Does it ever seem like there’s a clock in your brain that wakes you at the same time each morning and sends you to sleep at night? No worries, we all have it ticking. Its scientific name is the circadian rhythm. And it regulates the cycles of alertness and tiredness you experience over a 24-hour period.
Learning to tune into the patterns of your own circadian rhythm is helpful both inside and outside of your personal life. Because at work, this internal clock can help you structure your workflow around the times when you’re most energetic. This way, you improve concentration, increase efficiency, and maximize the overall performance on the job.
In this month’s installment of The Productivity Box, let’s take a closer look at the way the circadian rhythm functions. And ultimately learn how to use it as an unexpected means to boost your work performance.
What circadian rhythm is and how it affects your mind and body
Circadian rhythm is the human body’s 24-hour wake and sleep cycle. It influences many internal processes, like gastrointestinal balance, hormone release, neurological function, immune defense, and energy metabolism, according to Frontiers in Physiology.
On the other hand, disruptions in this cycle will cause insomnia, stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression or other mood changes. Over time, this could also result in chronic issues such as cardiovascular disease, cancer or mental illness, suggests Translational Psychiatry.
Your circadian rhythm occurs at the cellular level, and it’s impacted by both physiological and environmental factors, researchers explain. The brain responds to light and dark in your environment. And this signals the nerve cells to either alert the body into wakefulness or relax it into sleepiness, based on the time of day.
This pattern can fluctuate depending on the season or the region where you live. However, biology and behavior also play a role. For example, genetics, core body temperature, age bracket, cortisol and melatonin levels, and eating habits all affect this cycle. This means, to a certain extent, your circadian rhythm is unique to you.
The connection between circadian rhythm and work performance
A consistent circadian rhythm is essential to optimize executive functions in your brain, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine reports. These executive functions include working memory, flexible problem solving, decision making, planning and self-monitoring. All these are crucial elements for job performance. Maintaining consistency with your wake and sleep cycle can also increase your attention span in the daylight hours.
When your mind is clear, sharp and alert, you’re able to better focus on the task at-hand, which boosts productivity. If there’s a disruption in circadian rhythm, however, performance can take a nose-dive. For example, too much stimulation at night when you should be at rest can cause fatigue, lack of concentration or delays in processing information the next day.
Instead of feeling active and refreshed, your attention (and therefore productivity on the job) will suffer. It’s hard for your crucial executive functions to work as they should when your energy levels are out of sync.
How to take advantage of peaks and troughs
A full 24-hour circadian rhythm sequence is marked by intervals called peaks and troughs that occur in a wave pattern over the course of each day, explains Neurologic Clinics Journal. Here’s a breakdown of these two elements of your circadian rhythm:
- Peaks: The windows of time when energy levels spike, causing the body to feel active and the brain to feel alert.
- Troughs: The windows of time when energy levels decline, causing tiredness or inactivity to set in.
For an average well-rested person, the first peak window usually occurs in the late morning, followed by another peak window in the evening. The two main trough windows most often take place in the late afternoon and at night when the body releases melatonin and starts to unwind before sleep. This explains that common afternoon crash.
Here’s an example of how to structure the workday using circadian rhythm:
- Morning: As you transition from sleep to activity, do simple tasks that boost alertness but don’t require maximum energy output such as planning your schedule or checking and answering your emails.
- Late morning: When you reach your first state of peak energy, do the work that requires optimal levels of focus such as meetings, presentations, teamwork and collaborative projects.
- Afternoon: As you start to decline into a trough state, shift to administrative busywork that doesn’t require extensive cognitive load.
- Evening: When you hit your second peak in energy levels, do any unfinished work on the projects you started earlier that are time sensitive, high-priority, or shouldn’t be left until the following day.
- Late evening: As you start feeling tired, unplug from devices that emit blue light, which the brain confuses for daylight. Take this time to slow down with relaxation techniques like taking a hot shower or reading a book. I sometimes listen to theater plays, a custom that very much reminds me of childhood. Listening, not watching! Because, as we all know, Netflix and chill doesn’t always work, nor it is recommended 🙂
Your circadian rhythm can fluctuate slightly from this pattern, based on the biological, environmental or behavioral factors mentioned earlier. Still, once you have a basic idea of how this cycle functions, you can use it to maximize your work performance and productivity by honing in on in your peak energy hours.
Tapping into your circadian rhythm is the productivity boost you need
That internal alarm of yours does more than tell you when it’s time to stumble out of bed each morning. And then get back on when you’re tired. It’s an entire cycle that repeats day in, day out.
The more attuned you are to your 24-hour cycle, the more equipped you’ll be to harness peak energy and alertness. Finding your energy windows and using them wisely is essential to your work performance. Not only will you accomplish more, but you’ll also work smarter and more efficiently.
And don’t forget, your body’s natural ebb and flow is the best guide. Discover it, fine tune it, and maximize your productivity in yet another unexpected way.