The world of endurance sports and adventure is an interesting one. You are at times trying to push your mind beyond what your body is capable of, while at the same time attempting to work as physiologically efficient as possible. The paradox in this is that you need to listen to your body while also overruling it times when it is crying out for rest.
A similar principle is both extremely important and relevant in our working environment. We are all trying to do the best we can and so with that in mind, it makes sense to work with our bodies and our minds as efficiently as possible. However many of us are not doing this and as a result a whole range of cognitive activities such as clarity of thought, decision making, memory and communication are negatively impacted. In such circumstances it is impossible for us to be performing anywhere near what we are capable of.
Consider the following scenario. You meet with a client for 90 minutes. After the meeting you return to your office and notice that you have 4 new voice messages and 10 new e-mails. You first listen to the voice messages, take note of who you need to call back first and then you look through the new e-mails. Twenty minutes later, you return to the notes from your client meeting to action items you need to do. At this point, your next client has arrived; your meeting with them also lasts for 90 minutes. Your brain has now been engaged without a break for nearly 3.5 hours. This scenario may seem very normal for many people reading this article but here’s an insight into what’s happening in your brain.
More than 50 years ago, the pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered something he named the “basic rest – activity cycle”, which are 90 minute periods at night during which we move progressively through multiple stages of sleep from light to deep and then out again.
While not as well known, Kleitman also discovered that our bodies operate by the same 90 minute rhythm during the day. It varies slightly for each individual but we effectively move from higher to lower levels of alertness every 90 minutes. These are known as Ultradian Rhythms. Our bodies send us very clear signals when we need a break such as hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. However we often override these signals and find artificial ways to boost our energy. These ways include the use of caffeine, sugary foods and even our own body’s stress hormones – adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol. In the process, we move from a parasympathetic to a sympathetic arousal – a physiological state more commonly known as “fight or flight”.
After working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, we begin to draw on these emergency reserves to keep us going. One of the consequences of relying on stress hormones for energy is that our prefrontal cortex begins to shut down and we become less capable of thinking clearly and reflectively or seeing the big picture.
Taking a simple “reset” break for a few minutes every 90 minutes enables our brains to power back up and work at a higher capacity. Research carried out in the US by an organisation called The Energy Project in conjunction with The Harvard Business Review suggested that this simple reset break every 90 minutes increases mental focus by 30% and our capacity to think creatively by 50%. These are significant improvements that we can achieve by simply altering our behaviour.
Energy renewal, at the physiological, cognitive and emotional level, is one of the most overlooked yet effective ways to enhance performance both on a professional and indeed a person level. Here are a few simple things you could consider to intentionally improve your daily recovery practices. None of these are probably new to you. This isn’t rocket science and it doesn’t need to be. Simple things done well over time bring results.
- Make sure you are getting proper quality sleep.
- Stretch for 10 minutes in the morning to wake your body up
- Get up and move around during the day every 90 minutes
- Keep a bottle of water near you during the day to hydrate better
- Buddy up with a work colleague to help improve your daily recovery practices
- Unplug from technology at least 1 hour before going to bed
- Meditate for 5 to 10 minutes each day
- Build exercise into your week