Ultradian Rhythms and Productivity

Science has established that your brain doesn’t work in a linear way but in cycles instead. Some of them are called ultradian rhythms, which are different phases of your attention levels. Paying attention to these cycles can help boost your productivity.
Ultradian Rhythms and Productivity

Last update: 25 July, 2021

Biological rhythms are changes that occur in your body within regular intervals of time. Ultradian rhythms are specific kinds of biological rhythms. They’re related to your periods of rest and mental activity. In addition, they concern other functions like eating and motor behaviors.

Like all biological rhythms, ultradian rhythms establish cycles. In other words, they involve a series of phases or stages that always occur in the same order. Once completed, they repeat themselves incessantly.

Science classifies biological rhythms according to how long each cycle takes to complete. You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep and wakefulness cycles.

Although ultradian rhythms aren’t well known, they’re related to work efficiency.

“Everything can collapse. Houses, bodies, and enemies collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged.”

-Miyamoto Musashi-

A happy man at work, successfully using his ultradian rhythms.

Different biological rhythms

There are several ways in which to classify biological rhythms. However, the most conventional is to categorize them on the time taken to complete each cycle.

From this point of view, there are three basic biological rhythms. These are circadian rhythms, ultradian rhythms, and infradian rhythms.

  • Circadian rhythms. These are the biological cycles that have a minimum duration of 20 hours and a maximum of 28 hours. Basically, they comprise all the processes associated with sleep and wakefulness. This includes temperature, hormone release, appetite, etc.
  • Ultradian rhythms. These are biological rhythms that last less than 20 hours. They comprise processes that range from one millisecond to several hours. They include the stages of sleep, heart rate, breathing rhythm, and others.
  • Infradian rhythms. These are the rhythms that last more than 28 hours. They’re divided into circaseptan (weekly), circamensual (monthly), and circannual (annual) processes. They include processes like the menstrual cycle, reproduction, metabolism, and others.

Ultradian rhythms and rest

Ultradian rhythms are a crucial element of the sleep cycle. Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman was one of the pioneers in the study of sleep. From his research, we now know that there are two major phases during sleep. The first is non-REM or slow-wave sleep. The second is REM or fast-wave sleep.

The complete sleep cycle (non-REM and REM) lasts between 90 and 110 minutes. You usually complete about three cycles per night. However, Kleitman also discovered that, while you’re awake, your brain carries out similar cycles.

This means that, in a span of 90 minutes, your brain goes through several phases involving different levels of alertness. In those 90 minutes, at times, you’ll be less alert than others. In other words, there are certain times of day when you’re at your best and others when you’re a little slow.

A woman working on her laptop.

Ultradian rhythms and productivity

Scientists have discovered that, due to ultradian rhythms, there are peaks and troughs in your daily productivity. These take place in cycles of 90 to 120 minutes. However, they vary, depending on the individual.

There are certain characteristics of the troughs of productivity. You tend to feel tired, work at a slower pace, get easily distracted, and make more mistakes. The best thing to do at these times is to take a break. This helps you recover your attention levels sooner.

There isn’t 100 percent agreement on the timespan of ultradian rhythms. However, they all follow a common pattern. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Illinois (2011) was published in the journal Science. In this study, the researchers stated that people reach productivity peaks when they take a break every 50 minutes.

Professor Peretz Latvie was a researcher at the Israel Institute of Technology and an expert on this particular subject. He suggested that the ideal amount of time to work before a break is 20 minutes.

Along similar lines, an Italian factory installed a “chronobiological” device. They found that the most productive workers were those who worked for 52 minutes in a row and then rested for 17 minutes.

As you can see, data on this subject is rather variable. In fact, while the means of investigation are good, studies don’t represent enough people to come to any absolute conclusions. For this reason, you may find it useful to make an analysis of your own productivity. Then, you’ll be able to discover when you should work and when you should take a break.

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  • Charles Torres, R. (1997). La pausa regenerativa ultradiana como herramienta para el desarrollo de recursos humanos (Doctoral dissertation, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León).