Want to Work Smarter? Understand Your Circadian Rhythm

January 7, 2016

What do we have in common with plants, fungi and cyanobacteria? The circadian rhythm, a built-in, 24 hour cycle that regulates our physiological functioning. Taken from the Latin circa meaning ‘around’ or ‘approximately’, and dies meaning ‘day’, all living things function under the influence of this internal clock. Though you may believe your circadian rhythm only wakes you up in the morning and puts you to sleep at night, it actually influences the ups and downs of the entire day.

Better understanding your circadian rhythm could help you work smarter. Although everyone’s rhythms are a little different, people who work during the day and sleep at night have a similar pattern. If you pay attention to your own pattern, chances are you can make better choices about when to schedule your most thought-intensive work.

In general, humans have two peaks and three troughs during a 24 hour cycle. In the morning we tend to peak a few hours after starting work. Not long after the noon hour our focus begins to wane, reaching a low point around 3pm. Ever notice how alert you become again just before the end of the work day? It’s not necessarily because you’re excited about leaving the office. We naturally have another energy peak from 5-6 pm.

Here are some suggestions to help arrange your day to take advantage of your natural circadian rhythms.

Ramp up gradually in the morning.  Reply to email, read non-technical material, and schedule general administrative tasks during the first few hours of the morning.

Dive into focused work around 10. Rather than take an early lunch, take advantage of the times between 11 and 1 to tackled your most challenging work.

Consider an afternoon nap. It’s not really food that puts you into a post-prandial stupor. It’s usually just your body’s natural tendency to hit a low point around 3pm. If you can pull off a 15 min cat nap around this time, you will be even better prepared to take advantage of your next peak.

Stay late. If your schedule allows, you can harness another surge of productive energy around the 6pm hour. Or use this time to maintain important human connections. Focus these hours on communication with friends and family, gradually decreasing exposure to electronics and preparing the body for restorative sleep, a vital part of keeping your circadian rhythm functioning well.

For more information on our amazing internal body clocks, see the Circadian Rhythm Fact Sheet and how sleep is so important to your ability to work smarter. Also, the BBC recently aired an in-depth discussion of the circadian cycle that is well worth a listen.

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