Monday, February 03, 2014

Working to your natural rhythm

According to a recent survey, over one third of workers are consumed by thoughts of work from the minute they wake, and one in four only stop thinking about it before they sleep. This difficulty or inability to relax and switch off is widely known, and there is abundant advice available on how to relax and unwind after the working day.

What much of this advice misses, however, is that the reason we find it difficult to switch off is that our patterns of work effectively train our bodies and minds to stay switched on and override our natural cycles.  So it’s no wonder then that when we want to unwind we find it difficult.

Let me explain. We all know about the 24 hour circadian rhythms of  sleep and awake, and that if you travel or for any reason change your cycle you suffer the experience of your body clock having to readjust. What is less known is that as well as circadian rhythms there are ultradian rhythms that are shorter than 24 hours.

These were 1st discovered by the sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman in the fifties who introduced the concept of REM (rapid eye movements) to the world. He discovered the basic rest-activity cycle demonstrating that when we’re asleep we progress in 90 minute cycles  through the five stages of sleep.

He also considered that this  90minute ultradian rhythm continued during the day giving a cycle of energy every 90 to 120 minutes.   We all experience this – we are able to concentrate well for a period of up to 2 hours, before our mind starts to wander, or we lose focus. That’s a natural rhythm occurring. The trouble is, many of us override it.  Working without beaks, boosting our energy with caffeine and sugar and so on.  What’s more, to comply with our request to work on, the body releases adrenalin and stress hormones.

Yet, the natural cycle of peak performance is well known by many athletes and concert classical musicians, who organise their training and practice into 90minute sessions with a rest break in between.

The solution then to not being able to relax at end of the day is to learn to follow your own ultradian rhythms. If you can learn to take short breaks regularly and actually go with the cycle, there are lots of benefits – it can actually boost your productivity as well as reducing your stress levels.

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