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Yesterday I attended a talk at Redbrick House coworking space given by Bex Baxter: the former People Development Manager of Coexist in Bristol. The talk, Understanding Your Natural Rhythm to Increase Productivity, peaked my interest as someone fresh to the world of freelancing once more. I’ve always observed a clear pattern in my productivity levels at different times of day – and felt that the conventional 9-5 system doesn’t always support that.

Here’s what I learned from Bex about how to achieve greater productivity, creativity and wellbeing by working in harmony with our natural rhythms.

Circadian rhythm

circadian rhythm

Every day, we undergo a 24-hour cycle driven by a circadian clock. This cycle affects not just humans, but animals, plants, fungi – even cyanobacteria. Circadian rhythms determine our sleep and eating patterns and are linked to a range of biological activities: brain waves, hormone production, cell regeneration, and body temperature. Our circadian rhythms stem from natural cues like daylight, but can also be influenced by the environment around us. Jet lag, for example, is a classic disruption of circadian rhythm.

Most managers expect their employees to operate at their best at all hours of the workday. But this expectation is unrealistic. Instead, we should be planning our workday around our circadian rhythms, scheduling important tasks for when we’re at peak alertness (usually between 10am and noon) and less intensive tasks for the slumps (around 3pm).

Note: this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Those on night shifts, for instance, will naturally find themselves working to a different internal clock.

Ultradian rhythm

ultradian rhythm peaks and troughs

In contrast to our circadian rhythm, which completes one cycle daily, ultradian rhythm is a recurrent cycle repeated throughout a 24-hour day. It’s also known as the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC). When we tap into our ultradian rhythms and work with them instead of against them, we can seriously maximise productivity.

On an average workday, many of us have a tendency (or are actively encouraged) to power through from start to finish, putting in as many hours as possible. To do this, we have to fight against our bodies’ natural flow. We naturally operate in 90-120 minute cycles – these same cycles can be observed during sleep. Our energy isn’t static; it’s always ebbing and flowing, like the tides. After 90-120 minutes of focus, we need a period of rest.

Instead of getting our heads own and trying to bash out another hour, we should aim to work with our ultradian rhythms and focus for 90-120 minute periods followed by 20-30 minutes of rest. That means coming away from your workstation and doing something else, be it walking, reading, meditating, or talking with a friend.

Your energy timetable

Tony Schwartz coined the phrase ‘manage your energy, not your time’. During the session, Bex handed out some worksheets to help us identify our ‘energy timetable’ – the roles and activities we carry out on a regular basis, and what priority we currently give them. So for example, we were encouraged to include things like work time, family time, our morning routines, and retreat time.

The most striking observation felt within the group was that self-care was often a lower priority than everything else. Few of us found we often made time for things like exercise, reading, creative play, doing morning pages, etc. Those in full-time jobs remarked that the bulk of their energy went into work, even if they weren’t particularly invested in their jobs.

This is a helpful exercise and can help to clarify where you are really focusing your time and energy. You can then start to assess whether you want to shift those priorities around. Personally, I am bad at making time for exercise – even though I know I’d be happier and more energetic if I did.

Then there’s all the other stuff that gets in the way. Life admin: stuff we have to take care of that saps our time and energy. Giving some time to think this over and develop a structure based on rethinking our priorities is something we could all do a little more often.

Taking care of our needs

man meditating in nature

In a separate exercise, we were asked to write down what we feel we personally need every day in order to function at our best. This could be anything from eating well and getting enough sleep to maintaining a connection with nature, meeting with other people, and making time to play.

Sometimes we become so focused on achieving that we forget to take care of our human needs. Many of us already feel like we don’t have enough time in the day, so where does this magic 30 minutes for meditation and another 30-45 for preparing wholesome meals come from? It comes from shifting our priorities.

Practising self-care is key to improving our wellbeing, managing stress, and becoming a more effective worker. We can work less and achieve more, as Henry Ford found when he slashed his employees’ working hours and gave them a pay raise back in 1914. Stress and burnout are all too common in the average workplace. If we want to improve overall employee wellbeing and thereby improve productivity, organisations need to embrace and encourage self-care as a core part of their ethos.

There are all sorts of things that can get in the way, as our group identified: energy levels, self-limiting beliefs, procrastination – even social media. A good place to start is to identify what activities help you feel your best and start adding them to your calendar regularly. Bex recalled a particularly pertinent quote from the Dalai Lama: we are human beings, not human doings. Wise, that guy.

Coexist’s menstrual policy

Bex gave the following TED Talk in 2017 entitled ‘Ending a Workplace Taboo. Period’.

We live in a culture where a lot of women are afraid to be open about their menstrual symptoms and needs in the workplace. It’s just one more thing that could lead employers to think of us as weak or less employable. But as Bex puts it: equality is about valuing difference. At Coexist, she pioneered a new approach to periods; one that gives female employees the flexibility to accommodate their cycle without working fewer hours – if they so choose. It’s an opt-in policy.

“As a result we are finding women’s happiness and wellbeing has optimised, and their commitment and respect for the organisation increased,” she says.

Menstruation can be profoundly debilitating. Some women experience extreme pain and discomfort around their period (dysmenorrhoea), which is obviously not a recipe for a productive environment. At Coexist, women are encouraged to track their cycles so they can start to work in a way that’s more in sync with their bodies. When we actually look at the menstrual cycle in more detail, there are clear times of the month when we’re naturally more inclined towards particular tasks (see the diagram below).

menstrual cycle phases for productivity

Don’t be a monkey in a cage

monkey in a cage

Later in the session, we talked about the social experiment ‘five monkeys and a ladder’. In this experiment, five monkeys were put in a cage. In the middle of this cage was a ladder leading to a bunch of bananas. Every time a monkey went up the ladder, they were sprayed with cold water (not very nice, guys). Pretty soon, the monkeys stopped climbing the ladder.

The scientists then replaced one of the monkeys, but when he went to climb the ladder, the other monkeys pulled him down. So he learned to stop trying. One by one, each monkey was replaced, until none of the original group who had been sprayed with water were left. But none of them would attempt to climb the ladder.

For me the lesson is clear: even when management dangle the carrot (or banana) and tell us to take risks and innovate, they won’t hesitate to pour cold water over anyone who tries and fails. And so an environment of learned helplessness emerges. People won’t try anymore. But we can change the experiment, if we’re willing to start talking about it.

We can stop being monkeys in a cage.

Cultural shifts take time. It’s only by talking about this stuff and spreading it around that anything changes. We need to break taboos like Bex did with the period policy – something that had never been attempted in the UK before. Small changes over time add up to big changes overall.

More and more institutions are developing a holacratic approach, one in which authority and decision-making are distributed among self-organising teams, rather than a more traditional management hierarchy. This is a positive thing. We just have to keep moving in a direction that promises to bring better health, happiness and balance for everyone.

This is just a brief introduction to a much bigger conversation. If you’re interested in learning more and bringing the humanity back into your organisation, you can hire Bex to come and speak or run a workshop at your next event.