We are a nation obsessed with productivity. From 4 a.m. alarms to self-proclaimed mantras and freezing showers, an optimized morning routine has been sold as the cure-all for all our troubles.
If only we could be better organized, more coherent, less distracted, we could do and be better. But routines are, by nature, ambitious — a meticulously time-blocked Monday morning so easily dismantled by high-priority emails and last-minute meeting requests.
This is where the more compassionate cousin of routine comes in, pacing: following an activity pattern rather than a strict time-based schedule. Similar to how the circadian rhythm determines our sleep patterns, the ultradian rhythm determines how we function throughout the day. And while the circadian rhythm cycles once every 24 hours — where we’re alert for part of the day and drift into drowsiness and sleep later — the ultradian rhythm cycles several times a day.
“During a cycle, the brain goes through peaks and troughs,” says Kobi Simmat, director and CEO of global business improvement agency, the Best Practice Group. Peaks represent optimal or increased levels of brain activity, he explains, while during troughs we become sluggish and operate at a lower frequency. Think: the post-lunch crisis.
Finding Your Ultradian Rhythm Can Boost Productivity
Essentially, human bodies are not designed to run continuously like machines – we literally go from rest to activity. Simmat suggests that by sticking to set routines, we may be ignoring our body’s natural intelligence and the possibility of peak efficiency. To increase our productivity and energy level, we need to find and cultivate a unique rhythm: an established melody that allows for improvisation that won’t wear us out at the end of the day.
When we look specifically at productivity, we are interested in the type of ultradian rhythm known as the basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC). BRAC was invented in 1960 by physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman and his research assistant Eugene Aserinsky. It is a rhythm that is played in cycles of 80 to 120 minutes non-stop, day and night.
The benefits of working in 90-minute intervals
Inspired by this research, PhD researcher Ernest Rossi suggested that during waking hours, optimal performance is achieved by working at intervals of 90 minutes of activity followed by 20 minutes of rest. In his book 20 minute breakRossi warns that ignoring the body’s natural need for rest could lead to ‘ultradian stress syndrome’, saying: ‘You will get tired and lose your mental focus, you tend to make mistakes, become irritable and have accidents.”
However, when we learn to recognize the need to take a break, we convert stress into what Rossi calls the “ultradian healing response.” He describes it as “the wonderful feeling of comfort and well-being that comes when you allow yourself the freedom to take a well-deserved rest.”
Of course, it’s all too easy to jump on the “always on” bandwagon. Whether it’s being physically active all day – going from a morning gym class to work meetings and straight to dinner with friends – or being constantly mentally stimulated, tethered to our desks while being relentlessly plugged into a minute-by-minute news cycle.
In the office especially, we tend to forget everything until the work at hand is done. But concentration, pushed to the extreme, can become a handicap. And forcing yourself into an unrealistic work paradigm will only backfire.
How to Use Ultradian Rhythm at Work
So how can we use the Ultradian Rhythm as part of our professional and personal lives for increased productivity and energy? Rossi suggests that when planning your activities for the day, you should consider two things:
- Make sure your day’s segments on a particular task don’t stretch for more than 90 minutes at a time.
- Allow yourself and those around you to take a break every 90 minutes, ideally 20 minutes before moving on to a new cycle of activity.
The rest period can include anything refreshing: breathing or meditation, a short walk or a yoga session are all great. These moments are about changing your focus and/or your surroundings. If you sit in front of a screen all day, don’t fill your scrolling breaks – try doing something active or getting outside for some fresh air. That phone-free break every 90 minutes could be the simple solution to our endless battle against overload and fatigue.
4 tips for establishing a rhythmic schedule
Your ideal day will be personal to you, but here are some rhythmic suggestions to boost productivity and energy flow:
Start the day by answering your emails and creating to-do lists for you and/or your colleagues. This will allow you to set your priorities for the day.
Prioritize concentration tasks
It’s normal to experience a drop in productivity in the early afternoon, so try to complete tasks that require concentration or creativity early. Accomplishing something substantial before lunchtime will build momentum for the rest of the day.
After lunch, we are often the most confused and it is the ideal time for more “passive” tasks, such as researching future projects or planning meetings.
Allow time for conclusion
The work-from-home culture can ease the flow of the workday into the night. Set yourself a strict deadline for stopping the tools. Create a window of time before the end of the day to settle all the details.
There will always be times when you have no choice but to burn the midnight oil, but generally we are able to control the flow of our days. There’s no perfect formula for having the “best” day, but the trick is to be honest with yourself about what works for you. If you’re desperate for a HIIT workout in the morning, schedule it for early afternoon or try an evening pilates class instead.
Keep in mind the ultradian rhythm; Break free from the shackles of a strict, unrealistic routine and you’ll set yourself up for a more productive and energetic future.