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Avoid Burnout and Increase Awareness Using Ultradian Rhythms

Circadian rhythms’ lesser know cousins may hold the key to a more fruitful day

Brad Buzzard
Nov 7, 2017 · 11 min read
Source: Unsplash

The Cycles of our Nature

BRAC and the Waking Rest-Activity Cycle

BRAC was first suggested in 1960 by physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman and his research assistant Eugene Aserinsky, both widely regarded as pioneers in the field of sleep research.

The Waking Rest-Activity Cycle: A Background

The 20-Minute Break

The best resource I have found on how to utilize our waking rest-activity cycles is called The 20-Minute Break by Ernest Rossi, Ph.D. Rossi’s interest in the rest-activity cycle was born from his experience as an assistant to psychologist Milton Erickson, fabled for his unconventional approach to psychotherapy, which often involved hypnosis and other trance-like states.

The Ultradian Healing Response

The Ultradian Healing Response is just a fancy name for identifying when you need to rest during the day, and then making sure you get that rest. And to be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to take a nap (although if you need to nap, and have the ability to, that’s OK from time to time). It just means that you need to take a break from your work, and allow your mind to do its own thing.

Anatomy of the Waking Rest-Activity Cycle

Rossi simplifies things, and breaks the waking rest-activity cycle into 90 minutes of activity and 20 minutes of rest, making a full cycle last 110 minutes. Everybody is different, however, so one full cycle for you could last anywhere from 80–120 minutes.

Putting it into Practice

Working up to a 90-Minute Work Session

The first step is to get a timer. I use the paid service Focus@Will, which plays specialized music using brainwave entrainment to help boost performance. Interestingly, it works on a similar 90-minute time frame per session, making it synergize perfectly with the activity component of the waking rest-activity cycle.

Pomodoro means tomato in Italian, and the technique is named after this cute tomato timer.
  • At the end of your typical 20-minute break, how do you feel? Do you feel like you need another 5 minutes before you’re ready to work? Or do you feel like you were ready 5 minutes ago? Or perhaps 20 minutes is just the right length?

How to Get the Most out of Your 20-Minute Break

Now that you built yourself up to the full 110 minute cycle, it is time to focus on optimizing how you spend your healing break. This is where Rossi’s book really excels. He discusses how to ease into the break, what to do during the break, how to apply hacks during the break to create changes in other areas of your life, and much more. The following is a basic checklist that I’ve synthesized and interpreted from the material:

  • Try to avoid anything taxing, including reading and watching videos. If reading is truly the only thing that helps you relax, then go for it.
  • This is not meant to be nap time. Naps activate the sleep version of the rest-activity cycle, which works differently than the waking rest-activity cycle. If you are so fatigued that you need a nap, and a nap is available to you, then by all means take a nap. Jump back into the waking rest-activity cycle when you are ready.
  • Walking is fine if you work in a sedentary job, but find a route that is relatively free from loud distractions. Otherwise find a quiet place to sit or lie down, or remain at your desk if that is the only option.
  • If you are sitting, close your eyes and listen to your breath and sense your pulse. If you are walking, listen to your breath and sense your pulse but pay attention to where you are walking (you don’t want to get hit by a car). Ease into these biological rhythms.
  • This may feel like the beginning of a meditation, but that’s not what we are after. Here, you can allow your mind to go pretty much wherever it wants. Daydreaming and fantasizing are perfectly fine, but try to think comforting or restful thoughts. Feel free to work though any real-world challenges, but try not to get caught up in any negative emotions that may arise as a result.
  • Each person has their own baseline cycle duration, but this can be altered by extenuating circumstances. If for some reason you work through your healing break, that doesn’t mean you have to wait another 90 minutes before you can take your break again. Take a break whenever you can, and then perform a shorter work session the next time. Your body is adaptable and can return to baseline if you let it.

Identifying your Individual Patterns

Now that you have built yourself up to 90 minutes of uninterrupted work, and have experienced the 20-minute healing break, you can start to determine your optimal cycle lengths.

Final Thoughts

What I love about the concept of the waking rest-activity cycle is that it encompasses multiple areas of self-optimization. Not only is it a great tool for time-management and productivity, but it also offers a great foray into hypnotic and subconscious states.


Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Brad Buzzard

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Exploring the funky side of self-evolution.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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