circadian rhythm: performance's best kept secret.
This article was written as a collaboration between B. amsterdam and Wout van Helden; Orthomolecular & Psycho-Neuro-Immunology therapist, speaker and founder of Helden Health. Helden Health is a holistic health practice that uses the latest research into lifestyle and nutrition to help clients maximize their health and happiness. A heartfelt thank you to Wout for the conversation that acted as the foundation for this article.
All humans have an internal clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycle, known as a circadian rhythm. It runs as a twenty-four-hour cycle and plays a fundamental role in our energy levels and more. Fueled by factors such as light, dark, food and movement, it’s why most people are most productive just before midday, why most people perform their best physically in the afternoon, why we’re hungry when we are and why we fall asleep at a certain time. It’s also the culprit behind jet-lag; when you travel to a conference in a time zone eight hours behind, your circadian rhythm is thrown from its perch and suddenly you’re wide awake at four in the morning with your stomach grumbling that it’s time for lunch.
Being aware of your own circadian rhythm is important for everyone to simply get through the day, but for the entrepreneur who works all hours, has ever-shrinking periods of sleep, travels constantly and tries to excel under pressure throughout the day, it can be a tool for not only staying afloat but maximizing performance.
The idea behind using circadian rhythms to optimize yourself is based on the fact that this cycle is a rhythm. Your body can’t work all of your biological processes at maximum capacity for the entire day; that’s why you ebb and flow both throughout the day and that’s why you sleep at night to allow your body to recover. If you live with this rhythm, the more in sync you’ll be with your body and the better you’ll feel, think and perform. If you work against this rhythm, you’ll be trying to go against the grain of evolution, not a strategy if you want to thrive.
As an entrepreneur, you’re plagued by some niche consequences, but you’re not immune to the general stresses of life that everyone has to live with. Processed foods, environmental pollutants, insufficient physical activity and a monumental amount of time looking at screens have led to a society primed for lives lived at odds with our natural rhythms. You may think being out of sync with your body’s rhythm will simply result in being a little tired, and to some extent you would be right. Getting up one morning three hours earlier than usual to run through a presentation is relatively harmless, and even if your body isn’t used to being awake at that time, you’ll be okay.
The real problems creep in when you are in a state of constant disruption; waking up at four in the morning one day, seven the next, sleeping until midday on the weekend, occasionally going to the gym late at night, partying until five in the morning one night and staring at your phone for an hour before you sleep. Unfortunately, this lifestyle is incredibly common today and it can have some dire consequences.
Several studies surrounding the effects of losing just one hour of sleep after the clocks go forward in spring found that there was a 24% increase in the number of heart attacks on the Monday after the shift, as well as a sizable increase in the number of traffic accidents and a similar spike in workplace accidents. Chronic circadian disruption is also a contributing factor to numerous pathologies. So not only is living with your rhythm key boosting your performance, but it’s also essential for a healthy life.
So, what your does your circadian rhythm look like? Luckily, humans follow a general pattern; our blood pressure starts to rise as we wake up, melatonin secretion lowers and then we’re on a gentle rise to our first peak of alertness and energy before midday. Energy levels dip shortly after and then rise again towards the middle of the afternoon before finally setting off on a slow decline towards the night. Melatonin kicks in around nine, our bowels movements slow down and our body temperature declines to its lowest in the early hours of the morning when we’re meant to be in deep sleep. Our circadian rhythms do, however, differ slightly between each person, hence your friend describing themselves as a morning person (a lark) and another friend saying they’re a night person (an owl).
With the basic circadian rhythm in mind, you can then observe how you personally feel during different times of the day to build an accurate picture of your specific rhythm. When are your peaks of energy? How many do you have? When do you feel most tired? When do you naturally wake up? All it takes is some self-awareness and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you realize what your cycle is.
So, if you know that you’re a morning person, and those first few hours at work are your best, what do you do? Well, don’t spend them replying to emails. Instead, use that time to tackle high priority tasks that demand a lot from you and minimize distractions so that when your body and mind is itching to perform, you give it the matching context to do so.
In a similar way, if you think about siestas every day around two, use that time to do something less demanding (emails), don’t schedule an important meeting and maybe even consider a nap. Using your circadian rhythm to plan your work can lead to dramatically improved performance, and it makes total sense; when you feel your best, you do your best work.
Admittedly, it’s easier said than done, and not everyone has the freedom to take a nap when they feel weary. But that’s why it’s the responsibility of both the individual and the business to build a strategy that accommodates peoples’ rhythms. Using these ideas isn’t just of benefit to a single person, but to the company as a whole. Would you constantly fill someone’s morning schedule with important sessions if you knew they perform best in the afternoon? If you have team members working remotely, is enforcing strict working hours really harnessing their potential? And can you champion flexibility so employees are able to adapt their days according to when they perform their best? Optimizing the individual is optimizing the business. It seems wise to work towards a model that thrives on people’s natural energy, rather than watching your animated lark workforce replying to emails every morning because of tradition.
So, we know that we all have a natural circadian rhythm responsible for the daily cycle of our biological process and that by approaching our days with it in mind, we can optimize our individual and collective performance. But if you’re looking for the main points to take to your friends, colleagues and managers, we’ve come up with the definitive takeaway list below.
1. Sleep. Sleep is perhaps the most fundamental part of everyone’s rhythm. As sleep scientist Matt Walker rightly says, “sleep is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity." Whether you naturally tire at nine or midnight, making sure you get enough (eight hours although this varies slightly), high quality sleep is essential. An easy precursor to good sleep is surrounding yourself with warm, dim light in the evenings as this slows down your biological clock, whilst bright, cold light speeds it up and suppresses melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. And melatonin is not only critical to actually sleeping, but it benefits your immune system, aids recovery processes and decreases your body temperature to encourage deep sleep.
Also, try not to use screens in the few hours leading up to sleep unless your screen has a night mode, and even if it does, still try and leave at least an hour before sleep without it. This is the same for eating and exercise, both of which shouldn’t be done within two or three hours of sleep. Evenings are when your body naturally slows down in preparation for the all-important sleep, so help it out. If you read this and think ‘I don’t have time for eight hours of sleep’, even more reason to use these techniques to optimize the sleep you do get which will benefit your performance the next day.
2. Regular is right. Whilst circadian rhythms differ slightly from one person to the next, each person’s individual rhythm will remain fairly constant. Because of this, it’s important you try and keep a regular cycle as much as you can. It does get a little tricky when you throw in the realities of work-life and social life; waking up early ahead of a busy Tuesday and staying out late on a Saturday are more than common occurrences, and that’s okay. But try not to create wild leaps for your body; sleeping until midday on weekends when you usually wake up at 7:30 in the week will make it tough for your body to deal with fluctuating demands. Your rhythm isn’t a set of rules, more like guidelines which will help you if you follow them. And if you’re exceptionally hungover one weekend, maybe wake up just slightly after your usual weekday time, get a cup of tea, sit in bed and watch some David Attenborough.
3. Work with your rhythm. Having an awareness of your rhythm is useful as a foundation to prioritize and excel at tasks, but it’s not just about scheduling your workday. You can also use that awareness to plan how you eat and exercise. Using time-restricted eating that puts your main meal during daylight hours and ends in plenty of time before sleep can be of significant benefit to your energy, metabolism and hormone regulation. And one study found that those who exercise early in the day or early in the afternoon had more energy and felt more refreshed the next morning. In comparison, those who exercised in the evening only felt that residual energy later the next day. So if you’re a morning person, going to the gym in the evening isn’t the best match for maximizing your performance in those golden hours.
4. Bring it to work. All this talk of working with your rhythm is fine if you have control in implementing it. If you want to feel the benefits of being in sync with your rhythm at work, talk to your employer to see if you can work on adapting your schedule to match your ups and downs, including times of the day like commuting. It’s of benefit to everyone, and there can be a middle ground where essential, time-bound items are kept to whilst flexibility is integrated elsewhere.
5. Embrace the nap. Some people say they’re not a napping person and others say they are. But regardless of which side you’re on, naps are just another part of sleeping, and sleep is medicine. Everyone has those low energy times which are ideal for combining with a nap, and research has shown improvements after short naps in memory, learning, creativity, alertness, mood and stress reduction. All of which are beneficial to someone working long hours on demanding projects. Perhaps you’ll turn into a napping person.
The most important takeaway is that optimizing your performance can be as easy as listening to your body. Working with your rhythm is an accessible, simple and effective way to boost your performance. Living against your natural rhythm is being made easier every day by the routines, pressures and technologies of today, but excelling in the long term should be a primary aim for all entrepreneurs, and this is one way to start.