When Should You Work? Understanding Ultradian Rhythms

You’ve likely heard of the circadian rhythm that influences our sleep and wake cycles, but the ultradian rhythm hasn’t gotten the same level of attention. Recent research into this bodily cycle has found it has powerful implications for productivity. If you’re striving to improve your efficiency, it’s wise to take a look at the things that are out of your control and how you can use them to your advantage. The ultradian rhythm is one of these things that, when tuned into, can have powerful benefits.

What are Ultradian Rhythms?

You’ve probably noticed that your energy, focus, and productivity levels are not constant but instead, fluctuate throughout the day. Perhaps you’ve really noticed these shifts and pinpointed a regular afternoon slump or morning energy boost. What you’re noticing here is, in part, your ultradian rhythm. The ultradian rhythm is the 90-to-120-minute cycles that the body moves through throughout the day and night. Every 90 to 120 minutes, we experience a period of significant energy, followed by a period of fatigue. When sleeping, these cycles correspond to our sleep cycles. When awake, they can play a significant role in our productivity.

Peak Productivity

Though we all have our own ultradian rhythm, research suggests that around 11am is a period of peak productivity for many people. The more you start to notice these cycles of energy and fatigue, the better you can plan your schedule to maximize your energy. Schedule those tasks that require intense focus and attention for a time frame when you know you’ll be at your most alert. Rather than fighting your body and trying to push through a period of rest, timing your tasks can allow you to maximize productivity.

Peak Creativity

Interestingly, some research suggests that, unlike peak productivity, peak creativity may happen during a fatigue period. The relaxing of the mind can allow new ideas to flow more freely. If you’re working on a creative project or need to think out of the box to solve a problem, time it with one of these more relaxed points in your cycle.

Strategy

We can’t control this system, but we do have a few choices. We can ignore it and continue trying out external strategies to improve efficiency; we can work against it by forcing ourselves to work on highly-focused tasks during windows of fatigue; or we can harness it and use it to our advantage. Since we know these cycles are about 90-120 minutes in length, it makes sense to work in similar bursts. When you’re in an alert window, give all your energy to the task at hand. When you move into a window of fatigue, allow your body the time to rest. Working in bursts like this may feel different than the typical structure of a workday, but it can dramatically improve productivity.

 

If you tune into what’s happening in your body, you can give your productivity a real boost. If you’re used to being in go-mode from the time you wake up to the time you fall asleep, this might be a challenge. I’d recommend giving it a try, though. It may take some time to identify your own cycles and plan your schedule accordingly, but the results are absolutely worth the effort.

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