Productivity for Creatives

Ultradian Rhythm: Work With Your Grain

I have a trick to getting more quality work done. A hack that taps into human biology and helps me be more efficient with my energy and focus so I can get better writing done, before my brain runs out of juice to function. 

I’ve made my ultradian rhythm my slave.

Okay, whatever, Ais, but what the heck is an ultradian rhythm?

Your ultradian rhythm is like your circadian rhythm, or your sleep cycle, but it is the cycle of your energy while you’re awake. You feel it all day every day when you have moments of high energy, but then finding yourself slipping into a sleepy state. Just like the sleep cycle, everyone’s ultradian rhythm runs differently, and if you can do your best thinking, high-creativity work, and all your hard tasks during those hours, you can get more quality work done.

I discovered this concept through Rowena Tsai’s YouTube video, “How to Be A Productive Potato (for when you’re feeling lazy and just can’t adult)”, and it was eye opening.  At the time, I was in a cycle of trying to fit my writing time in after work or taking my lunch breaks where I would write in late afternoon, and I wasn’t getting a whole lot done aside from sleeping on the keyboard during those sessions. I felt my creative genius was stymied and I hated everything I managed to produce.

Just like in our sleep cycles, our energy peaks for a certain amount of time before it dips and you hit a low energy point, like a recovery period, until your energy starts to climb once again. In her video, Rowena suggests using those peaks to get your “productivity things” done, rather than push through both the highs and the lows to get as much done as you can. 

Ultradian Rhythm Cycle: Image Source, http://www.asianefficiency.com/productivity/ultradian-rhythms/

I took this one step further.

I realized that it is in those times of high energy that I do my best thinking, and if I (or really anyone else, for that matter) wanted to do better quality work on high priority or creative projects, I needed to find those times I peak and plan that work during that time.

Ride the Waves

The first step to harnessing the peaks of your ultradian rhythm is to find out when they are happening. 

To do this, you’ll need to create a scale to measure against, an energy checking cadence, and a way to record your data.

I tracked my energy levels on a scale from 1-3, with 1 being “I’m falling asleep at my desk” and 3 being “I feel awake and energized,” every half hour for about a week. Note: if you are going to try this experiment for yourself, and checking in every half hour is too much work or cumbersome, you can choose to track only every hour, or even every 90 minutes might work. 

Then I inputted my data into a spreadsheet, or if I was at home, I filled out an energy tracker in my bullet journal. 

Energy Tracking Spreadsheet
Bullet Journal Energy Tracker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep in mind, you can record your data any way you want to. I’m super visual and perform the best when I have solid data I can look at. I chose a spreadsheet and a visual tracker for my BuJo so that I could see with graphs what my energy fluctuation looked like. Get creative and build a tracking system that works best with your brain.

What I learned

Throughout this process, there was definitely a learning curve (I struggled to remember to check in every 30 minutes the first day or so), but once I got the hang of it, the data I received was enlightening and empowering.

Since I spend the most time at work, I crunched my table into a line graph that showed me the peaks and valleys of each day, and then one line that showed the average of the whole week. 

Disclaimer: I’m not a data vis professional. I realize my line graph could go through some refining to communicate better, but because its only purpose is communicating with me, I’m not worried about it.

What this taught me is that I was using my energy and time completely unwisely. I was leaving to take my lunch breaks anywhere between 1 pm and 2 pm, at the point in the day when my overall energy levels take an enormous dip. And according to my BuJo energy tracker, I stayed in the low 2’s and 1’s the rest of the evening after work, also when I was trying to write. 

So, I had a few options. I was already getting up at 4:30 am to get some writing in, even though my energy levels are trying to climb at that hour. I needed that time, so I decided I had to continue gutting that writing appointment out. My day job tied my hands as far as writing more mid morning between 8 am and 10 am where my energy is highest, but I was able to move my lunch breaks to 11 am while my energy is still higher, but not dipping drastically yet. And finally, as far as trying to write in the evening goes, I figured if I can get those writing sessions in in the morning, I don’t have to obligate myself to write at night, when I’m going to fall asleep on my keyboard, unless I’m making a concerted effort to finish something, like for National Novel Writing Month. 

As I began to apply this, I saw for myself how much better work got for me, both in writing and my day job. I realized that if my writing was important to me, truly important, then I needed to reserve it space in the peaks of my ultradian rhythm. I wasn’t doing myself any favors by putting it off for the late hours in the day when I’m so tired it’s hard to keep my eyes uncrossed.

Here is my challenge for you. Take the time to try this for yourself. Map out your ultradian rhythm and assign your passion project a seat on your peaks. I know if you decide to do this, you are going to see a difference in your ability to achieve your goals. I realize that it isn’t easy, especially when there are rigid, external demands on your time. But give it a shot and you’ll see a difference.

Do you already know your body pretty well and have an idea of what time of day you work best? Have you already tried this experiment? If so, what differences did it make in getting your project done? Let me know in the comments below!

References

Tsai, Rowena. How to Be A Productive Potato (for When You’re Feeling Lazy and Just Can’t Adult). YouTube.com, 27 Dec. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1z2Jy1qvl08.

Pham, Thanh. “Tapping Into Your Ultradian Rhythms For Max Productivity.” Asian Efficiency, 14 May 2018, http://www.asianefficiency.com/productivity/ultradian-rhythms/.

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