Productivity Cycles

Have you ever noticed how at some points of the day you get more stuff done than others? What about the mad rush of productivity on a ‘Manic Monday’ or the exact opposite that sets in with ‘that Friday Feeling’? Or maybe you’ve battled the winter blues or literally felt a ‘spring’ in your step. These are examples of natural cycles that affect all of us, so how can we leverage them to our benefit instead of floundering at their mercy?

The idea of cycles and repetitive patterns has fascinated humans since the dawn of mankind: the Greeks studied and predicted the movements of the planets and stars, Native Americans designed dances with hoops depicting the never-ending circle of life, death and rebirth and the ancient Mayan and Chinese calendars were both designed in circular fashion. The magic of the sun arriving and departing each day, the seasons blending into one another or the different phases of life were, in ancient times, explainable only through folklore and religion and have an undeniable impact on how people lived their day-to-day lives both then and now.

In modern times, the crow of the rooster and the setting sun don’t dictate our working days like they used to but, rather than disappearing altogether, our new scientific view of these concepts has changed our relationship to these cycles. As our understanding of the world around us has evolved, so has our understanding of how we build routines into our days and how cycles are a deeply embedded part of our DNA.

Daily Cycles and the Circadian Rhythm

Anyone who’s ever spent a sleepless night Google searching reasons why they can’t sleep will inevitably stumble across the idea of circadian rhythms. The word circadian comes from the Latin for circa, meaning ‘around’ (as in circumference) and diem for ‘day’ (as in carpe diem), and our circadian rhythms — or body clocks — literally map out our energy patterns throughout a single day. Our insomniac might equate it to the sleep-wake cycle, but this internal system constantly triggers different physiological effects at different points in our day. In turn, these changes affect our mood, reactivity and productivity.

Infographic showing key biological events throught the day

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3017148

Many notable figures throughout history have come to a natural understanding of this cycle and have either adjusted their habits to take advantage of it or adjusted it as a kind of life-hack. Maya Angelou discovered that the best hours to write happened between five thirty in the morning and twelve noon, and heaven help the person who interrupted her. At the other end of the spectrum Leonardo da Vinci famously pioneered the use of the polyphasic sleep schedule, where he would sleep between twenty minutes and two hours several times a day.

Nowadays, there are many influences that can alter the functioning of our biological clocks. For example, when you travel the new timing of the sun resets your biological clock — the fatigue we experience in the time it takes for our rhythm to sync with daylight is what we call jetlag. Other influences could have a negative effect on our biological functioning. Working the night shift can result in Shift Work Disorder when your interrupted sleep patterns affect work performance. Short term treatments can help manage this, but if we work against the natural rhythm of our body for too long it can result in impaired functioning, increased risk of disease and burnout.

Chronobiology: Long Term Cycles

Scholarship surrounding the circadian rhythm falls within the sister disciplines of chronobiology and chronopsychology: the study of cyclic phenomena in living organisms. If we zoom the lens out, this encompasses not just our daily patterns, but longer time frames as well including monthly and yearly cycles. All of which have an effect on our day-to-day functioning.

  •  Days of the Week
    Survey studies of weekly productivity suggest that Tuesday is the most productive day of the week. Physiologically speaking, your body doesn’t have a concept of a ‘week’ (there are no hormonal or biological seven-day cycles) but it does have to support the seven-day weeks our culture is built around. Study of weekday productivity is pockmarked with error, especially as more and more people ditch the traditional 9 to 5 in favour of more self-employed hours, but we can count on the idea that making time for rest means we’ll actually get more done in the long run.
  • SAD and Seasonal Trends
    Unless you live on the equator, the changing of seasons also means a fluctuation in the amount of light you’re exposed to: spring and summer have more light, while autumn and winter have less. This affects the timings in our circadian rhythm and the output of the melatonin ‘sleep hormone’, causing a bodily depression twice a year around the transition from autumn to winter and spring to summer. Adjusting to this results in what we sometimes call the ‘winter blues’, and more marked cases can be diagnosed as Seasonal Affective Disorder, “a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern.”

What Does This Mean For You?

The Harvard Business Review did a study that asked respondents to track their focus levels throughout the day, and the following graph depicts a very strong trend that emerged:

Graph showing the change in focus throughout the day

Anecdotally, this is a beautiful representation of the highs and lows we experience in life, “what comes up must come down” and the innate genetic cycles we’ve looked at already. More practically speaking, it means that now we’re beginning to recognise these cycles in our lives we can plan for them. In the graph, each point on the line is an hour of the day — but this oscillating line could just as easily depict your journey through a week, month or year.

By using this as a template it can help us schedule the right kind of work, play or rest by asking questions like:

  • How can you arrange your to-do list along the line so that activities that need the most energy and focus coincide with the points of highest energy and focus in your life?
  • Which tasks at work would you choose for your points of highest energy and what would you save for the after-lunch slump?
  • Equally, on the off time when is time to play hard and when is it time to rest and recover?

The answers to these questions will be different for everyone, but by planning for both the highs and the lows and honouring the way our body naturally wants to work, we can move one step closer to a more productive life in line with the cyclical way our bodies naturally works.

Interested in learning more about productivity cycles and routines? Here’s some further reading for you!

  • Currey, M. (2013). Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Hskirsagar, S. (2018). Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life. New York: Harper Wave.
  • RescueTime Blog — RescueTime is an app designed to help your productivity and time management, and the blog is a wealth of resources on how to do so knowledgeably!

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