The idea of "time management" gets a lot of attention these days, whether that's for productivity or under the guise of work-life-balance. But a slew of research has shown that it’s not so much time that we’d do well to manage, but energy. According to the consultants behind the Energy Project, “energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind, and spirit. In each, energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals.”
You don’t need a week at the beach or a long weekend in the mountains to feel refreshed and ready to give your best. Try these tips to make each day feel like a brand new start.
01. Get to know your rhythms.
Circadian rhythms, the biological processes that detect day and night, function on a 24-hour clock. Everyone has a variation, and research shows there may be a genetic component to being an “early riser,” “night owl,” or something in between. Identifying which type you are can be helpful, but it’s not always possible to schedule productivity based on these categories.
The good news is there’s another rhythm in town: ultradian rhythms. These cycles are typically 90-120 minutes, “during which our bodies slowly move from a high-energy state" into one when “the body begins to crave a period of recovery.” In plain english, you can focus on a task well for 90-120 minutes and then your brain needs a break. Most of us are used to pushing through these low energy moments, but science has proven this forced gusto to be detrimental to the remainder of the day.
A wiser approach is to let those 90 minutes be truly focused, and then step away from the task at hand in favor of a ritual that helps you free yourself from work before switching gears. It could be five, ten, or twenty minutes. The important thing is that the activity gives you multifaceted change of pace—physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual.
And there’s a bonus: when you’re not actively thinking about your work, “the dominant left hemisphere of [the] brain [gives] way to the right hemisphere with its greater capacity to see the big picture and make imaginative leaps.” So you come back to a task with better ideas, too.
02. Experiment with intentional breaks.
Your work environment may not allow for a ninety-minute stretch of total concentration. If shutting off notifications or relocating to an unused conference room isn’t possible, shorter bursts of effort may work for you. The Pomodoro technique uses 25-minute stints with short breaks in between. If a distraction comes to mind while you’re supposed to be working, write it down for later. After four 25-minute cycles, take a longer break. Logging your experience with this technique can also help you better gauge the time and effort a future task will require.
If you have the ability to take a lengthy physical break, try to structure it in the later afternoon. “Physical performance is usually best, and the risk of injury least, from about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.,” says Michael Smolensky, adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, and co-author of The Body Clock Guide to Better Health. It's unclear why, but muscle strength, eye-hand coordination, and joint and muscle flexibility all improve later in the day. A study at Albany Medical College found that even the lungs “function 17.6 percent more efficiently at 5 p.m. than at midday.” Researchers found these body rhythms hold true regardless of how much sleep you've had or when you ate.
03. Take hints from your mood.
There’s more than physiology to determining prime productivity. Our emotions and mental states play a role. Recognizing patterns can help us make the most of them. For instance, Facebook posts around 8 p.m. tend to get more likes, while emotions are more likely to erupt on Twitter between 10 and 11 p.m., according to a study at Cornell University.
Try starting your day with a task that’s going to encourage you to continue giving your best. That big project you’re excited about but can’t find the time for may ultimately be more efficient than purging your inbox first thing. Instead of depleting your reserves, the sense of completion and success signals reward areas of the brain that fuel even more productive work.
Life happens, and trying to create too strict a schedule is bound to be both frustrating and counterproductive. Appreciating our natural rhythms and working with, rather than against them is an intentional recipe for making the best use of the limited time—and energy—we have.
Photo Credit: Luisa Brimble