Productivity

Lark, middle bird or owl? How to redesign your workday to reflect your biological clock

Amantha Imber /

digital distractions

Inventium chief executive officer Amantha Imber. Source: Supplied.

You would be hard pressed to find a company that isn’t talking about or offering flexible work arrangements.

  • ‘Work from home!’
  • ‘Start work 30 minutes early!’
  • ‘Work through lunch and clock off early!’

Yet despite this, most of us are still expected to be at the office (or logging on to our computers) by about 9am and staying connected until 5pm (or later). Working roughly between the hours of 9am to 5pm remains the default that no one dares to challenge too strongly.

And within these eight hours, little thought is given to types of tasks and what time of day they are completed. Our days are designed reactively. We let people schedule meetings in our diary, we check email constantly throughout the day and let other people’s requests control what we do.

And then we wonder why we so frequently reach the end of the day and ask ourselves: ‘What did I actually achieve today?’

But what we know from psychology is forcing people to work within this default and allowing our days to be reactive is setting our workdays up for failure.

So, here are some methods to dramatically improve your business’ performance by re-designing your working day.

Work to your chronotype

Through studying thousands of people’s internal body clocks, scientists came to learn we are not all created equal when it comes to our daily energy levels and how they fluctuate. About 14% of the population are what these researchers refer to as ‘larks’. They are stereotypical ‘morning people’ — the type that are severely irritating if you don’t happen to be a lark yourself.

At the other end of the spectrum are ‘owls’, which represent another 21% of the population. Owls have their peak productivity after most of us have had dinner, and quite often, well into the night. 

If you can’t relate to either extreme, you are probably a ‘middle bird’. In general, middle birds tend to follow the energy patterns of a lark, albeit a couple of hours delayed.

The big problem that owls face is the business world works against their natural body clocks. As a result, owls are at a distinct disadvantage in organisations that don’t dare challenge the default hours of working.

Whatever your chronotype, you need to start proactively structuring your days to align with your energy levels. Larks often work best when they can start work at 6am, while owls are better placed to not arrive at work until lunch.

Schedule ‘deep work’ at your peak time

According to Professor Cal Newport, there are two modes of working that knowledge workers can engage in. The first type of work is ‘deep work’. This is work that is cognitively demanding, and to do it well requires focus and a lack of interruptions.

The second type of work is ‘shallow work’. This is work that is non-cognitively demanding, such as checking emails and instant messenger, making phone calls and administrative work.

But because of the fact that digital distractions and interruptions are rife in today’s working world, the majority of us spend our days in shallow work mode, and try to fit the deep work in where we can. But really, it needs to be the other way around if we are to accomplish anything of value and make meaningful progress.

Bringing these concepts together, larks and middle birds perform best when they schedule deep work for the morning. All digital distractions and communication channels should be switched off.

Owls do their best deep work in the evening or at night, ironically, when no one is expected to be in the office.

Schedule shallow work for the afternoon

When it comes to shallow work, larks and middle birds should schedule this for their afternoons. Meetings that don’t require deep thinking (such as work-in-progress meetings) are also good to schedule in the afternoon.

For owls, given their days essentially run in reverse, shallow work can be done in the middle of the day, when their energy is not firing as it does at night.

Productive larks and middle birds will batch email and communication checking for the afternoons. Blocking out an hour or so to clear your inbox is a great use of your afternoons, but a waste of precious brain power in the morning.

At my consultancy, we have a couple of extreme larks who will regularly start their workday at 4am or 5am. They spend their early morning hours doing deep, focused work, with no interruptions. They might then take a break for a few hours and spend the afternoon doing shallow work, such as checking and responding to emails. And compared to past workplaces that forced them into the 9-to-5 mould, they are now thriving with these self-set, chronotype-matched hours.

So, while flexible work policies are great, design your workday (and those of your team) based on getting the most out of people’s brains and natural circadian rhythms.

NOW READ: Your emails can wait: Why you should stop squandering the first two hours of your day

NOW READ: In the zone: Why the world’s most successful entrepreneurs are embracing ‘flow’

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Amantha Imber

Amantha is the founder of innovation consultancy Inventium and the host of the podcast How I Work.

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