Buried in a project since right after lunch, you glance up to check the clock, only to realize that it's already 3 p.m. You don't know where the time went because you've been riding a wave of productivity, and all your cylinders are firing--you feel energized and engaged, you're thinking clearly and new ideas are flowing!
"It's possible," you tell yourself in a moment of reflection at all you've accomplished, "that I am indeed a genius!"
And then, it begins--watt by watt, your brilliance starts to dim. The ideas that were flowing so freely now seem to be stuck in a holding pattern in your brain; you begin to yawn and stare out the window. You check your email (maybe something interesting or important came in while you were wrapped up in your project?), and you find yourself wondering if anything new--and essential for you to know right now--has been posted on ESPN.com.
What happened to your wave of productivity? Your energy? Your pure genius?
Heeding the Call of Nature
Don't worry, you're still a genius. You merely forgot to heed the call of nature (well, not that call). Read on.
Just as nature is governed by cycles, so is the human body. Most people are generally aware of the 24-hour cycles of sleeping and waking that are the major components of our circadian rhythm (circa dies means "around a day"). Less commonly known, however, are the body's ultradian rhythms (ultra dies means "many times a day") that occur in cycles throughout each day. Eye blinks, heart rate, hormone regulation, thermal regulation, breathing ... the list is almost endless, and some of these activities help account for the energy cycles we feel throughout the day.
According to energy management gurus Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr, the urge to yawn, stretch, eat--basically anything other than the work you were engaged in--are all very typical impulses during a decline in the ultradian cycle. In their book "The Power of Full Engagement," Schwartz and Loehr describe just what happens during this "down time": "Physiological measures such as heart rate, hormonal levels, muscle tension and brain-wave activity all increase during the first part of the [ultradian] cycle--and so does alertness. After an hour or so, these measures start to decline. Somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes [into the cycle], the body starts to crave a period of rest and recovery. Signals include a desire to yawn and stretch, hunger pangs, increased tension, difficulty concentrating, an inclination to procrastinate or fantasize and higher incidence of mistakes."
Reclaiming Your Brilliance
Of course, it's possible to override this natural cycle with caffeine, sugar-laden foods or pure mental grit, but these are really only brief and marginally effective solutions. Each time you ignore your natural cycles for engagement and recovery, your body summons its "fight or flight" stress response, digging deeper into your energy reservoir. The resulting cascade of cell-damaging hormones has both short-term effects (racing heart rate, perspiration, fractured focus) and long-term effects (insomnia, gastrointestinal distress, heart disease). It's better to save that reaction for true emergencies.
So why not listen to your wise old body and .
. heed the call of nature!
Try taking intermittent breaks every 90 to 120 minutes throughout your day. The key is not how long a break you take but that you truly change your focus. Disengage from your task or project--get up from your desk and stretch, get a drink of water, take a walk around the block or visit with a colleague (one who's in the same ultradian slump would be best!). Some time away to give yourself a chance to refresh will do wonders for your powers of concentration. And by the time you're ready to dig in and work again, you'll be back at "genius" level and prepared to give it your all.
Now that's a call of nature worth heeding.