6.)

    It’s never been an issue for us. I go to be when I’m tired, and then he goes to bed when he’s tired. On the weekend he sleeps in and I do stuff around the house. We each get our ‘private time’ and everyone’s happy. Excep the cat, but there’s nothing to be done about that.

  • aluchko

    It seems to me that owl vs lark has a lot to do with secondary factors.

    ie, if your natural cycle is > 24 hours you’ll probably tend to be an owl (consistently stay up later than you should)

    if you work better alone (at night) you trend owl

    highly structured, lark (you should be in bed on time so you are, or you’re tired from all the work during the day)

    physical labour, lark


  • demonhauntedworld

    I’m immediately suspicious of any popular book that purports to put everyone into a neat category (especially when there are only two!), but that being said, it anecdotally fits my situation perfectly. My wife is a lark, and I’m an owl. I try to force myself onto a lark schedule, but I will never be chipper in the morning. I’d rather stay up until 3 and sleep until noon.