What your chronotype is and why it matters

When planning your day, you should match the time and task to your energy levels, says author Daniel Pink.

The time of day you perform a particular task can have a material effect on your productivity, your creativity, and, ultimately, your happiness, author Daniel Pink asserts in his latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. His book draws on research from the fields of psychology, biology, and economics to highlight the hidden pattern of the day and how everyone can work smarter. “Time-of-day effects explain about 20% of the variance in human performance in work tasks,” he said at a lecture in London in January. Pink shared the following advice with the audience:

Your chronotype affects your mood and performance

Your chronotype refers to your body’s natural rhythm or inner clock. Research shows that for the majority of people (“larks”, or early birds — approximately 50% of the population) mood peaks early in the morning, troughs in the late afternoon, and recovers in the evening. Night owls (20% of the population) move through the day in the opposite direction (beginning with recovery, followed by a trough, peaking later in the day).

To determine your chronotype, answer the following questions:

  • On a day when you don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock, what time do you typically go to sleep?
  • What time do you naturally wake up on a free day?
  • What is the midpoint between those two times?

If the midpoint is before 3.30am, you are a lark. If it’s after 5.30am, you’re an owl. If it is somewhere in between, you are a “third bird”, according to Pink.

For the best performance, match your chronotype (whether you are a lark or an owl) to the task and the time of day.

Peak: When you are at your peak, you are better at analytical work.

Trough: Do administrative tasks, complete expense reports, or reply to straightforward emails.

Recovery: This is the time to work on insight problems (ie, questions that are not purely mathematical and do not have an obvious solution). You are better at doing insight work in your nonoptimal time of day because your mood is higher than during the trough, but your vigilance is lower than during the peak. This combination lends itself to creative work, such as brainstorming and iteration of ideas.

Breaks are an essential part of doing good work

A 10- to 15-minute break with the following conditions restores mood and elevates vigilance, and you should schedule them in the way you schedule meetings:

  • Something beats nothing. If you can take only a two-minute break, do it.
  • Moving beats stationary. Get away from your desk.
  • Social beats solo. A break is more restorative if you take it with somebody else (as long as you can choose with whom you spend it).
  • Outdoors beats inside. The replenishing effects of nature are spectacular.
  • Fully detached beats semi-detached. You’re better off if you don’t talk about work or take your phone with you.

Samantha White is an FM magazine senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at