Research from the world of sports psychology demonstrates how circadian rhythms impact the performance of elite athletes. How about the rest of us? These daily rhythms govern your body, brain and ultimately, your performance. We take a look at how to use your circadian rhythm to optimum performance.
Your Circadian Clock
If you’ve ever noticed that you feel energised at certain times of day and as though you’re sleep walking during other times, you might have already witnessed your circadian rhythm in action. We all have daily rhythms based on a 24 hour cycle. Your circadian rhythm rises and falls at different times of the day according to your internal clock. Our work with UK Sport and the Football Association examined how these cycles can impact performance.
Your Brain & Your Circadian Rhythm
The part of the brain responsible for controlling your circadian rhythm is the hypothalamus.Think of it as the centre for temperature regulation, food intake, thirst and water consumption, sleep and wake patterns, emotional behaviour and memory.
Chronobiology, the study of these internal clocks has identified that we all possess a unique rhythm. Think of it as your circadian thumbprint. Learning to identify and understand it allows us to adapt our daily routine in order to work with it, creating sustainable performance.
If your work life balance is good and you’re taking a holistic approach to your health and wellbeing, it’s possible that you haven’t even noticed the natural dips that occur throughout the day. It’s no surprise that when you’re out of balance, you’ll notice those dips more. That’s when things become more exaggerated. Understanding your rhythm could be the key to improving your wellbeing and performance.
Identifying Your Rhythm
A good place to start when identifying your circadian rhythm is to examine your working hours. With 1 in 8 of us working over 50 hours each week there’s cause for concern. Researchers have identified that when we tip over 48 hours we increase the likelihood of a depressive state, anxiety, sleep condition, and coronary heart disease. Renewal then, is just as important as working hard if we’re to create sustainable performance.
Morning and Evening ‘Types’
For the majority of us, our peak cognitive time will be during the morning, the ‘morning types’. Our biggest dip in energy takes place at night, typically somewhere between 2:00am and 4:00am, when we’re asleep. We’ll also experience a post lunch slump, usually around 1:00pm to 3:00pm. If that’s the time, you reach for something sweet as a pick me up, it’s a clue. These times can be different if you’re naturally a ‘night owl’ and your dips will occur later in the day.
Map your day
Think of each stage of your circadian rhythm as peak, trough and renewal.
- Peak – these are the times when you have the most energy and feel the most productive. During these times when your cognitive ability is at it’s peak, choose high focus tasks. Plan your day so that complex tasks requiring high focus are scheduled for these times. Minimise distractions and unit task during this period to minimise distraction and maintain flow. Turn alerts off and immerse yourself in the task.
- Trough – those times when you begin to feel fatigued. During this period it’s crucial to take a break. Have lunch, go for a walk in nearby green space, listen to music or intentionally disengage from your workspace in some way. This is your renewal time and you need to treat it with the same gravity that you approach flow or peak performance with.
- Recovery – the period when you begin to move out of the trough. This is the time of day to schedule low complexity tasks. Do something creative that requires you to activate your default mode network (necessary for creative tasks)
Creating Balance to Optimise Your Circadian Rhythm
- Create a regular time for sleep. Research demonstrates that people who frequently change their sleep timing, and consequently their pattern of light/dark exposure, may disrupt the sleep/wake cycle. The circadian clock takes time to adjust to schedule changes and these disruptions may have an adverse effect on both cognitive function and health.
- Design your schedule to maximise, peak, trough and recovery phases. Resist the temptation to plow through.
- Synchronise the suprachiasmatic nucleus, your body’s mainframe clock, to external environmental cues by limiting light exposure at night (that means limiting tech use) and obtaining bright outdoor light exposure earlier in the day.
- Take regular breaks, it will help you perform more effectively, not less.
- Ensure you have a balance and room for activities other than work in your life such as hobbies, interests or time with friends.
We’re experts in sustainable performance and have worked with hundreds of individuals and Fortune 500 companies. We offer consultancy, deliver bespoke training and provide coaching. If you’d like to know more about optimising performance or wellness at work, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.