How To Embrace Your Natural Circadian Rhythm For Success And Happiness

Maximize your energy by working with your body's natural rhythms, instead of fighting them.

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“There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.” 

– Alan Cohen

Recent research from MIT economists found that midday napping increases workers’ productivity, wellbeing, level of happiness, and even their monetary gains.  [1] This is exciting news that flies in the face of old-school gurus’ highly touted “hustle at any cost” mentality. 

High achievers are especially prone to taking a hard-charging approach. Unfortunately, they are likely to suffer a pattern of counterproductive busyness as a result, a side effect which can happen even in the best of times. Combine this with the current global climate of crisis fatigue, and we face a threat of epic proportions to both life contentment and our bottom lines. 

Implementing healthy coping strategies therefore matters now more than ever for both personal and professional sustainability. Read on to discover three simple steps to maximize productivity and performance via a severely underutilized strategy: power naps. 

  1. Go with the natural flow
    Have you ever stopped to wonder why you find yourself struggling to stay focused or even to keep your eyes open during the early- to mid-afternoon hours? Maybe you attribute it to having stayed up too late last night to catch up on emails. You might assume it’s because you bypassed breakfast in the midst of your typical morning frenzy. These are common issues that are proven to affect our energy levels [2, 3] and factor into what I call the “afternoon slump.” 

    However, there is also a lesser known element at play here. Our natural circadian rhythms, driven by the pineal gland in the brain, activate a boost of melatonin at midday and make us feel sleepy. 

    Try as we might to fight it, there is evidence to suggest that engaging in this internal battle can cause decline in our productivity, not an increase. [4] Pushing ourselves to stay focused and productive as a means of upholding the “hustle culture” code —while our bodies are clearly and repeatedly sending signals of a need for rest — creates cognitive dissonance (holding a belief that is inconsistent with our behavior). You know you’re not able to focus enough to be truly productive during this time, yet you feel guilty or lazy for considering taking a break to refresh your focus. This can then lead to a couple of problems. 

    First, we can get caught in negative thinking patterns. Berating ourselves for lack of discipline or failure to check all the tasks off our list takes up even more of our limited time and energy resources. Instead of giving ourselves the support we need to reach our goals, all we’re doing is running in circles, exhausted and upset that we haven’t reached them. 

    A secondary pitfall is that we may resort to “band-aid” energy boosters that throw our entire circadian rhythm out of whack (e.g., consuming caffeine). This sets into motion a perpetual pattern of feeling tired when we need energy, and then being unable to get restorative rest during sleep time hours. 

    Action Step: Plan high-focus tasks for the times of day you naturally feel most energized and mentally sharp. For most people this consists of the mid-morning hours and/or early evening hours, since our melatonin levels are naturally at their lowest during these times.   

    Benefits: You’ll be achieving top-priority tasks first thing, so you’ll feel more productive right from the start each day. As a result, you can enjoy a restorative power nap in the afternoon without guilt. 
     
  2. Shift your perspective
    High achievers often resist taking breaks of any kind, opting to “power through” on a mission to produce at any cost. It seems counterintuitive to accept that slowing down could actually result in performing more quickly and effectively in our work. The truth is, our brains need downtime in order to restore neurochemicals and increase our future attention. [5]  

    Unfortunately, when we neglect to take breaks, we also can fall into the trap of wasting what little mental energy we have available to us in the afternoon. Tired brains are easily distracted, which leads to a lot of effort expended for little result. This study shows that distraction lowers productivity by a whopping twenty percent! If you’ve ever gone to do a “quick check-in” to network on social media or reply to emails, then suddenly look up to discover that somehow hours have passed, you have experienced this firsthand.

    Action Step: Give yourself permission to release the stigma of break-takers. You are in control! Shift your perspective to see intentional breaks for what they truly are: a power play in your daily schedule and a critical part of your goal-achievement strategy.

    Benefits: Understanding the truth of how our brains work most effectively allows us to let go of outdated beliefs that, in reality, hold us back from reaching our fullest potential. You will feel more clarity and focus, enabling you to become more productive in your later afternoon / early evening hours (again, working with your body’s natural rhythm instead of fighting it).  
  3. Set limits

    It’s important to note that allowing ourselves the time and space for a nap is not a ticket to laze around all afternoon. Quite the opposite: this is a permission slip reserved for the go-getter in all of us! Just like with any goal, when our intention is to create a specific result, the key is to have a plan… so let’s make sure we’re optimizing the effects of this practice.

    The biggest mistake is to take too long of a nap. Between fifteen and twenty minutes is the ideal power nap length, because sleeping longer than 20 minutes allows our brains to go into a deeper sleep stage. [7] If we aren’t able to stay asleep for the 90 minutes required to complete a full sleep cycle, we’ll wake up feeling lethargic and mentally dull—not the result we are seeking!     

    Action Steps:
    A. Create a cozy nap sanctuary in your office (or home office), a quiet spot where you can let go and truly relax for a small bit of your afternoon. Especially if you are still feeling resistance around this, you want your space to be inviting, a retreat you look forward to settling into. Experiment with some different tools to help you relax into your nap, such as aromatherapy essential oils like lavender or sandalwood, a light-blocking eye mask, and maybe a comfy blanket to snuggle into.   

    B. Schedule your naptime. Just like you do for any high-priority project or appointment, it’s essential for your success-supportive naps. If you are still cringing a bit at the word “nap,” a simple shift in verbiage can go a long way to ease that resistance, so don’t hesitate to call it something else like “retreat” or “solitude.” The point is to treat it as an essential element in your daily planning: you are creating space for a new productivity strategy.       

    C. Set a timer, settle in, and relax, knowing your power nap is a vital practice for achievement and success.

    Benefits: Wake feeling refreshed—pampered, even!—and tackle the rest of the day at peak performance level. 

Simply by shifting our mindset and ending the uphill battle against our natural daily rhythms, we can implement power naps as a potent strategy for enhanced productivity. With this one small habit to balance the “virtue in work” and the “virtue in rest,” we can operate in a state of maximized mental stamina with reduced stress and exhaustion. In this sense, power naps are the quintessential “slow down to speed up” protocol for achieving success in business and life. 

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