Ultradian Rhythm: What It Is & How to Use It to Optimize Your Performance

How do you typically operate during a working day? Do you start on a task and then power your way through it from start to finish – no matter how much you struggle?

Or do you work for a certain length of time and then take a break, returning to the task at hand when you’re feeling more refreshed? If you choose to do the latter, you might find that you are more effective, more focused, and capable of completing the task at hand. What you probably aren’t aware of though, is that the reason for this comes down to ultradian rhythms.

Understanding Your Chronobiology and Biological Rhythms

Women Deals with Stresses from Work

In our modern world, we’ve become disconnected from the rhythm of life. We forget that our lives are shaped by light and darkness, lunar cycles, and seasonal cycles… and they have been since the beginning of mankind.

Deep within us are genetically driven timers that control our body’s biological rhythms. These rhythms underscore our days and lives, in both small and seemingly insignificant ways, as well as in large and noticeable ways. This field of study is called chronobiology, and there are three main types of rhythms identified:

  1. Circadian Rhythms – completing a cycle in an approximately 24-hour span of time, circadian rhythms include the sleep/wake cycle, the body temperature cycle, appetite, etc.
  2. Infradian Rhythms – lasting more than 24 hours, but repeated only every few days, or weeks, or months, or even just once per year. Infradian rhythms include the female menstrual cycle, seasonal affective disorder (caused by lack of light during the winter months), and other hormonal or seasonal changes.
  3. Ultradian Rhythms – having a duration shorter than a day, but longer than an hour, ultradian rhythms include the 90-120 minute cycling of sleep stages during human sleep, hormonal secretions, heart rate, digestion, and so on.

In this article, you’re going to discover how understanding your own personal ultradian rhythms can help you use them to your advantage – especially at work.

Your Body Craves a Rest Every 80-90 Minutes

stressed out man sitting at desk at work

It starts with understanding that the conventional workday (e.g., 9 to 5) was not designed with optimal productivity in mind, nor the activity of ultradian rhythms. It was simply designed to keep employees at work for a certain period of time, under the misguided assumption they would be productive the entire time.

As we all know, that just doesn’t happen. But if you are better able to understand your body’s natural rhythms a little better then you can optimize your performance, no matter the task at hand.

Ultradian rhythms help to explain how our energy, focus, and attention ebbs and flows throughout the day. For instance, it has been found that hormonal levels, heart rate, brain-wave activity and even muscle tension all increase during the first part of the ultradian cycle, along with alertness and mental focus.

After an hour or so, however, each of these begins to decline. At about the 80-90 minute mark, the brain and body begin to crave a rest period.

The Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC)

Woman Sleeps Easily

Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky were pioneers in the field of sleep research. They were responsible for the discovery in 1953 of the various stages of sleep, now known as REM and non-REM sleep.

For example, during sleep, on average our brains go through a 90-minute cycle of rest known as non-REM sleep. This is followed by around 20 minutes of activity, known as REM sleep.

The pair later discovered that the brain also cycles through periods of activity and rest when awake. Calling it the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (or BRAC), they found that our brains cycle through alternating periods of activity and rest, with each cycle lasting approximately 80 to 120 minutes, depending on the individual.

In contrast to the sleep cycle, during BRAC our brains appear to go through around 90 minutes of intense activity and focus, followed by 20 minutes of rest, and this cycle occurs repeatedly throughout the day [1, 2].

Why Ultradian Rhythm Productivity Is Better Than “Powering Through”

When we ignore these rhythms and force ourselves to power through a project until it’s completed (or time to go home), problems arise.

If you have ever been working on a project for a protracted period of time, and then felt overcome by weariness, lethargy, or mental fading, this is exactly why. Our brains actually need to take breaks after an intense period of activity to be optimally focused and perform at a higher level.

business woman sitting on floor with eyes closed taking a break

During this 20-minute break, if done properly, a lot is happening in the mind and body, and it’s similar to what occurs during sleep. Initially, it might feel as though taking a 20-minute break will be a waste of your precious time, but it really isn’t. Quite the opposite. The break is essential for recharging your batteries so that you can operate at peak levels of performance.

According to Ernest Rossi, PhD, psychologist, researcher, and author of several books on mind-body healing, the mind and body are busy resynchronizing during this break in activity.

Free radicals and oxidative waste products that have been building up in the tissues during the previous period of high brain activity are cleared out of the cells. Neurotransmitters required for good mind-body communication are replenished, and cellular energy is being restored [3]. As you can see, your brain and body will benefit greatly from taking rest breaks.

4 Steps for Making Your Ultradian Rhythm Work for You

The goal is to make the most of an intense period of brain activity by actually taking that rest period afterward and making it work optimally for you. Here are 5 tips on how to accomplish that:

Man standing, using a desk.

#1. Determine the Length of Your Own Personal Basic Rest-Activity Cycle.

By understanding your own activity-rest cycle, you can learn how to put ultradian rhythms to good use. Get yourself a timer or use the timer on your phone. Set it for 45 minutes and get to work. Pay close attention to how you feel during this 45-minute period. Are you able to work the full 45 minutes and be focused on the task at hand? Or does your attention begin to wander after only 30 minutes?

Write down the length of time you were able to stay on task, how you felt while working, and how you felt afterward. In this step, you are just getting a handle on your particular pattern.

#2. Start Where You Are.

If you found that you were only able to achieve 30 minutes of focused attention, start with that. Work for 30 minutes and then take a five-minute rest break.

During these five minutes, you are not checking your phone or email or making phone calls. You are simply sitting in your chair with your eyes closed, or taking a short walk around your office, or lying on the floor of your office if you are able to do so without exciting comment. Some people may need to go and hide in the restroom to get a break without anyone noticing or commenting.

gratitude journal

#3. Keep Notes on How You Feel.

It’s vital to take notes about how you are feeling during and after your session of activity/work, as well as how you felt before and after the rest break.

Were you able to make it the full 90 minutes or did you run out of brainpower 20 minutes early? Was the rest period sufficient, or did you feel like you needed more? You might find that you do better during the first half of your day than you do with the second half, while it may be just the opposite for others.

By taking notes, you will be better able to chart your personal patterns. If you felt sharp and focused for 30 minutes, begin there.

#4. Work Up to a Full Cycle of 80-90 Minutes.

Each time you return to your desk to focus on work, time how long you were able to work where your brain is able to focus intently on the task. Work for that period of time, then take a rest break. Next time, increase the work cycle by 5-10 minutes. Work cycles may vary on some days, depending on stress levels and the amount of sleep you got the night before. Always follow the activity period with at least a five-minute rest period.

Slowly, over a period of days or weeks, you should be able to work up to a full 90-minute active work cycle, followed by a full 20 minutes of rest. Also, it’s important to know that you don’t have to take a full 20-minute break if you don’t wish to (or can’t). You should be able to gauge when you feel you’ve had adequate rest. For some, only a 10-minute rest break is required.

Making Your Rest Break the Best it Can Be

First of all, some people will simply not have the opportunity to take a 20-minute break, especially if they are employees. No matter how long the break that you get, however, whether it’s five minutes or 20, do your best to really relax in the time that you have.

Also, if you miss your break altogether, you don’t need to wait another 90 minutes to take a break. Take the break whenever you can and then work for a shorter period next time.

Here are some tips for maximizing your rest break:

Set a timer on your phone for the time period you’ve set aside for this break, whether it be five minutes, or the full 20, then put your phone in airplane mode.

Don’t engage with Facebook, email, or non-urgent text messages.

Try not to sleep; that isn’t the point of this break. However, if you are so tired and really want a nap and can do that, by all means, take that nap, and just return to the BRAC when you are refreshed. There’s a lot to be said for the power nap.

woman walking for exercise

• If you have a job where you sit a lot, feel free to take a short walk somewhere quiet and free from distractions. Allow your mind to drift or daydream, or engage in some positive affirmations.

• If you wish to sit or lay down, find a quiet place (hopefully away from your desk). Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath, taking a few deep breaths, nice and easy. Allow your mind to drift. This is a good time for daydreaming. Try to stay away from stressful or negative thoughts, promise to deal with them another time. Drift and dream, with your eyes shut. Breathe and just be present.

• Just prior to the end of your session, engage in some alternate nostril breathing (find a YouTube video that will teach you). This ancient method of breathing helps to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain, infuses your body and brain with fresh oxygen, wakes up your brain, and gives you loads more energy.

• Remember to take your phone off airplane mode as you return to work if you need to receive incoming messages or alerts.

Unlock Your Productivity & Creativity

The best part about understanding and utilizing ultradian rest and activity cycles is that it helps you optimize your time at work, helps you manage your work better, makes you more productive and resistant to stress, and avoids burnout.

By understanding that the more you try to fight against your body’s ultradian rhythms, the less productive you are likely to be, and the more burned out you may become. Working with these rhythms can unlock productivity and creativity you didn’t know you had. If you are an employee, you might even want to bring this article to your boss’s attention, and see if they would be willing to let you and other employees work this way.

What are your thoughts on taking ultradian rhythm breaks? If you already do this or try it, please share your observations in the comments section below!


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Holiday Hacks: 27 Tips for Staying Healthy During the Holidays

Editor’s Note: This article was written and first shared pre-Covid, so we recognize that the holiday season is a little different this year. But even if your holiday gatherings are significantly reduced in 2020, these tips can still apply.


Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a routine of eating well, exercising, and making time for activities that keep you emotionally and mentally well… and then the holiday season arrives and all your healthy habits seem to fly out the window.

If this sounds like you, you’re definitely not alone. To help, here are 27 tips to keep the holiday weight gain and stress at a minimum this year, while helping you feel as good as possible going into the new year.

Helpful Tips Before the Holidays Hit

group of people at party clinking wine glasses#1. Rather than accepting every single holiday invitation that comes your way, pick and choose carefully. Politely decline all but the most important invitations with the people who mean the most to you.

At this ultra-busy time of year, quality is more important than quantity. For example, if you receive invitations to more than one work-related function, choose the one you most want to attend.

#2. Make a commitment to yourself to eat as healthfully as you can during the holidays. Of course, this is also a time for enjoying your favorite holiday foods. Just ensure that you only indulge when you really want to. Do it mindfully, and in moderation.

Make sure to include plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, and very few refined, sugary, or prepackaged foods. Completely abstain from eating fast food. All of this will have a positive impact on your waistline, your emotional health, and your energy levels.

#3. Forget trying to be perfect. The house really doesn’t need to be scrubbed from top to bottom in preparation for the holidays. Clean and tidy, yes, but not perfect from wall to wall. Presents do not have to be perfectly wrapped – after all, they are going to be torn to shreds in seconds anyway! No one is going to judge you (and if they do, do you really don’t want them as friends?).

This year, try to let go of caring what others might think of your home and decorating skills and just enjoy the season.

#4. This is a good time of year to appreciate others. If someone for whom you feel gratitude is in your daily life, you don’t have to buy them a present (unless you want to and can easily afford it). Send a quick message or call them to let them know that you appreciate them and all the things they do for you. They will enjoy being told that they are appreciated and you will make their day.

#5. Limit time with difficult family members. Most of us have a person in our family who seems to make it their personal goal to push all our buttons. If that sounds all too familiar, make a plan ahead of time for how you can limit your time with them.

If avoidance isn’t an option, a good strategy is to plan in advance whether or not you will respond to any comments that make you feel angry or hurt. A good option might be to resolve to keep the peace, and not let their bad attitude affect you. Just smile and politely ignore them (or at least their hurtful words).

#6. Schedule in some reflective time, such as meditation or prayer, and don’t ditch the yoga or stretching routine. Taking some quiet time for yourself during the holiday season is helpful on so many levels, and will definitely increase your inner peace.

Healthy Holiday Tips – Before a Party

#7. Do a quick but intense 5-15 minute workout prior to the party. This could be a brisk walk or running up and down smiling woman walking up stairsstairs. The workout will not only help you to feel good and look great, it also raises your heart rate and offloads a few calories before any party indulgences.

#8. Have an organic green juice or smoothie before going to the party (such as this heart-healthy smoothie or this green detox smoothie), so that you will not be starving when you arrive. This will also give you a wide range of healthy and protective antioxidants and phytochemicals as a good base for whatever else you consume at the party.

Holiday Hacks – At the Party

#9. For every cocktail, glass of wine, or beer you drink, have a glass of filtered or sparkling water. This helps to slow down the intake of empty calories and keeps you from getting tipsy too fast.

If you add a squeeze of lemon or lime or a drop of a citrus essential oil to your water, you will also be supporting liver detoxification along the way.

#10. Try to eat mindfully. Carefully choose what you want to eat beforehand and then stick to that. Don’t stay too close to the food table, grazing continuously. Once you’ve eaten, don’t go back to the food table unless you are truly hungry.

#11. When filling your plate, choose cut vegetables, fruit, and nuts over fried foods, chips, or other carb-laden foods. This will help fill you up with healthier options that actually provide your body with nutrients.

#12. When it comes to dessert, choose special homemade treats over store-bought goodies that you can get anytime. In other words, if you’re going to indulgence, make sure it’s for something that’s worth it.

#13. If you have the opportunity to do so, get up and DANCE! Not only will you be benefiting your body with movement, it’s fun and helps to offload stress.

#14. Don’t stay at the party so long that you miss out on several hours of precious sleep. Decide beforehand when you would like to leave, and then stick to that time as closely as possible so you can get to bed as close to your usual time as possible. Be aware that for every hour of sleep you lose, it can take several days to catch up. Also, loss of sleep during this time of year impacts your immune system and can put you at a higher risk for catching colds and flu.

#15. Before hitting the hay, take some digestive enzymes. This will help your digestive system better cope with all the extra food and beverages you’ve just consumed. You’ll likely sleep better and will be less likely to wake up with a “food hangover” the next morning. Not familiar with what digestive enzymes do? Click here to read more.

Health Tips for the Morning After

woman drinking from blue mug#16. Add a scoop of collagen powder into your morning coffee or juice – your joints, digestive tract, skin, nails, and hair will all be better for it. An added bonus is that if you had alcohol to drink the night before, collagen supports liver health and detoxification plus so much more.

#17. If you’re feeling a little bloated or unwell from your indulgences, drink a cup of peppermint or ginger tea. Peppermint and ginger both aid digestion, help ease an inflamed gut, and assist with any nausea.

#18. When you’re able, have another green juice. The wide range of nutrients will help your liver and kidneys with detoxification, give you some instant energy (which is great if you stayed up too late), and an immune boost as well.

#19. Take some probiotics if you had a little too much to drink. Alcohol consumption can have a bad effect on beneficial gut bacteria, so for the next few days be extra diligent in supplementing with a good quality probiotic.

#20. Follow this tip from the French. After overindulging with rich food, the next day they will have soup laden with fresh vegetable and herbs, and lots of water. This is an excellent way to counteract the excesses from the day before and your gut and liver will thank you for it.

#21. If you aren’t feeling too shattered, go for a walk, but drink a glass of water first. Drinking alcohol can dehydrate you, and intense exercise will do that as well. A gentle walk combined with a big glass of water is much better for you in the long run after a big night out than a hard gym workout.

If Holiday Stress Hits Anyway…

#22. Lock the bathroom door and take a hot epsom salt bath. Drip in a few of your favorite essential oils along with a cup full of epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), light a candle or two, and take a mini holiday to calm the nerves. The magnesium in the epsom salts is beneficial for sore muscles and has a calming effect on the nervous system.

#23. Revisit tip #5.

#24. Do some or all of your shopping online. This will save wear and tear on your nerves, your car, and it is easier to stay business woman sitting on floor with eyes closed taking a breakon budget.

#25. Get more sleep.

#26. Realize that at any moment you have the right to say “no” when things get too hectic. Exercise that right whenever you need to.

#27. Take a breathing break. Just four or five minutes will make a difference and you can do this exercise anywhere. Sit quietly, close your eyes, and set your phone or watch timer for four minutes. Now breathe deeply: in for a count of five, hold that breath for a count of five, slowly exhale for a count of five, and hold the exhale for a count of five. Got it? In for five, hold for five, exhale for five, hold for five.

Even just a couple of minutes of this breathing exercise will lower your blood pressure, alter your brain waves, and help to calm you.

There you have it – 27 tips and ideas for how to stay healthy during the holidays. Pick and choose the suggestions listed above that make sense to you, and don’t worry about the rest. Just do the best you can when you’re not at holiday events to stick to your healthy habits, even if you have to pare them down.

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself over the holiday season, don’t get drawn into the idea that you have to say “yes” all the time, and remember that less is usually more.


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