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Hacking Your Ultradian Rhythm - Taking Breaks For Greater Productivity

Here is one of those truths that always seems like a contradiction - in order to boost productivity we need to take breaks. I think that many of us have realized that vacations benefit us in this way - when you get back from a nice, restful holiday you have more energy and focus and feel interested in your work again.

However, more and more research is showing that we need shorter breaks during the day as well.

You have probably heard of your circadian rhythm - a daily rhythm that our body follows over a 24 hour period, most notably our sleep/wake patterns. This is the one that gets out of whack when we have jetlag.

We also have a shorter rhythm that occurs every 90-120 minutes, where our bodies and minds move from intense focus to needing to recharge. You might have noticed the shift at work - this is the time that you want to reach for that caffeine, sugar or refined carbs just to push through whatever it is that you are working on. You get fidgety, hungry, possibly uneasy and often “tired but wired” - a sign that your body is pumping out adrenaline and cortisol to keep your nervous system in sympathetic arousal, also know as “fight or flight,” just to keep going. Your focus starts to lag and facebook looks more and more appealing. This is your body telling you it needs a break, and if you pay attention to it you will notice that it happens on a regular basis - usually in the 90-120 minute time frame.

What will happen if you just keep pushing through? In the short term, relying on those stress hormones probably isn’t too big of a problem. Your body will adjust once you dial it back and find some rest. But for long term use, it’s not a good idea. Overstimulation of these hormones can lead to a decline in prefrontal cortex activity in the brain. This is the area that is responsible for clear thinking, reflection, creativity, and imagination. These stress hormones also have negative effects in the rest of your body when they are continuously overstimulated. Weight gain, digestive issues, insomnia and anxiety are just a few.

So, instead of pushing through, try taking a 15-20 minute break instead. Your body will be able to better regulate the balance of your hormones. You will be much more focused and productive, and your boss will love you! You might also notice an improvement in your overall health and wellbeing.

Here are a few ideas of what to do during the breaks:

  • Go to the bathroom. It seems silly, but many people don’t even listen to their bladder, and this can cause all kinds of problems in the long run.

  • Drink some water or herbal tea. Keeping hydrated is important and can also help with focus.

  • Take a walk. Bonus points if you can get out in nature. Some of my best brainstorming occurs during my morning walks. If it’s something really good, I’ll stop and take notes on my phone, then put it away and keep going.

  • Stretch. Especially if you work at a computer, getting up and stretching all those sitting muscles can also go a long way to preventing injuries.

  • Meditate. Check out some meditation apps to find a quickie that’s right for you.

  • Take a nap. Close your door, crawl under your desk and turn off for 20 minutes. Don’t go any longer, or it might make you more tired.

Now, if you are that person who just can’t seem to remember to take a break, try using technology to help you. Set an alarm on your phone or computer for 90 minutes from when you start your work. Check in with yourself when it goes off. How are you feeling? Are you truly still focused? If so, keep working for another 30 minutes, but get up for sure after that. After a couple of weeks of using technology to help you, you will probably be set in the new habit of listening to your own body.

Try it out and see just how much better and more effective you are!



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