In his pioneering research on sleep, more than 50 years ago, the creative scientist Nathaniel Kleitman discovered what he called the “basic rest-activity cycle”.
As we sleep, and also in our waking lives, we pass through 90 minute periods of higher to lower alertness.
At night, we move progressively through five stages of sleep, from light to deep, and then out again. (That’s why it’s important to get a full night’s sleep)
And by day, our bodies operate by the same 90 minute rhythm.
Once we waken, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes.
This is now usually referred to as our ultradian rhythm.
Break After 90 Minutes
At the body level, we know when we need to step away for a bit. We get clear signals when we need a break: thirst, hunger, distraction, drowsiness.
Our crazy con-minds try to override this, using artificial ways to pump up our energy: caffeine, sugar and, most often of all, a blast of stress hormones — adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol — when we start to fret.
Or lose it with colleagues.
If we keep going at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, we move from what the physiologists call “parasympathetic” condition to “sympathetic arousal”, more commonly called fight or flight.
Once we move into relying on stress hormones for energy, our prefrontal cortex begins to shut down. We become more reactive and less proactive, more conventional and less creative in response.
The big picture goes fuzzy, we get caught in the small stuff.
Bursts & Breaks
I used to work on a book all day, hunched and intense. Now I work in waves of 90 minutes, with good creative rest and play between each wave. I focus with ease and get more done in less time.
TRY THIS: Do creative work in waves, optimally for 90 mins at a stretch (concentrating on one task, closing out interruptions), then break for intentional creative rest or play, for at least 30-minutes, ideally an hour.
The breaks should provide contrast. So if your work is physical, take a break with a book or articles you’ve saved on your tablet; if your work is computer based, to outside and do something physical. If it’s all people, people in your job, get some alone time. If you work alone, meet a friend for coffee.
Take a break after 90 minutes. Make plenty of room in your life for rest and play as well as work.
If you’re in a mind mode where you can’t quite value play or rest as their own reward, keep your con-mind happy by telling it you’ll get more done that way.
You’ll find lots more creative tips and tools here …