Besides thousand of hours of practice, do you know what the world’s highest achievers all have in common? It’s as true for athletes, actors and musicians as it is for doctors, scientists, business owners and government leaders. Those at the top of their field take more breaks than the others.
These high achievers leverage the natural cycle in the brain and body called ultradian rhythms. An ultradian rhythm is any cycle lasting less than 24 hours. Groundbreaking work by Professor Anders Ericsson identified peak performers as operating in 90-minute bursts of focused practice, followed by 15 minutes of recovery. Even our fundamental sleep patterns occur in 90-minute cycles, as discovered by Nathan Kleitman. If you’re interested in the research of ultradian rhythms, Fast Company has a great summary in Why You Need To Unplug Every 90 Minutes. We are designed for focus then rest. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Researchers at DeskTime, a software app that tracks employees’ use of time throughout the day, examined 36,000 employees and discovered that the most productive 10% all take effective breaks. They work on average 52 minutes and then take a 17 minute break. They treat work time like a sprint, then intentionally recharge at break—walk, nap or socially talk rather than check email or mindlessly surf the internet. In Finland, public schools are set up on a 45/15 schedule: 45 minutes formal instruction then 15 minutes unstructured time. Intense bursts of energy followed by intentional rest leverages the brain’s ultradian rhythms and expands our effectiveness.
Taking breaks may sound like common sense to you. So why aren’t more of us already practicing it? Helpful information is not enough. Knowing about breaks and actually taking breaks are two different things. And what gets in the way is that many of us have a fundamental outlook of “I have too much to do,” as in, “I know I should take a break, but I have too much to do.” Has life ever seemed this way for you? The truth is, “too much to do” only exists in the world of language and perception. For whatever I have that needs to be done, I will experience it as too much only as long as I call it too much. In the world of action, there is only ever what I’m doing and what I’m not doing. And having a sense that I have too much to do—which leads me to calling it too much to do—usually comes from three big sources:
I have too much to do when…
- I’m trying to please others to keep them liking me. Setting boundaries is impossible if I’m afraid of saying no. So who would I be without the concern that others like me?
- I’m trying to validate my self-worth to keep me liking myself. So what would be possible if I saw my worth as an inherent birthright and not anything that can ever be worked for? What if I really get present to the possibility that I won’t ever do my way into being?
- I’m not clear on what’s most important to me, aka what I’m actually committed to. Most humans can effectively handle 5-6 main commitments. When I don’t know what mine are, I will say yes to things that really don’t matter to me. When I’m clear on my commitments, I get intentional with what I give my yes to. When I’m intentional with my yes, I say ‘no’ a lot more, and ‘maybe’ becomes unnecessary.
The rhythm of intentional focus followed by breaks will elevate the quality of your work, conversations, health, relationships, spirit—any area of your life you choose to live it. By letting go of the perception that you ever have too much to do, you’ll discover your own capacity to break up your day—to fully pause and rest—and excel your life.