Your Ultradian Rhythm Could Transform Your Productivity

Today we’re going to talk about how understanding your ultradian rhythm could transform your productivity, your motivation and work and ultimately your levels of job satisfaction during a particularly testing year. While the ultradian rhythm has a relatively complex-sounding name, the concept itself is remarkably simple, so let’s break it down and talk about how you can optimise your work output and work with your brain patterns, rather than squeezing every ounce of energy from it when it’s not ready. 

Before we jump into it, I think it’s worth mentioning that yesterday I published a piece detailing 9 brain hacks that could transform your productivity, in which we briefly covered ultradian rhythms. If you’re interested in an overview of how you can ‘hack’ your brain with a few simple lifestyle and dietary changes in your behaviour, click here to find out how to hack your brain for added productivity.

For now, though, let’s talk about how understanding – and hacking – your ultradian rhythm could transform your productivity as you move into the future.  


What is the Ultradian Rhythm? 

The ultradian rhythm is essentially a biological cycle that our brains move through as we go about our day. During these cycles, the brain enters peaks and troughs; the peaks represent optimal or even heightened levels of brain activity, while the troughs are the opposite, where the brain can be sluggish and operates on a lower frequency of sorts. During these peaks, blood circulation increases, which can cause increased appetite, arousal, and yes, the brain’s ability to function at a higher rate. 

You’ve probably heard of the circadian rhythm that manages our sleep cycle. The circadian rhythm cycles once every 24-hours, hence why we get sleepy and ready to go to bed at a certain hour- depending on your circadian rhythm. The ultradian rhythm cycles a number of times a day, with researchers suggesting that these peaks of activity can be maintained for around 90-minutes, before entering a trough of around 20 minutes. 

You can think of your ultradian rhythm as that feeling of ‘hitting the wall’ at a certain time of day, or after an extended period of brain-intensive activity. Science says that the brain is unable to maintain this high rate of function for a long period of time before it enters its recovery phase, where it takes a breather for around twenty minutes and is once again able to fire-up on all cylinders for another 90 minutes or so. 

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How Can Understanding the Ultradian Rhythm Transform Productivity? 

The idea of understanding the body’s rhythms, and then adapting our work life and schedules around these physiological cycles was first presented in the 1960s by physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman, alongside researcher Eugene Aserinsky. They understood that the brain was not able to supply high-quality brain power consistently throughout the day, and presented their Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC) model that aims to leverage the brain’s power when entering these spikes of productivity. 

The work of Kleitman and Aserinsky was picked up by Ph.D researcher, Ernest Rossi, who wrote a book called the “20-Minute Break,” popularising the concept of allowing the brain to recover before pushing back up another activity peak, calling it the ‘ultradian healing response.’ Rossi writes that “the mind-body resynchronizes its many rhythms and systems. Oxidative waste products and free radical molecules that have built up in the tissues during preceding periods of high performance and stress are cleared out of the cells.” 

“The stores of messenger molecules so vital to mind-body communication are replenished, and energy reserves are restored,” Rossi writes. 

How to Improve Productivity Understanding the Ultradian Rhythm

Now that we’ve got an understanding of what the ultradian rhythm is, and what it means for our bodies, we can put it to the test in the context of our personal and professional lives for increased productivity. The science would suggest that if you were to lay out your activities for the day, you should take two things into consideration: Ensure that segments of your day on a particular project or meeting do not stretch for more than 90-minutes at a time, and allow yourself and those around you to take a break after every 90-minutes, ideally around 20-minutes so your brain is able to transition into a new activity cycle. 

What this looks like in a timeline or schedule for the day is that no project or meeting is allocated any more than 90-minutes of your time in a single session. If you’re working on something extremely important, circle back to it after a twenty-minute break, and the science says that your focus and productivity will be dramatically improved; after all, if it’s important, doesn’t that warrant your maximum attention to detail? 

Pushing through and burning the midnight oil is something that we often can’t avoid, but typically, we’re able to control how our day is rolling out. Keep the ultradian rhythm in mind, and you’ll be setting yourself up for a more productive future. 

Thanks again for your time, I’ll see you in the next piece. 

Kobi Simmat, Director & CEO of the Best Practice Group. 

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