How to survive in a 9-5 world when you’re not a morning person

Read any piece of productivity advice and you’ll most likely come across this suggestion: Become a morning person.

Morning people, as the advice goes, are more productive. They have time to exercise and meditate and journal and eat a balanced breakfast. All while you—the non-morning person—repeatedly hits snooze. 

While it seems like the modern workday is designed to give morning people an advantage, trying to keep up with the early risers might actually be doing you more harm than good.

According to sleep researcher Céline Vetter up to 80% of people are actually working schedules that clash with their internal clocks. 

In other words, our internal clocks (i.e. when we’re naturally most focused and energized) rarely match the external ones that run our day (i.e. your work schedule or “morning routine”).

"Our internal clocks that run our energy rarely match the external ones that run our day." Click To Tweet

We’re not all morning people. So how can you still get the most of your day without waking up early?

What makes a morning person? Circadian rhythms, chronotypes, and the science behind your peak working hours

Getting up earlier—and using that time productively—is about more than just setting your alarm clock. Science, biology, and genetics all play a part in determining whether or not you’re a morning person

Thanks to a ton of sleep research, we now know that each person follows a wave of energy highs and lows throughout the day. This is called a Circadian Rhythm

Circadian Rhythm

According to the National Sleep Foundation, Circadian Rhythms are “24-hour internal clocks that run in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals.” 

While each person has a slightly unique rhythm, most people follow a similar cycle. Here’s an example for the average morning person:

  • 6:30-7 am: Your brain moves out of “sleep mode” and starts to become energized.
  • 10-11 am: Memory, alertness, and concentration peaks.
  • 2-3 pm: Energy levels drop (aka the afternoon slump).
  • 4-6 pm: Another smaller spike in energy and focus. 
  • 9–11 pm: Your brain shifts back to “sleep mode” and starts secreting melatonin to help you sleep.

The problem is that even if you follow this “standard” circadian rhythm, there are still moments of the day where you’re fighting your body’s needs. (i.e. you’re trying to work when your body naturally wants to rest.)

This is hard enough to account for in your own daily schedule. But what about when you’re dealing with someone who is on a completely different cycle than you? 

Chronotypes: How to work with people on a different internal clock than you

It’s incredibly hard to work with someone who’s energized while you’re still getting started (or vice versa). The scientific term for these variations in circadian rhythms is called a chronotype (aka your internal clock).

In a study of over 300,000 people, chronobiologist Dr. Roenneberg found that the most common chronotype is people who sleep from around midnight to 8 am.

However, 31% of people have a naturally earlier bedtime, while 56% have a later one. 

At a standard 9–5 job, this means that 69% of people are waking up before their body is ready to and are forced to work during their non-peak hours.

As sleep researcher Céline Vetter explains: 

“If we consider your individual chronotype and your work hours, the chances are very high that there’s quite a bit of misalignment.”

According to Dr. Alex Dimitriu, founder of the Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine clinic, REM sleep—the kind you lose when you’re forced to wake up earlier than you want to—is “the key to our emotional and creative energy.”

When you’re forced to work outside your natural times, you end up making more mistakes, becoming depressed, and even become more vulnerable to disease.

On the other end of the spectrum, studies have found we’re up to 500% more productive and focused when working during our peak hours

When should you work? 3 methods for determining your chronotype (and peak working hours)

While you might not have total control over when to work, understanding your chronotype is an important part of optimizing your workday.

The more you can align your daily work with your body’s natural highs and lows, the more productive and less distracted you’ll be. 

Here are three different ways you can discover your chronotype: 

1. Take the Automated Morningness–Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ)

If you’ve got 5–10 minutes to spare, the AutoMEQ is a 19-question questionnaire that helps determine your chronotype. It asks hypothetical questions about what time you’d ideally go to bed and wake up, how much you rely on an alarm clock, and your alertness levels throughout the day. 

2. Use Daniel Pink’s 3-question test

In his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink proposes a simpler, 3-question test for determining your chronotype: 

  1. What time do you go to sleep on days when you aren’t required to be up by a certain time?
  2. What time do you wake up on those days? 
  3. What’s the midpoint between those two times? (For example, if you go to sleep at 1 am and wake up at 9 am, your midpoint is 5 am)

According to Pink, your midpoint then determines what type of rhythm you most commonly follow: 

  • Before 3:30 am: You’re a lark (i.e you prefer an earlier wake-up time)
  • After 5:30 am: You’re an owl (i.e. you prefer a later wake-up time)
  • In-between: You’re a “third bird” 

The problem with both of these approaches is that they rely on you self-reporting accurate information.

But after years of forced work schedules, late-night binge-watching sessions, and social obligations, it’s pretty much impossible to answer these questions honestly.

Instead, you need to get scientific about it.  

3. Use personal data to uncover your “Productivity Curve” throughout the day

Rather than relying on self-reporting, personal data can give you a more accurate picture of your energy levels throughout the day.  

For example, answering the questions above, you might over- or under-estimate your preferred wake-up time. But by tracking and measuring your productivity and time data, you can see the difference between what you say you want to do and what you actually do. 

One way to do this is with a time log such as the one popularized by time management expert Laura Vanderkam. This involves writing down what you’ve spent your time on every 15 or 30 minutes.

Or, you can use a tool like RescueTime that automatically observes how you spend your time and logs it for you.

RescueTime shows you exactly where your time goes, when you’re most productive, and when you’re most distracted.

Using RescueTime helps you avoid your natural biases. It also makes it easier to pick up on some of your more nuanced tendencies during the day. 

For example, here’s a quick glimpse at my daily productive time (averaged over a month). 

This report shows me that my peak productivity happens mostly between 10 am and noon with a small increase again in the afternoon. This becomes a guide for when I should be focusing on my most important work.

Read our full guide on How to find your peak productive hours in RescueTime.

5 ways to survive as a night owl in a 9–5 world (or even if you’re just not a morning person)

Understanding your chronotype and peak working hours is only part of the equation.

Most people still don’t have flexibility over their working day, which means you’re forced to work at less than optimal times or with people who are way too chipper before 10am.  

There’s no hard reset on your circadian rhythm. So how do you survive in a standard 9–5 workplace when you’re biologically not a morning person? 

1. Align your peak working hour(s) with your Most Important Task

No matter how misaligned your chronotype and daily schedule are, there are most likely at least a few hours where they line up.

The good news is that if you can take advantage of these few hours, you can get more done in 2 hours than most people do in a day.

When we analyzed more than 185 million hours of working time, we found that most people average just 2 hours and 48 minutes of productive time a day.

As Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why you get more done when you work less told us:

“Two hours where you can really get into the problem yields solutions that are going to be better than if you spent 10 hours broken up by meetings and bouncing around on Slack channels.”

Matching your productive time to different levels of tasks is a core part of the Time Blocking strategy. Learn how to get more out of your day with a Time Blocked schedule in our guide.

2. Wake up at the same time (even on weekends)

When you’re forced to wake up before your ideal time during the week, it’s tempting to “catch up” on the weekends.

But our chronotypes don’t differentiate between weekdays and weekends. And sleeping in an extra 2–3 hours on Saturday only means that your body will get hit with a dose of jetlag on Monday morning. 

This doesn’t mean you have to wake up at 6 am every Sunday. But rather you should try to minimize sleeping in on weekdays and try not to disrupt your usual routine too much.

3. Use the RISEUP method to make mornings (somewhat) more bearable

If you’re not a morning person, you probably don’t believe all the hype around morning routines. However, there are a few things you can do to make your mornings less painful.

The easiest way to remember what to do is with the RISEUP acronym:

  • Refrain from snoozing
  • Increase activity for the first hour
  • Shower or wash face
  • Expose yourself to sunlight
  • Upbeat music
  • Phone a friend

The combination of activity, social connection, and light (which is one of the biggest factors that influences our circadian rhythms) can help break you out of your morning funk. 

4. Schedule breaks according to the Ultradian Rhythm

Circadian rhythms and chronotypes aren’t the only internal “clocks” that determine our energy levels throughout the day. We’re also influenced by something called Ultradian Rhythms. These are 90–120-minute sessions of alertness before we need a break. 

No matter what chronotype you are—morning person or not—you can maintain your energy levels by taking more breaks.

Don’t have enough time to take proper breaks? Learn how to use microbreaks to your advantage.

5. Learn to get along with morning people (even when you’re not one)

When you’re not a morning person you’re not just battling your own energy levels. You’re also battling all those people who peak earlier in the day. 

Time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggests a few tips for how morning and afternoon people can get along at work:

  • Agree on ground rules. Try and set times for group tasks (like meetings) to when both night owls and morning people are both energetic and use asynchronous communication like email or chat otherwise.
  • Communicate what you’re experiencing. Be clear about where your head is at and how that might impact decisions or work. Offer an alternative time or set expectations that work for everyone.
  • Respect each other. Despite all the hype, morning people aren’t any better than any other chronotype. Be mindful of your coworker’s unique needs.

For peak performance, follow your internal clock as much as possible

The clock runs most of our days. But following your energy is always a better strategy than sticking to an arbitrary daily schedule.

Use one of the methods above to understand your chronotype and then create a day that works with your energy. Even if you’re not a morning person, you can still get all the productivity benefits with a few small tweaks to your day. 

How do you get along with people on a different rhythm than you? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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