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We’d all like to be more productive in our lives but with our growing awareness of the harmful effects of stress and the potential physical and emotional burnout, how do we find balance? Do we meditate? Exercise? Improve our nutritional intake? All of these are important but do they really help balance or are they sometimes just add-ons to a life out of kilter? Will they also help improve our productivity?

What if it depends on not just what we do, to de-stress, but when we do it?

More than 50 years ago, the sleep researcher Nathan Kleitman discovered the 90 minute periods, at night, during which we move progressively through five stages of sleep, from light to deep, and then out again.

Kleitman also observed that our bodies operate by the same 90 minute rhythm during the day. When we’re awake, the movement is from higher to lower alertness. These repeated cycles through sleep and waking hours are known as ultradian rhythms.

The model of success, which we are generally encouraged to follow, is to knuckle down and work solidly with as few breaks as possible for 8 to 10 hours. We then go home and wonder why we feel so drained. What if we were to follow the natural rhythm of our brains and the 90 minute ultradian rhythm instead?

When we need to rest, our bodies signal to us with either sleepiness, lack of focus, fidgeting etc. Not only do we ignore the signals but we attempt to override them with caffeine, sugary foods and our own stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline. We become addicted to these substances and believe that constantly being on the go will bring good results. Many people are beginning to question not only the toll this takes on our stressed out bodies and minds but also on our actual productivity.

In a study of young violinists, performance researcher Anders Ericsson found that the best ones all practiced the same way: in the morning, in three sessions of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one. Ericcson discovered the same pattern among other musicians, athletes, chess players and writers.

If you feel burnt out by constantly pushing yourself to achieve, maybe experiment with working for 90 minutes and setting a timer for a 20 minute break. During this break, have a snack, a walk, a nap – this is not laziness but will prime your body and mind to be in gear for the next session of work. Try this for a month to observe the changes in your productivity and energy levels.

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