By incorporating rest and play into our workdays we can literally work smarter says Lauren Parsons
If you’ve been on this planet for a while, chances are you’ve heard of circadian rhythm; the internal body clock that controls your sleep cycle and your feelings of sleepiness/alertness. It causes us to feel tired during the night time, so we can get to and stay asleep, then to naturally be alert during the day with a small dip early afternoon – which explains why you feel so groggy after your lunch break!
What you may not know is that there is another set of rhythms that can help you unlock your productivity potential – ultradian rhythms.
What Are Ultradian Rhythms?
In a nutshell, ultradian rhythms are natural cycles during which you can engage in focused, mental activities for 90-minutes after which time your body needs a short recovery break to allow you to recharge. Similar to how your sleep cycle consists of several 90-minute periods that take you through the five stages of sleep, ultradian rhythms take you through peak moments of productivity and necessary moments of rest.
The 20-minute downswing is, surprisingly, the most important aspect of your ultradian rhythm. This is the time when your body needs to take an ultradian break to recharge ready for the next upswing. During this time the ideal would be to recline with your eyes closed. In most offices that isn’t practical, so if that’s the case, having some sort of change of state and doing a non-brain taxing task is the next best option.
Ideally you want your ultradian break to consist of activities that relieve your stress and relax the mind. Try to avoid some of the more common, unhealthy break activities which many people turn to, such as drinking coffee, in order to boost energy to get through the day.
Why is this important?
Taking an ultradian break allows you to refocus and work much more effectively and productively during the next upswing so you get more done overall.
Think about the last time that you decided to work all day or all night with very few breaks. How did you feel? Were you at the top of your game or, were you feeling stressed, tired, and irritable? It’s highly likely that you were experiencing the latter. I can also guarantee that all of the time you “worked” was not utilized for working.
Skipping Ultradian Breaks
When our bodies signal that we need an ultradian break (e.g. when we feel distracted, sleepy, hungry/thirsty, irritable, or unable to think clearly) we can push through and ignore this feeling. When we do, our body goes into fight or flight mode as it perceives that there must be some sort of emergency if you are not listening the clear cues it was sending you. This releases stress hormones such as adrenaline, giving us our second wind and allowing us to push through. At the same time, it undermines our health, down regulating our immune and digestive systems and over time leading to high levels of cortisol – our chronic stress hormone – which negatively impacts our health.
It’s almost as if people get caught in a negative spiral of low-productivity and negative self-talk. When you don’t use your time wisely, it leads to feelings of frustration, inadequacy and guilt. You begin to compare yourself to others who may appear to get more done. This can drive you further down the road of workaholism as you strive to achieve even more, taking even less breaks and getting further diminishing returns.
Do you want to allow yourself to continue feeling like that?
Or would you rather be able to get more work done throughout the day without feeling stressed, exhausted, and overworked? If you answered yes, then one solution is to use ultradian rhythms to your advantage.
How Can I Use My Ultradian Rhythms to Work Smarter, Not Harder?
Let’s first tackle your idea of a normal workday. According to the citizen’s information website, the general rule is that workers are entitled to a 15-minute break after 4 ½ hours of continuous work.
Four and a half hours of continuous work?!
I don’t know about you, but my laptop can’t even run for three hours without needing to be recharged and even then, it still needs to rest so it doesn’t overheat or crash from working too hard!
In our society, we are often in pursuit of seemingly robotic productivity. We like to think that we will somehow be able to work longer and longer hours without breaks, just like a machine, and get even more done. Some people believe hard work provides the most value to their lives and will go to great lengths in order to make sure that they make more money, get that promotion, and that new car.
But we’ve been going about it the wrong way. The truth is that while work and productivity is important, so is rest, fun, and connection. And these things enhance our overall productivity and fulfilment.
By incorporating rest and play into our workdays we can literally work smarter. Using ultradian rhythms is simply a natural way of working with your body so that you can move into a place of peace, happiness, and satisfaction.
So, let’s see how it can work…
Step 1. Task Out Your Work Before You Start
I like to go into every 90-minute period with a purpose. I find that 90 minutes gives me enough time to progress or complete a large project or to complete several smaller projects, by staying focused on pre-determined tasks. Whether you have large projects or smaller activities to do throughout the day, task them out in order of priority before you start your day.
Be sure to chunk similar activities together. If you have several emails to send out or if you have a client who needs a couple of projects finished today, chunk them together. When you prepare to start your 90-minute period, you will already have your to-dos for the day planned out in chunks, which will make them easier to complete as you work.
You’ll also be more realistic about how many things on your extensive to-do list you can really accomplish in four 90-minute periods throughout the day. Most people don’t think about their workday in this way, which is why they just try to ‘work harder and longer’ and feel dissatisfied. This will no longer be you!
Step 2. Set a Timer to Keep You on Track
Setting a timer to keep you focused during you ultradian rhythm peak helps you to achieve two things. Firstly, it lets you know when you’re done with your chunk, so you don’t accidentally overwork and become less productive. It also keeps you focused to make the best use of your time.
It is significantly easier to stay on track and work at a more productive level when the timer is ticking over. Especially as you near the end of the time limit, that little bit of pressure keeps you on track.
I set my timer for 25 minute bursts of focused work and do three rounds of these with a three minute movement in between each one. Adding in a movement such as a snack on exercise, a stretch, or walk recharges my brain and keeps me super-focused and energized. After three rounds I take a 20 minute break and relax my brain.
I’ve been using this 101 minute routine for some time now and find it super charges my productivity.
To recap, the complete cycle goes like this:
25 minutes focused work
3 minutes movement
25 minutes focused work
3 minutes movement
25 minutes focused work
20 minutes ultradian break
Try it out with a timer and see what a difference this makes.
You can get four of these ultra-productive cycles into a typical work day. This productivity hack alone will save you hours a week!
Step 3. Find a Break Activity That You Enjoy
Remember that the ultradian breaks are just as important as the work sections. Whenever possible, find an activity that truly releases you from your work and allows you to relax. Whether that’s making a cup of tea, taking a stroll outside, meditating/praying, reading something relaxing/inspiring, or lying down for a power nap (set your timer for 20 minutes maximum).
If you want to continue with work related activities, make it something simple like filing, printing, tidying your desk, or perhaps use that break to make appointments or phone a loved one and chat to them while lying down or relaxing. Don’t be afraid to branch out and expand your activities by trying new things and see what leaves you feeling energized. You might end the break with a 60 second dance party to your favourite song to boost your energy, ready for the next round of focused work.
If you decide to work with your ultradian rhythms, let me know about your experiences. Feel free to send me a note via www.LaurenParsonsWellbeing.com as I’d love to hear about any tips that you’ve found helpful.