Sleep, Circadian, And Ultradian Rhythms Part 2

Another way to look at it is by taking the circadian rhythm and extrapolating it into our ultradian rhythms, which are the rhythms that move with us through the twenty-four-hour cycle of our lives. Sleep researcher Neil Kleitman identified the presence and importance of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and discovered that the body generally operates in ninety-minute cycles, moving progressively through periods of higher and lower alertness.

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First, become curious about your actual habits over a period of a week. Note the times of day you were most productive. Look for patterns not just in energy levels, but in enthusiasm and emotions, too. Look for what inspires energy outbursts and when you have the most output work-wise.

Now, the obvious next step is to make sure you’re taking advantage of that energy spike by “booking” these peak hours and managing your other less important or less demanding tasks outside that window. Essentially, you are budgeting and managing your energy just as you would your time and money, using what you have most efficiently.

Another way to look at it is by taking the circadian rhythm and extrapolating it into our ultradian rhythms, which are the rhythms that move with us through the twenty-four-hour cycle of our lives. Sleep researcher Neil Kleitman identified the presence and importance of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and discovered that the body generally operates in ninety-minute cycles, moving progressively through periods of higher and lower alertness.

In other words, our energy and alertness come in ninety-minute chunks. These ninety-minute cycles apply whether we are awake or asleep, and we can use this information in a few ways.

First, we now know there is essentially a time limit to energetic and productive thinking. It’s not endless; in fact, it might be capped at ninety minutes at a time. At the end of an intense ninety-minute work period, we grow fatigued and begin relying on stress hormones for energy. Then, suffering from overload, the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down, and we move into fight-or-flight mode. We may attempt to override the body’s signals by fueling ourselves with caffeine and sugar, but in the end, our focus and concentration suffer.

Additional research from the U.S. Army Research Institute backs up the findings and supports the ninety-minute periods of focus and energy. The point here is to listen to your body. It is telling you exactly how it prefers to function.

Besides creating ninety-minute cycles, the ultradian rhythm also distributes these peaks and dips of energy throughout a twenty-four-hour period in specific ways. There are certain times when you can maximize your thinking, and others when you are setting yourself up for failure. Of course, keep in mind, these are averages, and outliers do exist.

As we move through a typical day, it takes a few hours after waking to reach our peak levels of energy and alertness. For many people, the late morning hours, after 10:00 a.m., represent the highest period of mental sharpness and focus. This is when you might take advantage of your brain functioning at its peak. But remember, you probably have only ninety minutes on average.

Soon after lunch, our energy levels begin to decline.

According to Christopher Barnes’s writing in the Harvard Business Review, our body’s energy naturally dips somewhere between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., possibly because we are at the midpoint of our wake cycle. For thousands of years, humans have rested during the afternoon (think of the Spanish concept of the midday siesta or nap), and only since the Industrial Revolution imposed an emphasis on mass productivity have we begun to eliminate this critical period of rest for the nine-to-five workday.

After we hit that afternoon dip, our energy levels begin rising again, and we generally hit our second peak around 6:00 p.m. As the evening wears on, our energy diminishes, slowly transitioning into sleep cycles.

The ultradian rhythm of energy is something that rules our day-to-day existence. You can fight it, but why would you? Work within the simple guideline it lays out for your energy, and you will find that smarter thinking becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Find Your Most Energetic and Productive Hours

What is the optimal time of the day to work? The answer will not be the same for everyone.

With a little curiosity and self-observation, you can figure out how to structure your daily life, whether that’s concerning work, your own creative projects, or even with workouts. The first question to ask is: What time of the day do I have the greatest amount of energy and concentration?

Look for the time of day where you feel most optimistic, enthusiastic, and alive. This is the time of day you’re most likely to be inspired to spring into action. You may even have a double peak, or a small “second wind” after your first wave of energy. You’re most likely not going to be most energized right before sleep or immediately after a big meal. Tip: Most of us are not wired to have strong periods of productivity following a big meal.

The second question to ask is: at what time of day do I have the fewest interruptions and distractions?

Being productive is more than just managing your natural ebbs and flows. We are all blessed with an energy peak every day, but we may nevertheless experience that peak right at the time we’re most likely to get distracted. Having things interrupt and derail you right at the time you’re most able to do deep and creative work is bad news for obvious reasons. But how do you deal with it?

You can pair your self-knowledge (i.e. understanding where your peak is) with a realistic appraisal of your life obligations and challenges. Understanding how it all fits allows you to plan ahead and make allowances and adjustments where possible. You can’t change your productivity zone, and you often can’t move external obligations or obstacles, but you can certainly wiggle things around a bit. If you predict an interruption in your work zone, try to mindfully divide that zone or extend it a little on either side. See what can be done to move the distraction, delegate, or reorganize. If your whole style of life is working against you, however, you may need to consider bigger changes, such as changing jobs, getting childcare, or working from home where you can more readily capitalize on your rhythms.

A third question is: what work will I do and when?

Different kinds of work require different amounts and kinds of energy. Returning to our concept of the energy “pyramid,” take a moment to categorize the day’s tasks—do they require mental, emotional, physical, or even spiritual energy? Next, ask where you can schedule them so they’re most neatly aligning with your own natural peaks.

Plan physical exercise and challenging problem-solving work for the morning when you know you’re going to be sharpest, and reserve the more admin-style jobs for later, when you’re feeling more mellow. If you know you have a particularly emotionally draining day ahead, you may choose to dial back on the physical and mental demands so you can focus on that. It’s a question of doing the right work at the right time.

One useful strategy is to identify just one or two main goals for that day. Pour most of your energy and focus into that, knowing that you can get to the other stuff afterward. You’ll find that ticking the big, impactful items off the list first will leave you feeling accomplished and confident, and you can actually relax more completely for the rest of the day.

The final question to ask is: how can I strategically deal with interruptions?

Interruptions, temptations, and distractions are a fact of life. You might as well prepare for them. We already know that the mind’s performance and efficacy start to wane after ninety minutes anyway, so can you find a way to squeeze in external demands without breaking your focus and momentum? If something comes up and disrupts you, try to work it into the day, delegate, or buy time until you’re finished with what you’re doing.

Sometimes, a distraction is merely a sign of poor discipline or planning. For example, you may simply need to make sure you’re not checking your emails or phone while working—all those messages can definitely wait! Communicate to others that you don’t want to be interrupted and make sure you’re not setting yourself up to fail by choosing to work at the time of day you’re most likely to get distracted. If an interruption is really unavoidable, you might choose to just allow it and enjoy it, knowing that you can take a full rest and return to your work later, recharged and raring to go again. Life happens. It’s not the end of the world to not meet your schedule goals one hundred percent of the time.

Here are those questions again:

• What time of the day do I have the greatest amount of energy and concentration?

• At what time of day do I have the fewest interruptions and distractions?

• What work will I do and when?

• How can I strategically deal with interruptions?

If your peak productivity lines up perfectly with your lowest time of distraction, that’s great. But chances are the alignment isn’t quite perfect. Here’s how to manage that.

Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at https://bit.ly/self-growth-home

Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

Visit https://bit.ly/peterhollins to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.

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