The Ultradian Rhythm

Ever find yourself periodically losing energy and enthusiasm throughout the day? Turns out, there is a name for that phenomenon, and it reveals a lot about how our waking lives should be structured. More from Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center:

Our brains and bodies also cycle in “ultradian rhythms” throughout the day and night. An ultradian rhythm is a recurrent period or cycle that repeats throughout the 24-hour circadian day, like our breathing or our heart rate.

…[About] every hour and a half to two hours, we experience a significant “ultradian dip”, when our energy drops and sleep becomes possible. When we work through these dips—relying on caffeine, adrenaline, and stress hormones to keep us alert—instead of letting our bodies and brains rest, we become stressed and jittery, and our performance falters.

Now I feel a lot less bad about hitting these seemingly random walls of fatigue and disinterest. But how does one overcome this problem? Thankfully, it is a lot simpler than you would think. 

In his studies of truly great performers, K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist and author of several landmark studies on elite performance about whom I wrote last week, found that they practiced and rested a lot more than their good but not elite peers. For example, violinists destined to become professional soloists practiced an average of 3.5 hours per day, typically in three separate sessions of 60-90 minutes each. Good but not great performers, in contrast, typically practiced an average of 1.4 hours per day, with no deliberate rest breaking up their practice session.

In other words, instead of trying to push through the dip, it is better to take it for what it is and recharge our batteries: nap, meditate, read, take a walk, or do anything else that is calming and minimally exerting. Of course, that is easier said than done when you are really set on getting something done. But the results are clear:

Super-high-achievers sleep significantly more than the average American. On average, Americans get only 6.5 hours of sleep per night. (Even though studies show that 95 percent of the population needs between seven and eight hours of sleep a night.) Elite performers tend to get 8.6 hours of sleep a night; elite athletes need even more sleep. One study showed that when Stanford swimmers increased their sleep time to 10 hours a night, they felt happier, more energetic—and their performance in the pool improved dramatically.

High performance requires more sleep because it involves higher rates of learning and sometimes physical growth. When we are awake, adequate sleep allows us to focus our attention on our practice; when we are sleep deprived, our overworked neurons become uncoordinated, and we start having trouble accessing previously learned information.

When we sleep, our brain consolidates what we’ve learned while we were awake, making it a part of our working memory that we can access later. Sleep allows us to remember tomorrow how to do what we’ve practiced today, and it enables us to recall the information and knowledge we’ve just learned.

The amount of sleep that we get—and how disciplined we are about following our body’s natural circadian and ultradian rhythms—affects not just our health but our productivity and performance.

In world where sleep is widely perceived to be a waste of time, this might be a hard sell. But anyone who has ever gotten a good night’s rest will know firsthand just how much better they operate, both mentally and physically. Sleep should be seen less as dead time and more as an investment towards greater productivity and an accomplishment of one’s goals.

Indeed, the author says it best in her closing paragraphs:

Grit is the ability to maintain perseverance and passion towards our long-term goals; we cannot persevere in the face of difficulty if we are fatigued physically, mentally, or emotionally. We can’t persist over the decade or so it takes to achieve true mastery if we become sick or exhausted or burned out along the way. And we can’t improve our skills—intellectually, physically, or artistically—if our learning, memory, and reaction times are impaired due to lack of sleep and rest.

So being gritty isn’t just about pushing yourself 24/7 toward your goals, in both good and bad weather. It’s about making progress toward your goals consistently and deliberately, in a way that works with our human biology, allowing for proper refueling and consolidation of knowledge.

So take the long view, and realize that a bit of “lost time” sleeping or resting will more than pay off down the road, especially if you do it regularly. Again, this is easier said than done, what with all the distractions and stimuli out there eating into our free time. But it is well worth working with our biology to maximize our potential, especially those of us who have big goals ahead.

Now to put this into practice myself…

EDIT: It occurred to me upon reflecting on this finding that many people in modern America would not have the luxury to put this strategy into practice. The structure of our post-industrial economy is such that we are forced to work for long stretches of the day with little break time — and expected to keep productive the whole way through. Moreover, the need to work more hours just to get by means millions of Americans — not to mention millions more around the world — lack the time, stability, and mental fortitude to just take a breather. If anything, this research proves, yet again, that the present state of our capitalist economy is antithetical to human flourishing.

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