We live in a so-called oscillatory universe that is characterized by rhythmic, wavelike movement between activity and rest. Think about the daily rising and setting of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tides, and the movement between seasons. Similarly, all organisms on this planet follow rhythms. And that includes human beings.
You and I, we are guided by rhythms.
The most famous rhythm which we adhere to is the circadian rhythm. We live our lives in 24 hour periods. We’re on and awake for 16–18 hours (spending energy) and then we’re off and asleep for 7–9 hours (renewing energy).
A period of activity is followed by a period of rest. A period of energy expenditure (activity) is followed by a period of energy renewal (rest).
Our energy resources aren’t endless. We can’t sprint 100% for more than 10–20 seconds. We can’t concentrate for hours and hours on end. We can’t stay awake for much more than 18–20 hours before our performance plummets.
Sooner or later we need to refuel our energy. That means, if we want to be as productive as possible, we need to live a rhythmic life with periods of intense activity followed by periods of intense rest. We need to live life as a series of sprints, not a never-ending marathon.
Imagine for a second the look of a typical long-distance runner: skinny, sallow, gaunt, unhealthy, and not very energetic. Now imagine a sprinter such as Usain Bolt: powerful, healthy, strong, bursting with energy, and determined.
The sprinter looks much better.
Why? Because he’s oscillating. He’s on and then he’s off. He fully exerts himself and then follows that by a period of rest. He’s either fully engaged or strategically disengaged. He adheres to nature’s rhythms.
Like the sprinter, we want to live our lives as a series of sprints, oscillating between periods of intense engagement and equally intense renewal. Makes total sense, right?
It is, however, not how most of us live. Instead, most of us are in a state of constant energy preservation. We’re never fully on and never fully off. Never fully engaged and never fully disengaged. Instead of living oscillatory lives, we live linear lives (which is the complete opposite).
Think about a typical work day for example. Do you ever completely relax? Do you ever fully disengage from what you’re doing during the day? Do you take frequent breaks? Do you ever fully concentrate and give 100% of all you’ve got to a given task? Chances are you do none of these things.
For example, most of us view breaks as a sign of weakness and instead work in a state of constant energy preservation for hours and hours on end. Even if we’re tired and can barely concentrate anymore, we just keep going and going…
…until eventually the clock hits 5pm and we get to go home where we watch TV for the rest of the day. (Watching TV by the way doesn’t count as either full engagement or full disengagement. It’s just a state of low, “blah”-type of energy.)
This is neither our natural nor our optimal way of living.
So remember, you’re much better off when you’re oscillating between activity and recovery than when you’re living in a linear fashion with your brakes on all the time. You want to be either fully engaged or strategically disengaged.
Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr are the authors of The Power of Full Engagement. I’ve learned most of what I’m writing about in this article in that book (you can check out my summary here). In it, they describe a phenomenon called ultradian rhythms:
“These ultradian rhythms help to account for the ebb and flow of our energy throughout the day. Physiological measures such as heart rate, hormonal levels, muscle tension and brain-wave activity all increase during the first part of the cycle — and so does alertness. After an hour or so, these measures start to decline. Somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, the body begins to crave a period of rest and recovery. Signals include a desire to yawn and stretch, hunger pangs, increased tension, difficulty concentrating, an inclination to procrastinate or fantasize, and a higher incidence of mistakes.”
The ultradian rhythm is a cycle that repeats itself countless times during the day. For about 90 minutes you are in high performance mode. Your alertness, concentration, creativity, emotional resilience, and mental stamina are all at the top of their game. Then, for a period of about 20 minutes, your body needs time to rest and renew its energy stores.
This gives us an easy prescription for optimizing our energy and productivity throughout the day: To get the most out of your working day, go full out for 90 to 120 minutes (fully engage) and then take a break for 15 to 20 minutes (strategically disengage).
Simple as that. You work hard and on your limit for 90 to 120 minutes. Then you take a break and relax for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat.
(NOTE: We are able to override these natural cycles by summoning the fight-or-flight response and flooding our bodies with stress hormones that are designed to help us handle emergencies. Over the long-run, however, that’s a terrible idea. Toxins and stress hormones will build up in our system and over time take a toll on our bodies. Over-relying on caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamines is NOT a long-term solution.)
I feel like I haven’t been clear enough so far, so let me state it more strongly: You are either working like a maniac — going all out, giving 100%, fully engaged, intensely focused, completely absorbed in your task — or you are taking a break.
True productivity means either being fully on or being fully off. It means either fully engaging and getting a boatload of work done, or strategically disengaging to renew energy.
There’s no in-between. There’s no more “doing some work”. There’s no more preserving energy when you’re working. There’s no more half-assed working because you’re tired or whatever.
You either work (you’re super productive) or you don’t (you’re taking a break). You’re either in a work sprint or you’re recovering energy.
Believe me: You will get more done in a single 90 to 120 minute work sprint than most people do in an entire day…
(NOTE: Work sprints can differ in length depending on how your energy is doing. If you’re in a great work flow, still have good concentration and focus, then you can go beyond 90–120 minutes. You can also go longer if you’re using artificial help such as caffeine and other smart drugs. The key is to realize when you’re getting a bit tired or can’t focus anymore… that’s when you want to take a break and renew your energy and attention.)
This is an excerpt from a short e-book on my 7 best productivity hacks. You can get the whole thing here for free.