As a young solopreneur, work overload can be a major distraction. Many people, like myself, struggle to find the will power and energy to focus on the most important tasks that need to be completed on a daily basis.
Starting today, you can reclaim your ability to focus, be mindful of what you’re doing, and get more done. The more focused you are, the higher the quality of work you’ll perform, and the more you’ll accomplish.
A big problem I see is that people forget the human element of work. We are not meant to run continuously at high speeds, for long periods of time. As time goes on, our energy dissipates. We are not meant to be go, go, go without some type of break. Instead, we perform our best when we move between expending energy and intermittently renewing energy.
We live in an oscillatory world that is characterized by rhythmic, wavelike movement between activity and rest. This is apparent in the daily rising and setting of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tides, and the movement between seasons. Similarly, all organisms on Earth, including us humans, follow these same rhythms.
Most of us are familiar with the circadian rhythm. We live our lives in 24-hour periods. Depending on when you go to sleep, you’re up for roughly 16-18 hours (spending energy) and then you’re asleep for 6-8 hours (renewing energy).
Our energy reserves are not infinite. We can’t go outside and sprint at 100% for more than 10-20 seconds. We can’t concentrate for hours on end. We can’t stay awake for more than 18-20 hours without fatigue setting in.
Eventually 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.
However, this is not how most of us live. Instead, we are in a state of constant energy preservation. We’re rarely ever fully engaged or fully disengaged. We’re never fully on or fully off.
Think of a typical workday: How often do you FULLY engage with the task at hand? Do you every fully relax? Do you take frequent breaks? Do you ever fully concentrate and give 100% to a given task? Chances are that you do none of these things.
Many of us view breaks as a sign of weakness. As a result, we work in a state of constant energy preservation for hours and hours on end.
Even if we’re tired and can barely concentrate, we just keep going and going… until 5PM hits and we go home and watch TV mindlessly for hours (watching TV doesn’t count as either full engagement or full disengagement. It is just a low state of “blah”).
This is neither our natural nor optimal way of living. Remember, you’re better off oscillating between activity and recovery than living in a linear fashion with your brakes on all the time. You either want to be fully engaged or fully disengaged.
Enter Ultradian Rhythms
Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr are the authors of The Power of Full Engagement. 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 many times throughout the day. For about 90 minutes you are in a high performance mode. Your creativity, alertness, emotional resilience, stamina, and concentration are all at their best. Then, for about 20 minutes, your body needs time to rest and renew its energy stores.
This gives us a simple strategy for optimizing our energy and productivity throughout the day. To get the most out of your day go all out for a maximum of 90 minutes, followed by a 15-20 minute renewal. Then repeat.
Keep in mind, we can override these natural cycles by tapping into our fight or flight response and flood our body with stress hormones that are designed to help us handle emergencies. However, this is a horrible strategy in the long run. It is not sustainable to our bodies and leads to burnout. Over-relying on caffeine, amphetamines, smart drugs, or cocaine is not the answer.
How To Utilize Your Own Ultradian Rhythm
As we know, our biology is unique to the individual person so developing a strategy for optimizing your ultradian rhythm is key. Here are 4 steps to help you utilize this performance hack:
- Prioritize which tasks are most important: Understanding what HAS to be done and compiling a list adds efficiency to getting things done.
- No multitasking: Start with the most important task on the list and finish it before you move on to the next task. Multitasking hinders performance. You have a maximum of 90 minutes to work on this. If the task at hand is going to take more than 90 minutes, split it up into parts and attack it within your sprints. Take your 15-20 minutes renewal and get back to it.
- Your renewal CANNOT be work related: Make sure your renewal has nothing to do with the task at hand or your job in general. Jumping to another project, checking emails, or making work calls ARE NOT OPTIONS. To optimize your renewal, do something that completely takes your mind off of work. Go for a walk, meditate, read your favorite blog (youcan2fit.com/blog 😉 ), or anything else that allows you to relax.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Make sure you are either fully engaged or strategically disengaged. There is no more “working just to work.” No more half-assed, distracted work. Put all of your distractions away so that you can fully focus and be as productive as possible. Put your phone away, get off of all your social medias, put blocks on websites that distract you, and put yourself in a position to succeed. You have complete control over this.
Trust me… you will get more done in one or two 90-minute sprints than most people get done in an entire work day.
Note: Everyone’s optimal sprint time may differ. Some people can go 90 minutes straight, while others feel a dip in performance in 75, 60, or as low as 45 minutes. You will know when your performance is dropping. It may come in the form of drowsiness, yawning, hunger, or procrastination, among others.
When you push the limits of your abilities and give yourself a goal, you are likely to enter what positive psychologists call Flow or being in the zone.
Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has done great research between attention and work, has written extensively about Flow. He encourages us to create enough energy to do what we know we should do. He says, “We create ourselves by how we use this energy.”
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he writes:
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.
For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
Establish A Routine Based On Your Peak Times
Starting and maintaining a routine is a great way to do your best work everyday and is an investment in yourself. It gives you structure, builds forward moving habits, and creates momentum for the rest of your day. It enables you to limit procrastination, keep track of your goals, and do your best work when you are most active.
Once you establish a routine, it is no longer a struggle to be productive because that habit becomes part of your being.
Few people listen to the natural rhythms of their body. But once you know what times you do your best work you can complete your most pertinent tasks at the same time. Use this to your advantage and watch your productivity skyrocket. Working in 90-minute sprints allows you to correlate your maximum energy levels with your most important tasks, which gives your productivity a boost, and ultimately increases your sense of achievement.