Illustration of the thought processes in the brain

Why Working in 90-Minute Bursts is Good for Your Brain & Your Job

We’ve all been victim to the misery that is the “afternoon slump”. We’ve struggled through the slump, eyes heavy with fatigue, as we trudged to the office coffee pot, hopeful that a sweet cup of liquid caffeine would give us our fix and get us back on task. What if I told you that next time an afternoon slump hits, you should succumb to it rather than fight it?

Yep, that’s right. According to science, by fighting your afternoon slump and trying to work through it, you’re actually hurting your body (and your productivity). I know this might sound a little nonsensical, but hear me out.

You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythms, or the natural biological clock that dictates your sleep cycles. We also have biological cycles called ultradian rhythms that involve alternating periods of high- and low-frequency brain activity. An ultradian cycle generally consists of around 90 minutes of high-frequency brain activity, during which it is much easier to focus and get your tough work done. This period is followed by a period of low-frequency brain activity, usually lasting around 20 minutes. During these periods of low-frequency brain activity, it is not uncommon to feel unfocused and have difficulty concentrating.

Ultradian rhythms are thought to be controlled by the delicate balance of potassium and sodium that exists in our bodies. When you have a productive period of hard work during your day, after a while, the potassium and sodium balance is disrupted because your brain has been functioning in a high brain wave state for an extended period of time.

To compensate, your brain puts on the brakes and shifts down into a state of lower brain wave frequencies because, put simply, your brain needs a break. When this happens, you may feel a general sense of fogginess or like you’re struggling to concentrate. Once your brain has been allowed to rest, the sodium and potassium balance is restored and you are better able to shift back into productivity mode.

The Importance of Listening to Your Brain

So next time your afternoon slump hits, lean into it — it’s your brain saying “I need a break!” If you ignore the rest phase of your ultradian rhythm, the consequences can seriously hamper your productivity. If you ignore the rest phase of your ultradian rhythm and try to keep working, it triggers the body’s “fight-or-flight” response and releases the stress hormone cortisol.

And guess what goes out the window when “fight-or-flight” mode activates? Logic. Because, let’s face it, when you’re in an emergency, it’s instinct and not logic that will help save your life. So by ignoring your body’s signals and working through a period of time when your brain should be resting, you are not only creating undue stress for yourself, but you are also trying to get work done while working without the help of logic.

Take a Break!

So if your brain is telling you “Rest me!” and you don’t listen, you’re just making things harder on yourself. And even worse, you could be costing your company money. According to Health Advocate, Inc., presenteeism, or being on the job but not functioning at your usual level of productivity, costs companies $150 billion annually in lost productivity.

A whopping 90 percent of workers don’t take a defined break during the day. We simply aren’t capable of working an eight hour day without stopping to take a breath; our brains just aren’t built for it. So when you hit a wall and can’t seem to focus anymore, take it as a sign that your brain needs a rest. Get up and take a walk or go make a cup of coffee. Let your brain take a break while you answer some emails. By working in 90-minute bursts, your brain gets to function at full capacity and you will maximize your productivity without burning yourself out.

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About Chelsea Mize

Chelsea Mize is a writer and content creator with a weakness for the Oxford Comma. When she’s not writing, you will find Chelsea searching for new spots to brunch and binge watching TV shows she’s already seen.