When the alarm goes off each morning, how do you feel? Are you groggy and desperate for just a few more minutes of sleep? Or do you jump out of bed, ready to face the day?
And how do you feel later in the day? When the afternoon comes, do you feel like you’re hitting your stride and you accomplish more after the sun goes down than you did the rest of the day? Or do you experience the ever-so-common “3 p.m.” slump and lose energy and focus?
Everyone has his or her own natural rhythms. Almost every creature on Earth has what scientists call circadian rhythms, the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that take place over each 24-hour period. The most obvious manifestations of these rhythms are our sleep and wake cycles; circadian rhythms are largely influenced by light, which generally means sleeping when it’s dark, and waking during the daylight hours.
However, everyone has his or her own rhythmic pattern hence “morning people” and “night owls.” Yet even though you may intuitively know your rhythms and how you function the best, the demands of life and the “social clock,” or the parameters set by work, school or family demands that you have little control over as well as emotional factors often cause you to ignore or adjust those rhythms. The result? You might feel overtired, unproductive, and frustrated.
If you’re like many people, you have a busy schedule and many competing demands. Learning your natural rhythms, and working with them instead of against them, can help you feel more energetic and accomplish more each day.
For many people, working with their natural rhythms requires a total reset of their clock or at least, a better understanding of their own natural cycles. Try experimenting with different schedules when you have a period of downtime (when you are facing major deadlines or under a lot of stress, tinkering with your sleep schedule probably isn’t a good idea.)
First, consider when you do your best work. You probably have a good idea of when you are at your best and when you have trouble concentrating. If you aren’t sure, keep a journal of your mood and your productivity. Schedule hourly “check-ins” with yourself to reflect on your energy and your productivity. Note any changes in your mood as well, and what else is happening around you to influence your emotional state. If you do this for a few days, you should begin to notice a pattern forming.
The next step is to experiment and find ways to work within your rhythms. If you seem to be able to kill it at work during the morning hours, try going to bed and waking a bit earlier to see how a an hour or two of extra time in the morning impacts your productivity. You might be able to squeeze in a few more tasks in the A.M. when you are fresh, instead of struggling through them later in the day when you can barely complete a thought.
Once you have an idea of your natural rhythms, it is easier to structure your day to take advantage of your periods of increased energy and focus. While a set schedule is useful for some people, many people find that they accomplish more by making a list of the tasks that need to be accomplished, and then categorizing them by priority. Tackle higher priority tasks when your energy peaks, and save lower priority tasks checking email, sorting the mail, etc. for the periods of lower energy.
Understanding how your energy flows throughout the day is especially useful when you are managing multiple priorities, such as a career and returning to school. While online classes make it more convenient to complete coursework and advance your education, many students are tempted to try to complete their coursework at night after a long day of work. This might work for some, but if your energy naturally peaks in the morning hours, you could be doing yourself a disservice.
In fact, when you repeatedly disrupt your natural sleep rhythms and force yourself to stay awake longer, you create a sleep debt that only further wreaks havoc on your internal clock, in addition to contributing to significant health problems. Learn to manage your time more effectively tapping into your rhythms will help with that so you won’t feel that you need to burn the midnight oil to stay caught up.
Understanding your personal rhythms is one way to ensure that you maintain peak performance and meet your goals and make the most of every day. You’ll see the benefits in every part of your life, so take some time to learn, and respect, your rhythms.