And all you need is to listen to your body to improve your performance.
I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of tracking in order to improve your life. So far I’ve actually tracked my sleep cycle, exercise routines and, more recently, calorie consumption. Being the productivity lover that I am, it only made sense for me to try to track my workflow somehow. And so, during my tracking quest, I came across the concept of Ultradian Rhythms and it immediately caught my attention and I simply had to learn more about it. Ultradian Rhythm is all about understanding and working with your body’s natural rhythms to optimize your performance and get more done.
What are Ultradian Rhythms?
In the 1950s, pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that the human body tends to go through 90-minutes cycles — the basic rest-activity cycle. If you know anything about sleep cycles, you’re probably already somewhat familiar with Kleitman’s research. At night, we move progressively through the five stages of sleep, from light to deep, and then out again.
While it’s much less well known, Kleitman also observed that our bodies operate with similar 90-minute rhythms during the day. These cycles correspond to different levels of energy, alternating between high-frequency brain activity (about 90 minutes) followed by lower-frequency brain activity (about 20 minutes). Since this discovery, these daily cycles have been called Ultradian Rhythms.
Although this may not seem like important information, it actually has huge implications of how we tend to be productive during the day. Kleitman’s research revealed that every 90 minutes, our bodies have a period of significant energy, followed by a period of fatigue. This means that, during that burst of energy, you can actually work your body to be more productive and get more done; and during the low point of the cycle, you’ll be able to rest your brain and regain energy.
Understand the cycle and improve your productivity
There is no scientific way to correctly measure one’s own ultradian rhythm. The truth is that everybody’s cycle is different, and it can last anywhere from 80 to 120 minutes. Kleitman suggests to simply pay attention to your own body’s signals to determine when you have the energy or need to take a break.
While you could simply go with your gut feeling to find your peak productive hours (using the 90/20 minutes rule as a guide), experts often advise taking a more systematic approach. Using a notebook or a calendar, you can track how much energy you have during specific periods of the day. Eventually, you’ll start noticing a pattern in when your energy rises or dips. And by having this knowledge and understanding how your internal rhythms work, you can plan your work accordingly.
Once you’ve understood your Ultradian Rhythms you can try to make the most of your work hours. You can use your peak time, when you are feeling more alert, for projects that require more focus and complex thoughts. You will find yourself working on a faster and more effective pace. And, on the other hand, during a low-energy stage, you should shift your attention to something less demanding and do simple tasks that can be done without you been very focused.
Energy is more important than Time
The most important takeaway from understanding Ultradian Rhythms is not how you are using your time to work, but how you are using your energy to do said work. And with that, it’s easier to understand how the 20-minute downswing is the most important aspect of this process.
Your body needs to rest, even during the day, and it’s not wise to try to fight it or ignore it by taking another cup of coffee or granola bar. You shouldn’t ignore these natural rhythms to try to maintain a somewhat “sustainable” workflow throughout the day, not letting your body take a break and recharge. Taking a break is simply much better because after that the tiredness will disappear and you will have energy again.
Understand that taking a break is not a sign of laziness or weakness, it’s a sign that you are using your time correctly to allow your brain to rest. This time will allow you to refocus and gain energy, so later you can work effectively to get more done overall.
So, get up, step away from your desk, take a walk, or simply listen to some relaxing music. The important thing is to relax and recharge. Identify when you need to rest during the day, and then make sure you get that rest.