Ultradian Rhythms: How to Achieve Peak Productivity
Ultradian rhythms are recurring bodily cycles that take place during the course of a 24-hour day.
The term “ultradian rhythm” might sound abstruse, but the concept is simple. Working with your ultradian rhythm is all about following your body’s natural work/rest cycles to reduce fatigue and increase productivity.
Here’s everything you need to know about ultradian rhythms and how you can use them to become a productivity zen master.
What Exactly Are Ultradian Rhythms?
Ultradian rhythms are your body’s biological cycles that take place within 24 hours, which can include everything from a human heartbeat, to blinking, to digestion.
While the more commonly known term “circadian rhythm” occurs over a 24-hour period, ultradian rhythms are shorter and are repeated during that time.
The context we’re interested in is ultradian performance rhythms, which look like this.
Performance psychologists Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz explain this phenomenon saying, “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.”
In other words, we tend to perform best when we work for around 90 minutes, then take a break for around 20 minutes. =
Rather than constantly “grinding” through the day and forcing things, you align your work habits with your natural patterns.
Following ultradian rhythms ensures that you operate harmoniously with the natural ebb and flow of energy cycles throughout the day.
Check out this video from Joseph Sparks for for more details.
An Example of Following Ultradian Rhythms
One of the most frequently cited studies is one from psychologist Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, which analyzed top violinists and the specific factors that contributed to their success.
Ericsson discovered some overlapping characteristics of top violinists, with one of the most notable being that they divided their practice into three sessions per day.
During those sessions, they practiced for approximately 90 minutes, and they took a break after each session.
So there’s a definite pattern that shows top violinists follow the same practice formula where they focus for 90 minutes, then rest, focus for 90 minutes, then rest, and so on.
But following ultradian rhythms is something that goes far beyond playing a violin and can be applied to virtually every aspect of productivity.
Everything from writing an article like I’m doing right now, to responding to emails, to developing an app.
These tasks can all be done more efficiently by following ultradian rhythms.
Why Is Following Ultradian Rhythms Beneficial?
As I mentioned earlier, this practice is integral for lowering fatigue and maximizing productivity.
Using it allows you to get more done with less friction.
Rather than trying to force productivity and get work done, you follow your body’s natural energy levels, making the process more fluid.
You can think of it as going with the current of the river rather than trying to swim upstream.
In turn, this makes it much easier to get “in the zone” where you operate in a flow state.
Once you’ve hit your productive limit, you rest, which helps prevent fatigue from setting in.
That way you’re always working at a high level and aren’t hindered by exhaustion.
As a result, you’re able to fully apply yourself and accomplish more with less wasted motion.
How to Construct Your Day Around Ultradian Rhythms
Now that we know what ultradian rhythms are and the advantages of following them, let’s dive into the most important part of this article — how to build your day around them.
This is something that’s simple and straightforward.
Just follow the 90/20 rule, where you work for 90 minutes, then take a 20 minute break to relax and recharge your batteries.
After you’ve taken your break, repeat the process where you work for another 90 minutes, then take another 20 minute break.
This is the essence of following ultradian rhythms and basing your day upon your body’s natural energy cycles.
It’s all about putting your energy into “productivity blocks” for maximum concentration during flows and giving yourself interval periods of “chill out time” during ebbs.
That right there can make a significant impact and have a noticeable impact on your productivity.
Just keep in mind that we’re not robots, so you should monitor your energy levels when deciding when to take a break.
If, for example, you’re 82 minutes in and you start noticing that your concentration is dwindling and you’re feeling lethargic, that’s a good sign that you’re hitting a low point of an ultradian rhythm cycle and it’s time to step away.
The key is to stay aware of your energy levels and performance until this practice becomes second nature.
That’s the first step in following ultradian rhythms.
Finding Your Optimal Productivity Periods
The second step is to optimize your schedule to account for your own personal periods of peak productivity, which can be done through self-assessments at different times throughout the day.
Let’s say, for example, that you begin your workday at 9 am.
You might assess your energy level and performance at the following times:
- 11 am
- 1 pm
- 3 pm
- 5 pm
You probably already have a pretty good idea of which times of the day you’re most productive, but taking note of how you’re feeling at each of these times will provide even deeper insights so you can fully optimize your schedule.
If you notice that your energy level and performance naturally peaks around 11 am and 3 pm, you would want to set up your day so that these times align with your ultradian rhythms.
In this case, you would want to start one work session around 10:15 am, where you focus on your most important tasks so that you peak at 11 am.
Then, take a break at around 11:45 am.
For your second major work session where you take care of critical tasks, you would want to start at around 2:15 pm so that you peak at 3 pm.
Then, take a break at around 3:45 pm.
This will take some trial and error, but with enough experimentation, you’ll be able to fully optimize your day for massive productivity gains.
Quantify Your Data
If you’re like me, you prefer to base your game plan off of concrete numbers rather than merely a hunch.
That’s why I suggest keeping close tabs on your productivity and using charts and graphs to see when you work the best.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to use a spreadsheet like this one from author and productivity consultant Chris Bailey.
Simply plug in your energy, focus, and motivation score (based on 1 to 10) during different time periods of the day, each day of the week.
After inputting that data, you can generate a graph like this for a visual snapshot of your productivity.
After getting the results, use it to refine your schedule even more.
You can download Chris’ spreadsheet for free here.
There’s one last piece of the puzzle here, and that’s limiting distractions during periods of intense concentration.
Whenever you’re engaging in a focus session where you’re putting effort into accomplishing a critical task, the last thing you want is to be derailed by distractions because these are major productivity killers.
You also want to avoid context switching, where you jump from one task to another unrelated one, because this can lower your productivity by as much as 80%.
So, how do you keep distractions at bay?
Use a Distraction Blocking Tool
First, I suggest using a distraction blocking tool like KosmoTime.
Here’s how it works.
Say that you have a mountain of emails you need to respond to and want to focus 100% on this task while riding the ultradian rhythm wave.
You can use KosmoTime to stay focused while using Gmail.
Simply click on “Start.”
Then, click on “Timer + Block Distractions,” and KosmoTime will shut down all of your other tabs so that you can give your undivided attention to dealing with email.
Once you’re done and ready to move on to another task, click on “Complete” and “Reopen my tabs.”
All of the tabs you had opened before starting your work session repopulate, and you’re good to go.
And that’s just one example.
You can use KosmoTime for a wide array of different tasks.
Simply go to the page you need to work on, launch KosmoTime, click “Start.”
If you happen to drift and try to visit another site, you’ll get this screen, asking if it’s related to your task or if it’s distracting you.
This helps you stay on track, and over time you can develop better habits where you avoid context switching and fully capitalize on ultradian rhythms.
Cool Off Your Notifications
Being able to communicate instantly with colleagues and clients from all over the world is nice and can certainly help improve collaboration.
But it can be a double-edged sword when notifications get out of control, where you’re constantly being alerted whenever the smallest activity takes place.
That’s why I recommend limiting notifications from apps like Slack and Asana, or even completely turning them off during your ultradian rhythm peaks.
I find that most things can wait, and you’ll have plenty of time to check out notifications once you’re in “chill out mode.”
Put Away Your Phone
To say that people are addicted to their smartphones is an understatement.
According to the research, people check their phone a staggering 150 times per day.
Needless to say, this can get in the way of productivity.
Just imagine you’re in a flow state, at the crest of an ultradian rhythm cycle, totally focused on a task, and bam — you get a text.
This instantly takes you out of the zone, and you have to refocus on what you’re doing.
When this happens time and time again throughout the day, your productivity can straight plummet.
So if possible, I recommend putting your phone away entirely during an intense session that requires your full concentration.
Again, once you’re done, you can check it and respond to whatever needs your attention.
Ultradian Rhythm FAQs
What are ultradian rhythms?
Ultradian Rhythms are short biological cycles of the human body that occur within a 24-hour period.
How do ultradian rhythms tie into productivity?
Science-backed research suggests that following ultradian rhythms helps people work more effectively and efficiently, which can increase productivity and minimize fatigue.
How long should you spend in action and at rest?
Spend 90 minutes in action, focusing deeply on a task, then spend 20 minutes at rest.
Repeat these work/rest intervals throughout the day.
How can I figure out what my peak times of energy are?
Do a self-assessment, using a free tool like this one from author and productivity consultant Chris Bailey.
How can I get the most from my peak times of energy?
Limit distractions by using a distraction blocking tool like KosmoTime, turning off notifications, and putting your phone away.
Many of us naturally assume that the best way to be productive is to plow through tasks like a steamroller, seldom taking breaks and going to the brink of exhaustion.
But there’s a large body of scientific evidence that suggests that this approach is not only unhealthy, it’s actually quite unproductive.
At the end of the day, we’re humans and not machines, and not accounting for natural energy cycles can be a major detriment to your productivity (and sanity).
Following ultradian rhythms allows you to move throughout your day more harmoniously, moving with the ebb and flow of action and rest.
Mastering it can lead to a massive spike in overall productivity and help you consistently operate at a higher level.
It just boils down to fully understanding ultradian rhythms and building your day around them.
Want to block distractions and stop accumulating tasks on your to-do list? Check out KosmoTime right now.