By Wilma Bedford
Every individual runs on a 24-hour internal clock. We go to sleep, wake up and go through peaks of alertness and valleys of lethargy around the same time every day. The cycle is universal, but the times differ from person to person, which explains why some of us are early birds and others are night owls. The 24-hour cycle is known as a circadian day, in which we cycle through 90-minute blocks of productivity and heightened focus.
These blocks of ultradian cycles make up our ultradian rhythm, a recurrent period repeated throughout a 24-hour day. (Circadian rhythms complete one cycle daily.) At the start of each ultradian cycle your brain is at its most energetic and focused. As your energy depletes, you reach the end of that ultradian cycle, which is why you are least effective even if you keep on working. What it means is that your brain needs a break.
During your peak productivity times you should therefore tackle the projects that require creative strategising, problem-solving and decision-making. Less complex tasks and more routine tasks should be saved for the ultradian valleys.
In order for you to be more productive you need to know what your ultradian cycles are. This is not as difficult as you might think.
Keep track by gathering data
Every day, at roughly hourly intervals and at the same times, record your levels of focus, enthusiasm and energy. After a few days you will notice a pattern emerging that emphasises your highest and lowest points of focus, energy and enthusiasm. Also keep track of anything that might be affecting your scores each day. After a week or two you will have established consistent indicators of when your ultradian cycles will be available to enhance your productivity.
Interruptions and time management
When you have established the time when you have the most energy and focus, these periods have to be optimised to allow uninterrupted time to work or create. In an ideal work situation, your ultradian cycle works at its best in blocks of 90 to 120 minutes, but outside influences can intrude and disrupt this flow. Colleagues, bosses and personal crises can and do occur, which cannot be helped or avoided.
Do some prep work ahead of time and, if necessary, communicate with your boss, colleagues or team mates to establish their schedules and where you need to fit in so that when you turn your attention to your project, you can work uninterrupted and without distractions that will require you to stop while the creative juices are flowing.
However, for some, it’s not the outside interruptions that cut into creative time as much as it’s their internal rhythms. Not everyone hits their ultradian cycles in the exact centre of a typical workday. This may require creative ways to make the best of their ultradian cycles.
Some people are night owls who work best burning the midnight oil, while other focus and do their best work at the end of the working day when everyone else is heading home. Many find they achieve most in the early hours of the morning.
Sleep expert Dr Michael Breus has identified four different types or circadian rhythm personalities:
- Bear. Most of us fall into this category. Their sleep-wake patterns follow the sun. They’re “ready for intense tasks smack in the middle of the morning,” but feel a dip by mid-afternoon.
- Lion.The lion is an early riser. “These are the go-getters, the leaders, the type-A movers and shakers.” However, they also fizzle out earlier and don’t stay up late.
- Wolf. Wolves are nocturnal. They start later in the day and have two peak periods – noon to 14:00 and late afternoon/early evening.
- Dolphin. Dolphins are light sleepers and may have an irregular sleep routine. They also tend to be perfectionists and work best from mid-morning through early afternoon.
The least productive time of day
Research has shown that the post-lunch slump leads to the least productive time of day, namely 14:55. This is when you should get up and take a breather to reboot your brain and body for the final lap of the workday.
But, generally speaking, the golden rule is that the least ideal time to be productive is when you’ve put in more than 50 hours in your workweek, mainly due to brain fatigue.
Work smarter to work more effectively
Your goal is not to work faster, but to find out when you will work more effectively and be more productive. Establishing when your peak productivity times are and applying those times most efficiently will allow you to take that needed break without feeling guilty.
Atkinson, B. The most and least productive hours of the day. https://evernote.com/blog
Fallon, N. What’s your most productive work time? How to find out. https://www.businessnews daily.com
Cherry, K. & Peterson, K. How circadian rhythms act as the body’s biological clock.https://www.verywellhealth.com
Circadian rhythm. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circadian-rhythm