Working online is mentally taxing. Yet I know many people sit at their laptops and work for 2-3 hours without a break. They only ever stop for a drink, snack or bathroom break (or all three if they’re lucky). Whilst it may be the norm for many knowledge workers, working for long stretches of time is actually working against our neurobiology. As humans, we’re designed to work in sprints, not marathons. This has always been the case, but this need is amplified when we’re spending our days going from one virtual meeting to another, triaging our inboxes and Teams chats.
We are designed to work in digital dashes because of the way our brains and bodies function. One of the distinct biological markers we have as humans is our ultradian rhythm. This means that our energy goes through peaks roughly every 90 minutes and then typically has a 20 minute trough following. Our ultradian rhythm is a measurable physiological pattern that our body maintains, both day and night (this also explains why our sleep cycles are usually around 90 minutes). This rhythm manages the cycles of energy production and recovery. If disrupted or ignored, our ultradian rhythm can adversely impact our health and performance, yet many of us are unaware of how our ultradian rhythm impacts us and what we can do to optimise it whilst we work.
Here’s how it typically plays out: you begin your day in a focused state. Within about 90 minutes, you reach what’s described as your ‘peak-performance window’. As you work, by-products build up in your brain in the form of metabolic waste and cellular debris. Your brain is also processing new bits of information and your prefrontal cortex is fatiguing. Your brain has burned through glucose, its energy supply. Towards the end of your 90 minute peak, you may start to feel fatigued, groggy and frustrated, and your attention is likely to wander.
This is your body waving a red flag and telling you it needs some downtime to rest and recover. It’s at this point that you’ve hit your ultradian trough, which is an energy low point. You’ll probably crave one of the three Cs:
- crappy connections via social media. (The third C used to be cigarettes, but thankfully most of us have moved on from this habit.)
It’s at this point that you need to take a break, as the figure below shows.
Figure: Your ultradian rhythm (source: Dear Digital, We need to talk)
However, most of us ignore the signs from our bodies, if we happen to notice them at all. We push through. We disregard our bodies’ signals and attempt to white-knuckle our way through our day. That’s what I used to do, too, until I realised it was killing my productivity and having a detrimental impact on my mood, and leading me once again down the burnout path. Taking breaks is a responsibility, not a reward.
Skipping breaks results in the law of diminishing returns, which, as Greg McKeown discusses in his book Effortless, ‘…past a certain point, additional effort yields less results. What’s worse, if we continue to double down on the “more effort approach” diminishing returns turn into negative returns. Additional effort can actually sabotage our performance.’ Many of us are working in this way on a daily basis, and it’s compromising our wellbeing and productivity.
If we skip subsequent breaks by ignoring our ultradian rhythm’s troughs and keep pushing through without taking a break, we’ll continue to feel blah – really blah! The more breaks you skip, the worse you’ll feel and the poorer you’ll perform, because you’re working against your neurobiology. By the end of the day, you’ll fall in a heap. You’re trapped in a perpetual sympathetic-nervous-system state. Having a sympathetic nervous system stuck in a chronic stress response can disrupt your sleep, which further impedes your performance and compromises your mood and immunity. It becomes a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that’s hard to break. It’s why many of us feel trapped and OUSTED (overwhelmed, under the pump, stressed, time poor, exhausted and distracted).
By contrast, if you adhere to your ultradian rhythm throughs throughout your workday your performance would be enhanced.
Your subsequent ultradian peaks would continue to be as long and as potent as our original peak. Why? When you engage in restorative activities and rest your body would have had the chance to produce adenosine triphosphate which provides energy for your cells.
Now, I know some of you will be reading this and would scoff at the suggestion that you need to be resting for twenty minutes, roughly every 90 minutes. I’ve had people in my keynotes and workshops say, “Kristy, I wouldn’t get any work done if I was laying on my yoga mat for 20 minutes, every hour and a half.” Now, whilst some of your twenty minute trough should be dedicated to rest and restoration (simple things like making a tea or coffee, closing your eyes for 30 seconds, standing out in nature, going for a walk around the block, even if it’s just 2-10 minutes or a piccolo break as I call it), the other part of that 20-minute trough could be spent doing ‘shallow work’ (like administrative tasks, phone calls or basic emails). These are your less cognitively-taxing tasks that won’t deplete your energy.
The onus is on you, where possible, to try to structure your day so you work in sprints, not marathons. Here are some simple yet effective ideas to help you work with your ultradian rhythm:
// Determine your cadence – Your ultradian rhythm may not be exactly 90 minutes. The trick is to determine your ultradian rhythm. Start to notice when fatigue, lack of focus or fidgeting set in. It’s likely a sign that you’ve hit your ultradian trough and it’s time to take a break.
// Time-block your calendar accordingly – Once you’ve determined your ultradian pattern, structure your day to match your rhythm, where possible. This gives you a basic plan for the day. You don’t need to adhere rigidly to it, but having a time-blocked calendar removes some of the cognitive load that you typically assign to deciding what you need to do next and how long you should spend on that task.
// Schedule breaks in your calendar – Set reminders in your calendar to take frequent breaks throughout the day. Remember, this can vary over time – it’s not a precise science whereby you need to adhere strictly to your 82-minute ultradian rhythm or else everything implodes. You could even specify what you’ll do during your break: walk the dog, walk to the postbox and mail a letter, lie in the sun, or do some squats and lunges.
By working with, rather than against your brain (your Human Operating System, hOS) you will not only optimise your performance at work, but will finish your workday feeling good, as opposed to falling in a heap. This is a topic I address in my corporate Keynotes. Reach out if you want to help your team power-up in the digital world.
This blog post is a modified excerpt from my latest book Dear Digital, We need to talk.
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