I’ve found out the hard way that my energy levels and capacity to work at my best are not infinite.
I used to power through my days, weeks and months questioning why l’d end up so exhausted mentally and emotionally, and sometimes physically.
And I don’t think I was alone. It was “just the way it is”
It was only when I was doing some yoga training that I learnt about the science of work rest rhythms.
We’re all aware of the most obvious work rest rhythm of all – the sleep-wake cycle (also known as our circadian rhythm) – and we’re probably all aware of the impact that over-riding this and forgoing sleep has on our wellbeing and performance.
But as well as the circadian rhythm, our bodies and brains also have an ultradian rhythm, discovered by the sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman. Kleitman did a lot of research into the stages of sleep that we move through roughly every 90 minutes. And he also found that we operate in up to 90 minute phases during the day too.
Our bodies and our brains are designed to work hard and focus for up to 90 minutes at a time, before performance decreases and we need a break. If we continue past the 90 minutes, over-riding our natural work-rest rhythms then our bodies begin to move into a state of mild stressin an attempt to keep going.
This of course, has long term effects on our physical and psychological wellbeing if it becomes a regular occurrence – leading to chronic stress and ultimately burnout.
What’s the solution?
But if we are instead able to take a short break between each period of work, then our bodies and brains are able to shift into renewal and rejuvenation, and we can return to our work much more focused and energised. The break doesn’t have to be long – even 5-10 minutes can make a difference.
Some of us will need to take a break before 90 minutes – part of listening to our work-rest rhythms is beginning to notice the signals from our bodies that show us it’s time for a break – and these will vary for everyone.
And as well as these ultradian rhythms, our brains and bodies also have other work-rest rhythms or cycles that help it function optimally by interspersing activity, or work, with periods of rest and rejuvenation. These occur daily, weekly, monthly and seasonally – and these are often honoured in varying degrees depending on our culture, religion and professions (as well as other factors). For some, the weekend is a time to pause and restore, while for others, like shift workers, Saturday and Sunday can become just another day, and the weekly rest rhythm is lost.
But how can we make this work in reality?
Even though I am very much aware and interested in the science and psychology behind the benefits of rest for wellbeing (and ultimately our performance, if you choose to look at it this way), putting it into practice hasn’t always been easy for me – but it has been transformative.
In a society that prioritises output, doing and maximising productivity, honouring our work-rest rhythms feels like a radical act.
Recognising that we don’t have an infinite capacity to work and do – even though it seems that the world expects this of us – is the first step. The next step is honouring this. Building in breaks to our days, weeks, months and seasons.
Protecting our rest time with as much reverence as we do our work time. Holding boundaries. Saying yes to rest and joy. Building the self belief and trust that we need to do things differently. Working through the guilt that inevitably comes. Managing others’ expectations. Patience. Being comfortable in our bodies with slowing down.
Honouring work-rest rhythms are part of the “restore” phase of my Align + Thrive framework – and is foundational to improving performance and preventing burnout.
I tell my clients that this is all a practice, a life long exploration – but it starts with just one step at a time. We don’t need to have it all figured out or perfect the first time – we just need to start.
Questions for reflection or journalling:
- Where am I already integrating breaks and honouring my work rest rhythms?
- Where would I benefit from interspersing time for rest alongside work?
- What are the challenges I might face in doing so?
- How can I overcome these?
- What can I do today to honour my work-rest rhythms?
- What type of rest serves me best at different times? (see this post for more details on the different types of rest)
If you would like some support figuring out your work rest rhythms, then get in touch here