You are not a machine. Yet we’re swimming in a world that sets the expectation that our focus and productivity are maximized at all times. — Dr. Bena Long
When my friend Bena Long said this a few days ago it immediately resonated. I have written almost identical language in describing the challenges of our times.
One the biggest barriers to our productivity is that we expect ourselves to be machines instead of human beings.
A few years ago I worked with a client who told me that she started out her days well, then hit a wall around 4 pm every day. She wanted strategies to maintain her focus through that slump time.
Many of us set an expectation that we can just flip a switch and run on full-focus mode for an entire day. But that’s not the reality of how the brain works.
I invited my client to consider that 4 pm was her natural low-focus time. Instead of trying to push through, what if she surrendered to her natural rhythm?
She didn’t know what I meant at first, until I brought her awareness to the cycles of rhythms that govern our lives.
Although we often compare ourselves to machines, human beings are not linear. Like all other organisms in nature, we operate on cyclical patterns.
The Ultradian Rhythm
In addition to the circadian rhythm, the biological system that controls our sleep/wake cycle over 24 hours, many functions in our bodies — including our brain functions — operate on an ultradian rhythm, a biological cycle that is shorter than 24 hours.
Pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that people go through ultradian cycles whenever they are asleep. He also noticed that this Basic Rest Activity Cycle (BRAC) is present when people are awake.
Our brains operate at their highest attention for about 90 minutes, then require about 20 minutes to reset.
What Happens When We Push Through
During that time you may feel foggy and find it difficult to focus. This is by design. After 90 minutes of high focus, the brain needs time to recharge and refuel.
Many of us, like my client, are tempted to push through that recharge time so we can “get more things done” and “increase our productivity.”
“Pushing through” the low part of the cycle is the dominant cultural narrative. We get rewarded for putting in long hours and churning out more work.
But this is actually detrimental to our work.
Ignoring this crucial reset time triggers the sympathetic nervous system — the fight-flight-freeze response. In this mode, the brain shuts down logistical thinking, executive function, and focus.
I’ve noticed in myself that when I try to push through it only takes me longer to recover later, and I’m not any more productive.
Working With Our Rhythms
If we want to do our best work and sustain our productivity over the long term, we must honor our rhythms, moving between periods of high focus and intermittent rest
Rather than pushing through the low point and working against her natural rhythms, my client and I discussed strategies for working with these rhythms, by switching to a low energy task, making calls, or doing some movement or meditation.
Most important in all of this is to give yourself permission to honor your rhythms.
After all, even our devices sometimes need a reboot.