One recent night I had a decision to make: Should I stay up late to finish writing an article, or turn off my computer and take an evening walk? My hand hesitated at the power button. Deep down, I knew that I should wind down with a walk and leave the writing for the morning, when I’m most productive. But that night I didn’t listen to what my mind was telling me. Since I wanted to complete the article as soon as possible, I kept working.
That simple choice cost me both productivity and sleep. It ended up taking me three times longer to write at night than it would have taken me in the morning. My concentration suffered so much that I ended up wandering through cyberspace to watch YouTube cat videos. Once I start watching a cat doing something funny, I can forget about accomplishing anything. Cat videos are like potato chips to me — I can’t stop at just one. When I finally shut down my computer, I was wide awake from staring at the monitor’s blue light, which interfered with my body’s ability to release sleep-inducing melatonin. So I struggled with insomnia that night, as well.
If only I had stayed in tune with the rhythm of what comes naturally for me, I would have accomplished my goals well. Real success, I believe, comes from living in harmony with life’s natural rhythms. Why should we pressure ourselves to try to be productive every moment we’re awake? That’s not how the world around us works; it operates on rhythms that feature best times for work, rest, and recreation. The seasons change, ocean tides go in and out, the sun rises and sets. Even our own bodies function with natural rhythms — from our hearts beating to our lungs breathing. Ironically, we can be most productive when we rest instead of pushing ourselves constantly. By tuning into life’s natural rhythms, we can do what we’re naturally designed to do when it’s the best time for us to do it. The result is success!
Here are 6 ways to live in harmony with natural rhythms to optimize our success every day:
1. Get off the balance beam. It’s unrealistic to give proportionate effort to every dimension of our lives every day, because life doesn’t stay the same every day. Life is dynamic — constantly changing — and to live well, we need to adapt to those changes. Trying to live a balanced life puts an impossible burden on us, and we’ll struggle to keep up with all the daily demands. No matter how hard we try, we’ll end up feeling frustrated that we’re not spending as much time with our spouse and children as we should, not keeping up with our friendships enough, not meeting all our work deadlines, not serving enough in our communities, not maintaining our home well, etc. We can free ourselves from our culture’s pressure to live a balanced life.
2. Appreciate life’s natural rhythms. God has planned the right times for everything. Sometimes it’s time to work hard; sometimes it’s time to rest and recover. Sometimes it’s time to grieve; sometimes it’s time to celebrate. Certain days, weeks, and months are different from others, just as we go through different stages of life, from infancy to old age. Rather than exhausting ourselves trying to do everything in balance at the same time, we can do various activities in rhythm at different times.
3. Oscillate between work and rest. Sometimes it’s best to work hard; sometimes it’s best to rest well. We can give our full attention to whatever season we’re in. When it’s time to work, don’t get distracted by other pursuits. When it’s time to rest, don’t let work projects interfere. When deciding when it’s best to either work or rest, be sure to keep in mind factors in our personalities, such as whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert and whether we have the most energy in the morning or the evening. We can think through the best flow of an ideal day for us. When would we like to wake up and go to sleep? When would we tackle our most difficult jobs? When would we renew ourselves? Then consider the best days of the week to do various tasks, as well as the best times of each month and year for other activities, like scheduling a conference to work or vacation to rest.
4. Live in sync with our current life stage. All of our time is ultimately in God’s hands, so it makes sense for us to ask him for the wisdom we need to understand what’s appropriate and what’s not for the life stage we’re in now. How old are we? What’s our marital status? Do we have kids, and if so, what stage of life are they in? Have recent changes just affected our lives in profound ways — from the diagnosis of a serious illness, to a move or the start of a new job? Once we understand what distinct time of life we’re in right now, we can figure out how to live well within that stage.
5. Pace ourselves. Instead of trying to manage time, we can allow our lives to flow in harmony with time’s cycles. Pay attention to our biological clocks, which tells us when our bodies need food and sleep. Instead of forcing ourselves into an arbitrary schedule, we can our schedule around what’s most natural for us. Release ourselves from the pressure of all our responsibilities coming to bear at one time. Figure out the most appropriate times for certain activities — such as paying bills at a convenient time once a month, instead of whenever they happen to show up in our mailbox — and arrange to do those activities at set times without worrying about them at other times. Consider how often we should do various activities — from going on a date with our spouse to doing laundry — and plan to do them at appropriate intervals rather than trying to do too much all at once.
6. Build life-enhancing rituals. We can create healthy routines that are connected to some deeper meaning or significance and practice them regularly. Rituals can help us achieve our mission in every part of our lives and renew us in the process. We can come up with monthly rituals like visiting our grandparents every month, weekly rituals such as going to a place of worship each week, and daily rituals like exercising at a gym every day and eating dinner with our family each night. But in the process, we should stay flexible, always bearing in mind that our days will be different, so we may enjoy our rituals most days but not all days.
We don’t have to let other people’s measures of success pressure us to deviate from what our bodies and souls are telling us is best for our own lives. Deep down, we know how we really can succeed at accomplishing our goals. Maybe that includes taking a nap or a walk before finishing a work project. Maybe that means unplugging from our mobile devices for a few hours and not worrying about whether or not others can reach us. Maybe that means changing the type of work we do during this season of our lives.
No matter what, we can be successful if we’re working in the rhythms that resonate best with us!
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.