Supercharge Your Productivity with Ultradian Rhythms

Eye with clock replacing the iris and pupilWith the coming of the information age a fad called multi-tasking was also born. Somehow it was perceived efficient to be able to do many things at the same time; read your emails, talk with your spouse, eat bubblegum while walking… The reason I call multi-tasking a fad is that research shows that multi-tasking is actually detrimental to productivity, and apparently can be worse on your IQ than pot smoking. ๐Ÿ™‚ How about that?

Instead of concentrating on doing many different things at the same time, you should choose a single important task and immerse yourself completely in it. This approach has been paraded in multiple productivity blogs and books, including here at Lateral Action. Indeed, the real power of human mind is the ability to focus on single things for extended periods of time. When and if that focus is interrupted, it may take up to 25 minutes to regain it. And if those interruptions happen multiple times a day, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see how disastrous this is to productivity.

In order to be able to take advantage of this remarkable power of focus, you need to first eliminate distractions. This means finding an environment that does not interrupt you, putting your mobile phone on silent and away from sight, closing facebook, email, twitter, and instant messaging programs.

Image by Chris Halderman

Ultradian Rhythms and Peak Performance

I assume most people who follow Lateral Action are aware of the importance of single-tasking and being able to focus on one specific thing without interruptions. However, these concepts and their benefits can be taken even further with the use of Ultradian Rhythms, meaning natural bodily rhythms that occur at intervals of less than 24 hours. In practice, most people experience this by feeling energized for an hour or two, and then rather quickly their minds start to wander, they feel drowsy, and unfocused. This is evident in feeling full of energy in the morning at work, getting things done, but in the afternoon you suddenly find it hard to concentrate on anything.

I myself experience Ultradian Rhythms very powerfully after work and late at night. Everytime I get home from work I feel too spent to do anything, but about an hour later I’m already feeling a lot better and find myself engaged in some activity. Then, around 8-9pm I am tired enough to fall asleep, but because it’s not that late yet I struggle to stay awake. After 10pm I’m again so full of energy that it’s impossible to even think about going to bed. The trick is to learn to harness these periods of high energy for productive purposes, and also to learn to wind down, relax, and replenish your energy during the “down” times.

How to Harness Your Ultradian Rhythms for Maximum Effectiveness

Overlapping sine waves

Image by Creativity103

For most people Ultradian Rhythms occur at intervals of 90-120 minutes throughout the whole day, during which they feel energized and are able to get things done. This is followed by a 30 minute stretch of low energy levels. Then the cycle starts again and you’re on your way towards another period of peak performance. How you can take advantage of this, is to set a timer when you start your work to, say, 50 minutes and use those 50 minutes to fully engage in one important activity. After the 50 minutes are up, set the timer for 10 minutes during which you can take a break from whatever you were doing. Then set yourself another 50 minute block of uninterrupted time, after which you can enjoy a longer 30 minute break. The ability to focus is like a muscle, and by training it this way you actually become better at it, and focusing on whatever you are engaged in becomes easier over time.

However, being great at immersing yourself in the task at hand is only one side of the coin. It is just as important to actively disengage yourself during the breaks as it is to focus on doing something. Being able to unfocus this way is a hugely unrated skill, but a complete disengagement from the task at hand is at the heart of being able to rest and properly replenish your energy levels.

There are three channels of activity that we humans have. Those are the cognitive, the physical, and the emotional. When you are taking a break, it’s important to change channel. If you’ve been engaged in an activity that requires a lot of thinking and brainwork, the break should disengage you from the cognitive channel. This can be done by e.g. going for a walk, doing some yoga, meditating, playing with your children, or even taking a 20 minute powernap, which happens to be my personal favorite.

A great way to consciously engage the emotional channel is through music. It has the wonderful quality of invoking our emotions. In a way, we don’t play music, but music plays us. Choose a few songs that resonate strongly with you, turn up to the volume on your speakers or headphones, close your eyes, relax, and simply experience the music flow through you. As an example, Life is Wonderful by Jason Mraz never fails to put a smile on my face, making me feel grateful just to be alive, and When Things Explode by UNKLE and Ian Astbury is simply epic.

It is reassuring to know, that even if you are tired and spent now, you will feel energized again after the break – but you need to let yourself to take the break. And this may be harder than it sounds. Especially for workaholics.

By timing the blocks of uninterrupted time you are already making a pact with yourself; agreeing that this period will be used in full engagement in one important task. So whenever you get those impulses to check instant messaging, email, or some news sites, you can say to yourself “later, I will do that during the break.” Or you can even assign an hour a day for things that require multi-tasking, such as making some phone calls, responding to email, or anything else that does not require full focus and consists of small tasks that can be batched together.

Energy Is More Important than Time

The most important message here is, that it’s not the time you have allotted for doing something, but how much energy you have for doing it that matters. And for this to work, you need to be aware of how you feel. You need to understand that your body needs rest instead of violently pushing through that feeling by taking yet another cup of coffee or eating a powerbar. By acknowledging and accepting that you have these natural bodily rhythms of high and low energy, you can take comfort from the fact that after taking a break you will be full of energy again, and can continue your work.

What I want to also emphasize is, that you really need to learn to listen to your body. Even if you use the 50+10/50+30 minute system – or any other one – you can never be sure at which point of the Ultradian Cycle you are when you start the timer in the beginning of a workday, or after returning from a lunch. So when you feel drowsy, your mind starts to wander, and it seems difficult to focus, take that 30 minute break with full understanding that the feeling of drowsiness is just temporary. And after the break you can start your timer again from the beginning.

Over to You

Do you notice your energy rising and falling during the day? How does this affect your work?

Have you ever used a timer to focus your attention and boost your productivity?

What kind of methods are you using to “change channels” or otherwise take your mind off the things at hand?

About the Author: Sami Paju is a Finnish blogger who studies how the human body and mind works, and how that knowledge can be used for greater personal growth, health, fitness, and living a happy life. You can find him at samipaju.com and on Twitter.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Great stuff. This is the same thing that Eben Pagan talks about in his wake up productive program, it has been working for me. He also mentions that exercise is a key component in being very productive throughout the day.

  2. This remind me the “pomodoro” technic or other sort of time-management things.
    It’s not always easy to be focus on a unique task, but indeed it’s far more productive!

    Personally I don’t exactly set an amount of time, but I feel when I can’t pursue a task, and switch to another way to contribute to the work (or to take some rest).

    I had a particular journey for example when I think about that.
    I’m student in Industrial Design and a morning we had a new work to do, so I spend some hours to sketches and think about some concepts, and arrived the moment when I couldn’t do anything more… (And the others begins to talk loudly) then I go outside the class to read some inspiring magazines (indirected related to my topic). That resourced me, I return at my desk and finally found the idea I developed after, while the others were always chatting.

    Writing this message was also a break, now I return to bring some order in my room full of paper, box, model, sketches…

    Hello from France (sorry if I made some mistakes ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Oh, the validation! I’ve long known that I can’t multitask well, the results always seem lacking. And, as Sami indicates, focused concentration for a prolonged period can be tiring, and sometimes it totally destroys my interest in the project. I’ve found Emmanuel’s interpretation works well for me, as well. Forcing to myself to continue on a task just makes me edgy. But moving to another aspect, often related, can be very refreshing. I find that particularly so when I’m tweaking a design. And when I completely lack interest but feel a need to continue I might work on the lathe a bit, it has the advantage of being both abstract (related to my woodwork) and concrete (an actual shape); if I’m totally listless I take the dog for a walk….fresh air and sunlight probably do greater wonders for focus and interest than compulsory reasoning I’ve come up with.

  4. Thank you all for the great comments!

    After reading what @Martha and @Emmanuel wrote I started thinking that most people probably have this feeling that they MUST finish whatever they’re doing. They don’t take breaks but instead force and push themselves onwards.

    I think this works too, as I’ve been doing it myself, but when considering your energy and focus levels long-term it will be disastrous.

    I have had a very hectic 2-3 weeks now at work and university, and I’ve sort of let myself lapse from taking my own advice. The result is that I’m now having very hard time focusing on anything that actually requires focus. It feels like I need to learn to do this all again from the beginning, and it sucks ๐Ÿ™‚

    I believe that you don’t necessarily notice every time when you could actually take a break because the signs are so subtle, especially at certain parts of day. Yet not taking those breaks will destroy the goal of being energetic in the long-term.

    //sami

  5. Thanks for this post. It validates my own rhythms. I can rarely focus on one thing for longer than 50 minutes.

    On my breaks I make a cup of tea, add some color to my journal, or do a few yoga asanas.

    Handstand is particularly useful on these breaks – turning myself upside down gives me an incredible flush of new energy.

    I love your suggestion to relax and listen to music. I’ll try that, though it’s hard for me to just listen and not dance!

  6. @Cynthia, I’ve found yoga to be a great tool as well! The only problem is that I’m not very comfortable with doing it at the office in front of other people.

    It’s far more inconspicuous to sit eyes closed for a few minutes with headphones on than to spread a yoga mat on the floor and start doing sun salutations ๐Ÿ˜‰

    //sami

  7. ๐Ÿ™‚ I started the list of small tasks two days before your post…and I can tell you that my productivity is really high. But it is the matter of persistance, so we will see.

    I write on the lost all the tasks and then below that I don’t have to do it but I want to do it. It helps me.

    Nice article. Thanks

  8. Hey,

    That’s a very interesting and an informative post you got there. I think everyone who has a mind and can think, is already aware of their energy levels and when they are at their best. (morning person, evening person etc…)

    However, the problem actually occurs when people are not good in organizing and basically can’t figure out the true priority of their tasks.

    Also, David Allen, the author of ‘Getting Things Done’ made it pretty clear that when we try to memorize too much information, our brain overloads and just the very thought of doing them can shift or actually screw up your regular rhythm. That’s why today 9 AM you will feel way different than tomorrow 9 AM.

    So, the best medicine I can think of is getting everything out of your head and writing them down where you check regularly. This will free your mind of unnecessary stuff and after you follow through with your tasks from higher priority to low priority it will be lot easier to make any change a habit and you really don’t have to worry about memorizing again.

    Besides just imagine the amount of energy you will retain by not trying to memorize or go over again and again trying to figure out the priority of your work.

  9. David is interesting but not always right, far from it.

    <when we try to memorize too much information, our brain overloads and just the very thought of doing them can shift or actually screw up your regular rhythm.

    This is not true.

    Your brain has a saturation point. When it cannot take in any more info, it takes a break. That's all.

    To say that the very thought screws up your rhythm is nuts.

  10. @Your Daily Productivity Vitamin, couldn’t agree with you more ๐Ÿ™‚

    Writing everything down helps organize your mind so that you have a clear understanding of things that need to be done.

    The whole idea of taking advantage of ultradian rhythms is to maximize the energy and focus when doing single, important tasks. However if you don’t really know what you should be doing, then it won’t help you much.

    //sami

  11. When I was in art school, I’d discovered that I could be filled with an infinite amount of creative energy so long as I would focus intensely on my work for two hours, and then take a twenty minute break. In fact, if I used my breaks for power naps, I was able to completely alter my circadian cycles!

    Now that I have a day job, I’m forced to adapt my circadian cycle around a more typical schedule. Therein lies my question:

    What do you use your breaks for that saves you from looking like you’re slacking? I work in a building in the middle of NYC’s busiest neighborhood, so going out for a walk is more stressful than restorative. Thus far, the best (and worst!) solution I’ve come up with is the smoke break– a long-standing habit that I’d clearly be better off without. But as of now it’s the most complete way that I can find to get away from my computer for ten minutes.

    Any suggestions appreciated! ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. @Jane, excellent question.

    Is there room indoors for any physical activity you could do? Like stretching, yoga, or why not even try meditating?

    I’ve never been to NY so it’s hard for me to imagine how busy it can be, but one thing that comes to my mind that at least helps me is in-ear headphones that cancel outside noises. I use those both in office, and when taking breaks and listening to some music.

    What do you think? I’m sure we can find a good solution for you if we put our minds to it ๐Ÿ™‚

    //sami

  13. Thanks for the article. I’m reading it months after the initial post.

    I find the idea so intriguing that I’ve marked it as an app tab on my browser(as I have with many Lateral Action pages), and am referring to it this morning after having read it over the weekend.

    The push to get so much done…I find I’m not allowing myself to play much any more. Your ideas for ultradian rhythyms…I’m hoping it can help.

    Regards,
    Beverly

  14. Hi Sami, I really enjoyed this piece and shall be putting your advice into practice. I’m hoping the results will be productive and relaxing – if that makes sense!

  15. Hi , thank u for this amazing article .
    I’ve been feeling these rhythms and I was wondering that if they are just my feeling and also they can be deduced by extending the REM & NREM rhythms during the day.
    My question is : What’s the scientific foundation for this? could you suggest some academic papers based on researches about this?
    Does body core temperature / daylight / other stuff affect these rhythms?
    And I understand human body follows rhythms other than ultradian , like I heard there’s a 33 day rhythms in mens hormonal level , where can I read about these rhythms? I mean we could increase our productivity even more by recognizing other rhythms of our body.
    For music my recommandation is classical (like mozart , strauss , shahrdad rohani , beethoven) and soft/alternative rock or choral music.

    • Hi Arian!

      I am not aware of any papers that would prove of the ultradian rhythms in a laboratory setting. I’m not saying there aren’t any, but I have come across this stuff elsewhere, namely in books by Tony Schwartz, and when I wrote this article that was the main reference.

      However, I did read one academic paper a few months ago that is very close to this topic and suggests similar methods for increasing focus and productivity during workday, although the concept of ultradian rhythms is not mentioned. You might want to take a look into it:

      Greenblatt, Edy (2002). Work/Life Balance: Wisdom or Whining. Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 31, No. 2, 177-193.

      //sami