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Ultradian rhythms.

Ultradian rhythms.

You can find volumes of work on time management, scheduling, efficiency, better prioritization and time budgeting. We’re obsessed with productivity - getting the most done with the time we have. The problem is that the more responsibility we have, the more expectations people have of us, the less likely that only time management will work.

As I began to hire more people onto my team, I also had two kids under four at home, and a long daily commute. I needed more time. I tried to squeeze more work in wherever I could . I started skipping workouts - even on the weekend because I was so wiped out. I started skipping meals or grabbing food on the go. The day would go by and I’d feel completely wiped out. I was more dependent on coffee for instant energy. I needed a glass of wine or cocktail at the end of the day to slow down. All of this started to disrupt my sleep - which exacerbated the whole situation.

I became more anxious because I could see this method wasn’t going to work much longer. Yet, the expectations (and requirements) of those in my life continued to grow. I was quickly reaching a breaking point. How could I manage to get more done in the time I had? How did other people do it?

I started to look into time management books, productivity books. But in my research, I found a book by Tony Schwartz about managing your energy, not your time. This was a completely new idea for me.

(Here’s a link to a HBR article that is a great snapshot of the book)

Instead of seeing how much more stuff I could squeeze into my calendar, I needed to learn to manage my energy.

What’s managing your energy mean?

You might know if you’re more productive during the early hours or evening hours. We talk about ourselves as being a morning person or a night owl. We’ve experienced the time of day (or night) that we’re most engaged, energized or inspired. These are our circadian cycles, helping us stay awake during the day and go to sleep at night.

Throughout the day our bodies are also navigating smaller cycles of energy and rest called ultradian rhythms?

Ultradian cycles are about 90 - 120 minutes. This is about the amount of time we can sustain focus on the task at hand, before we need to reset. When we go beyond the two hour mark, our focus diminishes and we get less (and less) completed in time invested.

I definitely experienced this in my work. Of course, I would still be getting things done but without the focus. I could feel the stress of work starting to impact my thinking and attention span. My body would start to hurt.

Managing your energy means respecting ultradian cycles and setting up small recharging breaks every couple hours. These recharging breaks help reset our attention and move stress through (and out of) the body.

I was concerned about what a “recharging break”. I needed more time, not less! I barely had time to get from meeting to meeting. I didn’t have time to take big breaks. These breaks are quick - think of how a professional athlete may renew focus between plays. Over time, they can be small rituals that help your body reset quickly because your brain become conditioned to recognized the signal to destress and reset.

For me, the “recharging breaks” were probably imperceptible to other people but left me mentally refreshed and ready for a new challenge.

Secondly, I was concerned about segmenting my day. After all, I didn’t control many of the meetings I was invited to. Would I be able to make a difference?

Actually, I had more control over my schedule than I realized. It took a few weeks of shifting and planning, but I eventually designed a great schedule that worked with both my natural rhythm of work and gave me those recharge moments. Even if my ideal schedule didn’t work out ideally 100% of the time, it was a great improvement from not intentionally managing my energy. At first my schedule design was my target, but it soon became my consistent baseline.

Here’s what my schedule design looked like:

  • 7:30 - 9:00 Commute to work (pre-COVID)
  • 9:00 - 10:30 Meeting Block: Early in the week, this block tended to be taken with team meetings, but later in the week I used this for focused work time. I had more focus and energy earlier in the day compared to afternoon.
  • 10:30 - Recharge: water, quick stretch and breathing. Five minutes.
  • 10:30 - 12:00 Meeting Block: This was normally prime meeting time.
  • 12:00 Lunch: I blocked off time for lunch daily. I preferred eating on the early side - 11:30 or 11:45. Ideally this would have been a longer break but it was a big shift to make regular time for lunch.
  • 12:15 - 2:30 Meeting Block: Sometimes 12:00 - 1:00 was slow or had fewer meetings.
  • 2:30 - Recharge: Quick connection chat with a friend or text. Drink water, stretch. Maybe a small snack. If possible, I took a longer break in the afternoon because afternoons aren’t my most productive time.
  • 2:30 4:30 Meeting Block: It helped to do 1:1 meetings during this time that could be walking meetings (or phone meetings without video when I could walk and talk on the phone.).
  • 4:30 - 5:00 Wrap up for the day. It was surprised at what a huge benefit it was to stop at a scheduled time, review what happened during the day and wrap up. I also liked to review my calendar for the next few days and make tweaks.
  • 5:00 - 6:15 Commute home: As much as I didn’t like commuting, it actually served as a nice transition to listen to podcasts or music before getting home to my family.
  • Transition time: Ideally, I would have had 20 - 30 minutes to change, exercise, or shake off working and commuting before dinner and time with my family. My kids were young, so we were usually right into a dinner and bedtime routine as soon as I got out of the car.
  • I also folded in personal training sessions 2x a week. This was expensive, but was the only way I found to keep regular exercise in my weekly routine. Again, 2x a week is probably not ideal but because of the attention young children require, I felt lucky to have it.
  • Although it’s common for people to work at night, I tried to stay off my computer in the evenings and over the weekends. When I was able to bring high-quality focus and energy to my job, I felt less stressed and more clarity about what needed to be done and when. Prioritization become much easier.
  • Sleep is a huge component of managing your energy - and is a conversation in itself.

Here are some examples of what Recharge Rituals can look like:

  • Tense muscles in my entire body for 10 seconds, then release
  • 5 deep, full breaths, stretch arms overhead in mini-backbend
  • If I was in a more private space like home or hotel, I could do a few yoga sun salutations
  • Shake hands, shake shoulders out. Roll neck. Sometimes I would do a fast, sharp inhale through my nose, like a “sniff” as a signal to readjust my posture and realign my body.
  • Water! Drinking water, having a small snack that included some protein
  • Walk - even a short walk through the office space or around the building
  • Find a patch of sunlight
  • Text a friend
  • Look at my favorite photos on my phone - this was an unexpected stress reliever especially when I travelled.

Try it for yourself by implementing a few small experiments, updating your schedule where you can, or setting an alarm for a break every few hours. Manage your energy - and respect your ultradian rhythms.

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