Have you ever wondered why some of your co-workers manage to be more productive than the rest of the bunch? You know, those “annoying” elite workers that meet all their deadlines without ever working late? I must admit that it puzzled me for quite some time until recently when I discovered the hidden secret of highly productive people. All it takes is to be fully in tune with your internal biological clock. And here’s the good news: we can all learn how.
The secret to being super-productive lies in the natural circular rhythms between the two hemispheres of our brain. When you are primarily dominated by the left brain side, you are most productive at work. You feel alert and see things straight. When you are primarily dominated by the right brain side, you recover, boost the immune system, and clear your thoughts.
The two are never dominant at the same time. Instead, our brain is hardwired to be dominated by either the right side or the left side in a circular rhythm, normally lasting between 90-120 minutes. This circular movement is called the ultradian rhythm, and it works 24 hours a day, regulating our stages of sleep at night.
The natural rhythm dictates that you can only use your logical, linear left brain for around an hour and a half. After that, you must switch to the right brain hemisphere for roughly 20 minutes. Normally, you start getting drowsy, yawn, and feel a sudden urge to eat and stretch your body.
Unfortunately, most of us do not work according to our natural, ultradian rhythms. Instead of utilizing the productive potential we have in 90-minute bursts, we allow our surroundings to disturb us, thereby depriving us of our super-concentrated state of mind. And when the brain orders us to rest, we force ourselves to carry on, pumping natural stress hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol into our bodies.
Shortcutting the rest period is a deadly sin. It leaves the brain stressed out and the body fully alert at all times. Over time, the brain will reach a permanent stress mode, and eventually you will get very sick.
How you become super-productive
However, knowing your ultradian rhythms can help you to become immensely effective and productive. All you need is to plan your activities so that you work in exactly the right 90-minute periods during the day, focus on one task at a time, and ensure you are undisturbed while in the ultra-productive mode.
At the same time, you must cherish the 20-minute breaks when your body is predominantly controlled by the right brain hemisphere. Go for a walk. Have some small talk with your colleagues (if done right, that creates a lot of value in itself, but that’s another matter), or do something completely different that doesn’t require too much mental capacity.
If you note how productive and energized you are at different times during the day on a piece of paper, your unique work pattern will soon emerge. After that, it’s up to you to utilize this powerful new information.
The potential of working this way is very well documented. In a famous study, Anders Ericsson showed that all top musicians, athletes, chess players, and writers practice their skills and crafts in the same way: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one.
The do’s and don’ts of the productive brain cycle
If managed in the right way, most knowledge workers are capable of producing what normally takes ten to 12 hours of traditional work in just three bursts of 90 minutes of work, followed by three 20-minute breaks. No more long hours burning the midnight oil.
This discovery is great news for companies and managers striving to increase work productivity to keep pace with the demands of an ever more competitive market. But it also requires most workplaces to organize work and office spaces in completely new ways. We must supply quiet rooms for people working in open office spaces. We must respect the employees who need some time to themselves and stop mistrusting people who take a short nap or leave the office for a while. But most importantly, we must deal with the “always on” attitude of the modern workplace. In the future, the “off” time is most important.
So there you have it. You can get a whole day’s work done in five and a half hours. All it takes is for you to tune into the vibe of your ultradian rhythm – and stop any disturbances in your super-productive periods. In the coming blog posts, I will give you some ideas how you can arrange your work life to do exactly that.