There are many theories about the best moments of going to bed to sleep and when to get awake. They are like the human personalities: diverse as they focus on different things.

There are three models: LARKS, OWLS and HUMMINGBIRDS.

LARKS like and usually go to bed and get up early.
OWLS go to bed and get up late.
HUMMINGBIRDS are intermediates.

We will focus on the extremes: the LARKS and the OWLS. Which is better? Which better suits you?

Charting chronotypes

Till Roenneberg, a chronobiologist in Munich, has mapped the circadian rhythms of more than 220,000 people.[citation needed] Biological processes, including sleep-wake patterns, that display an oscillation of about 24 hours are called circadian rhythms. According to Roenneberg, the distribution of circadian rhythms spans from the very early to the very late chronotypes, similarly to how height varies from short to tall.

As circadian rhythm is independent of the number of hours of sleep a person needs, Roenneberg calculates the rhythm based on the midpoint of the sleep period. A person who goes to bed at midnight and rises at 8 thus has the same chronotype as a person who goes to bed at 1 a.m. and rises at 7; the midpoint of sleep is 4 a.m. for both of these individuals.

People with early chronotypes, will usually not be able to “sleep in”, even if they have stayed up later than usual. Despite feeling refreshed in the morning and being accommodated by much of the societal framework around them, many “larks” feel hampered socially, as much of social life takes place in the evening.

People with late chronotypes go to bed late and rise late. Forced to arise earlier than their circadian rhythm dictates, they have a low body temperature and may require a few hours to feel really awake. They are unable to fall asleep as early as “larks” can.

Discussions and studies about the prevalence of morning, evening and indifferent or intermediate chronotypes use different criteria and come to different results. Some ask what time people do go to sleep and wake up—others ask what time people would prefer to. One survey of over 400 adults showed approximately 15% morning people, 25% evening people, and 60% intermediates.

How Larks and Owls Differ

CharacteristicLarksOwls
Most alert (self-report)Around noonAround 6 P.M.
Most productive (self-report)Late morningLate morning, and late evening
Most activeAround 2:30 P.M.Around 5:30 P.M.
Best moodBetween 9 A.M. and 4 P.M.Steady rise from about 8 A.M. to 10 P.M.
Temperature highestAround 3:30 P.M.Around 8 P.M.
AgeMost persons over age 60Most college students and 20-somethings
BedtimeGo to bed 2 hours earlier than owls; fall asleep fasterMore variable bedtimes; stay up later on weekends and holidays
WaketimeAwaken at desired timeAwaken about same time as larks on workdays, 1-2 hours later on days off
Use of alarm clockDon’t need itNeed multiple alarms
Temperature lowestAround 3:30 A.M.Around 6 A.M.
Quality of sleepLifelong: sleep more soundly; wake up more refreshed, usually 3.4 hours after temperature minimum, daily low point on body clockLifelong: get less sleep; wake up sleepier, usually 2.5 hours after temperature minimum
NapRarelyTake more and longer naps; fall asleep more easily in daytime
Mid-sleep timeAround 3:30 A.M.Around 6 A.M.
Favorite exercise timeMorningEvening
Peak heart rateAround 11 A.M.Around 6 P.M.
Lowest heart rateAround 3 A.M.Around 7 A.M.
MoodMood declines slightly over dayMood rises substantially over day
Morning behaviorChattyBearish
Evening behaviorOut of steamFull of energy
Meal timesEat breakfast 1-2 hours earlier than owlsOften skip breakfast; eat other meals at same times as larks on work days, 90 minutes later on days off
Favorite mealBreakfastDinner
Daily caffeine useCupsPots
PersonalityMore introverted? (Still debated)More extroverted? (Still debated)
Shift work adaptabilityWork best on day shiftsWork best on evening shifts; tolerate night and rotating shift work better
TravelMore jet lagAdapt faster to time zone changes, particularly going west
Partner’s report (If well-matched)We like to get an early startWe are the last to go home
Partner’s complaint (If mismatched)He/she stays up too lateShe/he won’t let me sleep late on weekends
Peak melatonin secretionAbout 3:30 A.M.About 5:30 A.M.

Timewise Tips

Larks who want to live more like owls, and owls who want to live more like larks can take advantage of recent research on the biological clock to ease that task. These tips won’t change your basic make up–that’s not possible–but they can help you adapt more comfortably to situational demands.

If you are a lark:

Spend time outside in the afternoon or early evening. This tactic should help you stay up later, and may help you sleep later in the morning, too. It’s especially helpful to older persons, who often go to bed as early as 8 P.M. and find themselves awake, with nothing to do, at 3 A.M.

Increase evening activity. A walk or light stretching will promote alertness. Socializing is more energizing than reading or watching TV.

Sleep with blinds or curtains closed. Consider purchasing “black-out” drapes. Darkness tells your brain it’s nighttime, the right time for sleep.

Leave a dim night light on in hallways or bathroom in case you have to get up at night.

See a doctor if you can’t stay awake in the evening until a reasonable “social” bedtime, at least 9 P.M., and if you always awaken around 3 A.M. or 4 A.M. and are unable to return to sleep. If this condition developed over the years, particularly late in life, you may have a condition called the Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome.

If you are an owl:

Sleep with blinds or curtains open, and let daylight awaken you naturally. It’s a gentle process and much easier to take than the annoying bleat of an alarm clock. Set the alarm anyway. Hey, set two alarms, for safety’s sake.

Walk outside as soon as possible after waking up. Exposure to daylight in the morning can make you more alert earlier in the day. One sleep specialist tells his patients, “Take your dental floss and step outside.” Since owls often leave things to the last minute, it may be hard to get up in time to have breakfast outdoors or to take a twenty minute walk. Trick yourself by setting the clock a few minutes fast. Close your eyes when you do it, so you won’t know if the clock is five minutes or fifteen minutes fast. When rushing in the morning, you’ll have a small safety net, but not enough to start making allowances for it. If you can’t go outside immediately, have your morning coffee by the sunniest window in your home, or use a lighting device that provides artificial light of daylight intensity.

Get up at the same time every day, including weekends and holidays. This tactic will anchor your biological clock at the desired time. If you go to sleep late one night, don’t sleep in the next morning. Compensate for missed sleep with a twenty-minute midafternoon nap unless you find naps leave you foggy. In that case, go to bed fifteen minutes earlier the next night.

Do as much as you can the night before. Select the next day’s clothes, put cereal boxes on the breakfast table, prepare school lunches. A morning routine helps owls function smoothly without having to think about what they’re doing. If you’re sleepy, rote behavior fills time until you’re more alert.

Keep evenings quiet. Don’t exercise, start new projects, or look at TV “for just a few minutes” late at night. Reading, listening to music, and similar activities are good preludes to sleep. Have a regular bedtime snack such as milk or fruit. This ritual also helps program your body for bed.

Use dim lights at night in the bathroom to avoid giving yourself a middle-of-the-night wake up call the next night.

See a doctor if you can’t fall asleep before 3 A.M. or 4 A.M., and if you could sleep until noon or later if permitted to do so. You may have a condition called the Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome.

Tips for Couples and Families:

Civility is the key to getting along despite individual differences, according to Judith Martin, who writes the popular syndicated Miss Manners column. “Miss Manners never excuses rudeness at any hour or under any circumstances,” she says. But she excuses evening people from sociability until they have had their tea / coffee. “Everybody who is ambulatory,” she maintains, “is required to say, ‘Good morning,’ and to pass the sugar when asked and to reply to comments and questions addressed to them…. Being excused from sociability means that they may reply only by making ‘Umm’ and ‘Uh’ noises with the mouth closed, and need not offer conversational encouragement.”

Summing Up

If you are right-handed, you may be able to learn to use your left hand. A Type A personality may learn to relax. An overweight person can slim down. In the same way, most larks and owls can manage most schedules as their jobs, families, or social lives demand. Some will feel more dissonance than others when they try to follow clocks at variance with their natural proclivities. Extreme larks and owls report the most problems. They may find it difficult, if not impossible, to function in some situations. They are not sick. They are not lazy. They are not lacking in motivation. Happily, in our increasingly twenty-four-hour world, there are plenty of spots where most larks, owls, and hummingbirds can find a secure perch.