This week in Self Improvement, we discuss taking a break. Specifically, it’s the ultradian rhythms that rule our daily lives, and how working within those rhythms can boost productivity, creativity, and your health and well-being.
It was wonderfully explained, in a 90s kind of way, by: The Twenty Minute Break: Reduce Stress, Maximize Performance, Improve Health and Emotional Well-Being Using the New Science of Ultradian Rhythms by Ernest Rossi (with David Nimmons).
I was attracted to Rossi’s book because I spent decades trying to do too much in my day and powered through it with snacking and coffee. Once I checked myself into a hospital, convinced I was having a heart attack — but it turned out to be the coffee interfering with my heart beat. I since noticed peaks in my performance with extraordinary focus followed by distracted lulls. Nothing useful ever happened in those lulls. They frustrated me, and I finally I built my own pattern of walks-as-breaks to try to regain my focus.
This book explained what was happening to me and, more importantly, how to take advantage of the rhythms!
About every 90 minutes, you need to chill for 20. Let your mind wander. Lay down if you can, sit in a quiet place and close your eyes. Let go of your worries. If you fall asleep, fine. You probably needed to sleep. If you can’t do those thing (like when you’re at work) take a meandering walk and put it on autopilot.
Who Says I Can Take a Break
The Twenty Minute Break was published in 1992, so the information is not necessarily new. But it resonated with me, and the book is well-written and a fairly quick read, providing enough scientific background to make the case without belaboring the point.
Ignoring your ultradian rhythms leads to a build-up of stress in your day-to-day activities, which can culminate in an exhausted crash at the end of the day. Treating the symptoms of that stress with unhealthy snack foods, cigarettes, and binge eating or drinking at the end of the day compounds the problems. If your self-care is unhealthy and disrupts your sleep, as late-night eating or heavy drinking may do, you will enter a spiral of stress as you begin the next day tired, rather than rested, and you may cause greater health problems later on.
Rossi goes to great lengths to lay out a framework for the ultradian rhythms of:
- Recognize the signs of a need to take a break
- Use deep breathing to begin the recovery process during your break
- Mind-body healing — allowing your mind to wander signals your body to recover from the stress
- Rejuvenation and Awakening — once the body has recovered, the mind will come into focus
The Hard Part
Rossi explains how each of us has a unique rhythm, with our performance curve lasting from 80 to 120 minutes, and our recovery curve anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes. He proposes that you track your peaks and valleys for a few days to identify your own ultradian rhythm to optimize your day.
I haven’t done this yet. I’m still exploring how to take a break at home versus how to take a break at work, as well as recognizing the signs of impending performance drop (yawning, food craving, bladder issues, irritation, frustration, or anxiety) and how to deal with that at an interrupt-driven place of work.
The Good Part
Knowing that there is a specific physiological phenomenon that everyone experiences but which we all must deal with our own way. It’s kind of like everybody poops, and it doesn’t need to be a source of shame. Just go take your poop and get back to living life.
Now I’m working on taking a break when I need it, and even thinking that I need to forgive myself for it. Instead, I’m praising myself for recharging my batteries so that my next performance cycle can be awesome!
There’s that saying, “Eat, Drink and Be Merry.” I think it should be updated to: “Poop, Work, and Take a Break.” We’ll all have a healthier, happier time in our life.