Ultradian Rhythm: How to Avoid Burnout and Boost Productivity

written by Dan Silvestre
Energy Management, Productivity
ultradian rhythm productivity

Many think that productivity is about tricking our bodies into over-performing 24/7. While many of us would love to be able to do this, it isn’t possible.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be as productive when you cooperate with your body instead.

One great way to ensure that you are getting the most out of your efforts is with a simple cycle known as an ultradian rhythm. 

To understand why they are important, let’s take a closer look at these cycles and how you can avoid burnout and boost productivity with them. 

What Is an Ultradian Rhythm? 

Our body is no stranger to operating in cycles and on schedule. We get tired at a certain time. We eat at a certain time. Many of us may even feel more productive at a certain time.

To maintain our health, we must listen and adhere to these natural cycles and rhythms. When we choose to stay up late, skip meals, or work despite a lack of energy, it makes it harder to function properly. 

But as it turns out, you can get work done and avoid pushing yourself too hard by the choice to listen to your body.

The secret?

Ultradian rhythms. 

Discovered by Nathaniel Kleitman, an American sleep researcher, ultradian rhythms are cycles that your brain goes through as it stays active during your sleep cycle.

But unlike other processes that occur while you sleep, these cycles continue while you are awake

Known as the Basic Rest Activity Cycle (ultradian rhythm), these cycles feature a 90-minute period of high-frequency brain activity. This is then followed by a 20-minute period of low-frequency brain activity, give or take.

ultradian rhythm

In summary:

Your brain is only designed to work at peak performance for a limited amount of time. 

After you exceed the 90-minute period of high-frequency brain activity, you must rest. Otherwise, you’re pushing your body when you have exceeded its limits.

But why are ultradian rhythms important, and what benefits do they have? 

Why Are Ultradian Rhythms Important? 

If you’re like most people, chances are that you are overexerting yourself in an attempt to get more done. For example, drinking coffee despite feeling tired is one example of pushing too much.

This is because we think that sitting down and working all day helps us get more done. But is that true? 

The biggest issue that comes with not taking breaks is that it releases stress hormones.

In short bursts, stress can actually be an effective tool. When we refuse to break away, however, this buildup of stress hormones can be bad for our productivity and our overall health. 

You have to take breaks if you want to remain healthy and productive. 

When you rest and recharge, you are in a better position to return to your work relaxed and energized. By working with your ultradian rhythm cycle, you can accomplish this in a way that is naturally effective. 

That said, it is important to note that it is not good enough to take breaks. You have to make sure that you are taking breaks the right way.

Let’s break down how you can leverage ultradian rhythms to your advantage. 

How To Get the Most Out of Your Ultradian Rhythms

When you are focused on getting work done, it can be hard to justify taking breaks. After all, most of us would rather get work done than take a 20 or 30-minute break to relax and recharge.

As you have seen above, however, the issue is that we are going to get burnt out later to push through more work now. 

Once we see the flaws in this, we can use our ultradian rhythm cycle to avoid burnout, improve focus, and boost productivity. That said, those making that transition can have an issue learning how to take breaks.

If you’re using your breaks to do smaller tasks, it doesn’t matter how much less brainpower you are using to do them. Your brain isn’t going to recognize that you are taking a break.

To get the most out of your breaks, you have to do something that allows you to break away from your work.

(The only time you may want to consider using switching tasks as a “break” is if you don’t have the time to break away.)

Ultradian Rhythm Break Ideas

Ultradian Rhythm Break Ideas

Figuring out exactly what a good break looks like isn’t easy if you’ve never taken a break in the past.

To help you get the most out of your downtime, here are some great break ideas that will help you recharge.

1. Engage in Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is a highly recommended daily practice. This is due to the fact that it can help you remain grounded and de-stress.

If you are engaged in work that causes stress, mindfulness meditation can help you let go of that stress and experience a sense of calm.

If you’ve got a place to sit, you have a place to meditate!

2. Take a Quick Walk or Workout Break

Exercise is a great way to boost your mood and your energy. Something as simple as a walk works.

If your office has a gym, if you work from home, or if you can leave your office, add exercise to your schedule. 

3. Enjoy a Brief Snooze

Although this is not available to everyone, those who can might want to fit in a nap during one of their breaks.

Taking a nap gives you a complete break from your thoughts and helps you to rest and recharge. It can often make you feel better if you often get hit with that midday slump as well.

Set your timer for 20 to 30 minutes and power nap. Once you wake up, you will be ready to tackle work with more energy and enthusiasm. 

4. Have Fun Doing a Creative Activity

Unless you have a highly-creative career, chances are that you don’t get to engage in many of the hobbies you love. A break is a great time to squeeze these activities in.

Whether you like writing, drawing, or painting, pull out your materials during a break.

This will give you something fun and exciting to do to take your mind off of work. 

5. Leave Your Workspace (and Get Outside)

Having a separate space to work is great because it allows your mind to get into work mode once you are in that space. That said, staying in that space can also make it so that your mind thinks that it needs to continue working.

Break away completely by leaving your workspace (if possible) and getting outside.

Between the fresh air, the sun, and nature, you will too feel rested and relaxed. 

6. Eat a Power Snack

More often than not, we fill our breaks with sugary snacks and coffee in an attempt to give us an energy boost. The results? Instead, we end up feeling jittery and crashing while trying to get more work done.

If you are hungry or need a snack, reach for more filling and energizing foods like nuts, yogurt, and bananas.

The better the fuel you put in your body, the more efficiently you are going to operate. 

While these are a few break ideas, this gives you a better idea of what a good break looks like.

You can then incorporate more of them into your day after you finish an intense period of focus.


The ultimate goal is to let go of your work and give your brain time to regain its strength

What If I’m on a Roll? 

If you have been feeling burnt out, switching over to your ultradian rhythm cycle can be a great way to improve concentration and boost productivity. 

But there are some instances where you will want to completely ignore everything I’ve said above. 

As a general rule, working with your ultradian rhythms is a great way to get through your work without pushing yourself and running out of energy.

But there are some exceptions to this rule. The only time you should ignore breaks is when you have achieved a flow state

A flow state is achieved when you have become so immersed in an activity that you feel like you lose yourself in it. This can often happen to us when we begin working on something that we are passionate about. We then lose track of time and focus only on the task at hand. 

Forcing yourself to break away when you are experiencing flow can be counterproductive.

If you feel like you are on a roll, you don’t have to break away. Instead, keep going until you feel like you either need a break or have fallen out of that flow state. 

Ultradian rhythms are best for when you must focus on tasks that would normally stress you out.

Field Notes

Our body can handle a certain amount of challenging activity before it needs to take a break. If we listen to our bodies and work with ultradian rhythms, we can boost our productivity and avoid burnout. All you have to do is: 

  1. Work During Your 90-Minute Window of Opportunity. Set a timer, avoid distractions, and stay focused on one task. Having a specific window of time to complete tasks can make it easier to focus on each task as you do them. Once your 90 minutes is up, you walk away from the task until the next 90-minute period. 
  2. Take a 20 to 30-Minute Break Once You’ve Finished. Unless you’ve reached a flow state and decide to work longer, walk away from your task, and take a break. This will allow you to forget about work, recharge your mental battery, and reduce stress. The more recharge, the better prepared you will be for the next chunk of time you use to tackle work. 
  3. Plan Ahead and Block Out Your Time. If you want to prioritize your ultradian rhythm cycle, block out your time into 90-minute sections on your schedule. Then, schedule your tasks inside of those time blocks. Once you get a better feel for how much you can do in 90 minutes, you can create a work schedule that works best for you. 

Leading a more productive life means understanding how our body works and working with it to get better results.

If you want to eliminate burnout and reduce stress, use the guide above to learn more about your ultradian rhythm clock.

These natural cycles can improve focus and make it easier for you to work without succumbing to fatigue.

Once you know how to use them, burnout will be far easier to manage!

Thanks for reading!

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