Does your daily 'start time' impact your productivity, decision-making and health?

A new study on high school start times has us rethinking when to set our alarms.

A new study on high school start times has us rethinking when to set our alarms

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Are you an early rising "lark," or a night "owl?" A growing body of research shows that figuring out which of these two 'chronotypes' you are — and scheduling your working hours accordingly — can improve your health, productivity, and ethical decision-making skills.

Everyone has their own circadian rhythm

Our bodies have internal circadian rhythms — or clocks — which synchronize our sleeping habits to our environment and vary from person to person depending on their age, gender and genetic disposition. Studies show that when an individual is forced to break from their natural sleeping pattern on a regular basis, their risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer can also increase greatly.

These harmful effects aren't limited to adults. Teenagers are biologically inclined to live as "owls," and early classroom start times can prove detrimental to their health and studies. During a recent experiment conducted in Seattle high schools, researchers found that students who began classes 55 minutes later than usual showed, on average, a 4.5% bump in grades, higher attendance, and far better social habits.

Getting less sleep can impact your decision-making

Not only can breaking from your natural circadian rhythm negatively impact your cognitive function and health, it can affect your ethics as well.

A 2016 study published in Nature tested the ethical decision-making skills of participants in the early morning and late at night to determine chronotype. They found that, when given a test, "morning-type individuals ('larks') have been shown to cheat more in the evening, and evening-type individuals ('owls') have been shown to cheat more in the morning."

Dr. Camilla Kring, who got her Ph.D. in Work-Life Balance research from the Technical University of Denmark, argues in her TED Talk on the subject in 2017 that businesses should consider abandoning traditional workday hours.

"I believe we should give A-persons (larks) 'A' working hours, and B-persons (owls) 'B' working hours," she says. "It increases productivity and it gives us better health."

She also notes that forcing everyone to begin working at the same time puts an unnecessary burden on our transit system.

"Just look at infrastructure problems in our cities," she told CBC's The Sunday Edition earlier this month. "Actually, if you start working after 9:30 or 10, it can be a solution to traffic issues."

School start times and student health

A team of McGill University researchers set out to assess the impact of school start times on student sleep patterns across Canada in 2016.

Their results, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, showed that students who attended schools that started earlier slept less, were less likely to meet the national sleep recommendations for their age, and were more often tired in the morning.

"By the time [students] reach junior high, falling asleep before 11 p.m. becomes biologically difficult," says lead researcher Genevieve Gariepy, "and waking up before 8 a.m. is a struggle."

So this begs the question, why do schools start classes so early in the morning? School boards across Canada — and most recently, in Seattle — have been experimenting with later start times with largely positive results.

In Canada, the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board in northwestern Ontario has been experimenting with later start times since 2014, with six high schools beginning classes at 9 a.m. (50 minutes later than usual). As CBC reported in 2017, this resulted in a declining dropout rate and rising attendance.

Dr. Kring, in a similar test conducted in 2011, found that parents also benefited from later start times, citing improvements in their home life and relationships.

"They told me they had conflict with their child every morning when the start was 8 o'clock," Kring told CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition, "and they didn't have any conflict anymore when the child could sleep until 8 o'clock in the morning and go to school at 9."

So, which Chronotype are you?

With all of this research in mind, it's worth taking a moment to figure out which chronotype you are. The Morningness-Eveningness Questionaire (MEQ), first developed in 1976 to help assess circadian rhythms, could help you nail it down. The University of Pennsylvania has a printable version here. Which chronotype are you, and what do you do to keep your sleep habits balanced with your work schedule? Let us know in the comments.

I took the test myself and found the results surprisingly accurate: I'm a self-sabotaging morning person, who rarely sleeps before midnight. Perhaps I've found the perfect resolution: going to bed when I'm tired!

Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin is a freelance writer based in Montreal. Her most recent works on tech, gender, and finance have appeared in CBC, Lift&Co, Quartz, and Lilith.


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