Why you should match your tasks to your ultradian rhythm

Jul 12, 2022

Table of contents:

  1. What is the ultradian rhythm?
  2. The very best don’t work the most
  3. Your pilot has fallen asleep
  4. Work like an athlete
  5. What can we learn from the ultradian rhythm
  6. How to make the most of your ultradian rhythm

Our minds and bodies have evolved over millions of years. We are who we are because of the lived experiences of our ancestors. Everything that we know is a delicate balance. If we work with this harmony, instead of against it, we can achieve great things.

In this article we’re going to look at the importance of the ultradian rhythm for your productivity.

What is the ultradian rhythm?

An ultradian rhythm is a recurring period that is repeated throughout the normal 24-hour circadian cycle. Each period lasts approximately 90 minutes. During this period you have a boost in energy and alertness. Once the 90 minute period has finished, you experience a shorter period of tiredness and drowsiness.

Whilst for most people their ultradian rhythm is typically 90 minutes, there is a certain amount of variability from person to person.

In order to do your best work, you need to make sure it happens during your periods of peak energy and alertness. You need to organise and schedule your work to your natural ultradian rhythm.

The very best don’t work the most

One of the counterintuitive consequences of the ultradian rhythm is that it’s better to concentrate your effort into smaller time windows, rather than forcing yourself to work for long periods of time.

Research by Anders Ericsson into the practice routines of world-class violinists found that the very best did not spend the most time practising. Instead during the time they did practice they had deliberate focus.

On average, the best violinists practised for four and half hours a day in 90 minute intervals. In order words, they worked in unison with their ultradian rhythm to match their habits and performance with their natural energy cycles.

A second benefit of following their ultradian rhythm was that the best violinists only worked 4 and half hours a day. This meant they got more rest, rejuvenation, and sleep than their peers who pushed themselves for longer. In fact, the best violinists got more than 8 hours of sleep each night, plus they took a 20-30 minute nap every afternoon. Over an average week, they slept 16 hours more than the average American.

This study shows that it’s not the number of hours you put in, it’s how you use your time that matters most. What’s more, working yourself to exhaustion is a losing strategy. Instead, if you ensure you have appropriate rest and recuperation, you will be in a better position to do your best work.

Your pilot has fallen asleep

A similar phenomenon can be seen in a study of airline pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration conducted a study in 2008 which found that short breaks between long work sessions generated a 16% increase in focus and awareness.

The study split a group of pilots and allowed one group to take a 40 minute nap during the flight. On average the pilots slept for 26 minutes. Pilots who didn’t have a break had a 35% deterioration in reaction time during the midpoint of a flight. What’s more, many of the pilots who didn’t have a break actually fell asleep or experienced periods of 2 - 10 seconds of micro sleep during the flight due to tiredness.

Another surprising statistic is that 80% of regional pilots admit that they’ve fallen asleep during a flight!

Work like an athlete

Yet another example of a group of people that work smarter instead of harder is athletes. Athletes don’t push themselves to train for long periods of time because they understand that after a certain point you get diminishing returns from further investment.

Pushing yourself far beyond your limit into fatigue and poor recovery is not worth any marginal gains you might achieve.

Instead, athletes gradually increase and manage their workload to build up their statimina, and they ensure they have long periods of rest in between intense periods of work so that their body can recover. Anything else can lead to injury, which can be a much bigger setback over the long run.

What can we learn from the ultradian rhythm

No one has infinite energy. You need to let yourself recover between moments of productivity. By working with your ultradian rhythm instead of against it, you can match your energy levels to your current workload whilst ensuring that you prioritise periods of rest.

We are designed via evolution to have intense periods of spending and recuperating energy. In order to survive we needed to spend energy finding food, building shelter, and surviving under harsh conditions. This meant we also needed a long period of recovery in order to maintain the required energy levels.

Switching between intense periods of productivity, and relaxed periods of rest is working in unison with millions of years of evolution.

How to make the most of your ultradian rhythm

Matching your tasks to your current energy level is key to making the most of your productivity. You should schedule your high effort, creative tasks during the 90 minutes of intense work in sync with your ultradian rhythm. Your periods of high energy and intense work need to be matched with the right tasks to ensure you make the most of the opportunity to make progress on your longer term goals.

During the down periods of each ultradian rhythm, you should either rest or schedule low effort tasks.

Ultradian rhythms can’t be timed or perfectly scheduled. What’s more, different people will have different rhythms, with different durations of intense activity and rest. You need to understand your mind and body, and recognise periods of high and low energy.

Your energy will naturally deplete over the course of a normal working day, and your energy level will fluctuate on a weekly, monthly, or yearly cycle. Some people are most productive at the start of the day, whilst others hit their peak late at night. How much sleep you’re getting, your diet, and how much coffee and alcohol you consume will all contribute to your energy level.

However, the most important thing is that you start to recognise when you feel energised and when you feel tired. Being able to recognise your energy level, when you feel energised versus when you feel tired and fatigued will be a very important skill you can leverage to maximise your productivity.

Once you are able to recognise your fluctuating energy levels, you can take the appropriate steps to recover, whilst also making the most of your energy peaks. A good way of becoming better at doing this is to track how your energy fluctuates through the day, week, month, and year. You can do this with a simple scale of “low”, “medium”, and “high”. After doing this for a while, you will be able to recognise patterns in your data that clearly show the periods that are best suited for intense high energy tasks, and others that would be better suited for lower effort tasks or rest.

Once you become more attuned to recognising your natural highs and lows, and how your energy level fluctuates, you will be better at picking tasks that match how you currently feel.

Philip Brown


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