Ultradian Cycles: How to Use and Understand Them

Have you ever felt like you’re too busy to be able to take a break? Ever sat at your desk trying to focus but realised you probably should have had that nap because you basically didn’t achieve much at all in the last hour? I’ve had those moments too! This could actually be from your Ultradian Cycles?

Amy Doyle

Amy Doyle

Holistic Counsellor

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Understanding my ultradian rhythms have helped me utilise my time better and take the guilt out of stopping and enjoying some downtime because when we know our low focus and energy times – it’s easier to allow ourselves to relax into the moment. Keep reading below to find out how to map yours. 

What are ultradian cycles?

Have you ever felt like you’re too busy to be able to take a break? Ever sat at your desk trying to focus but realised you probably should have had that nap because you basically didn’t achieve much at all in the last hour? I’ve had those moments too!

Understanding my ultradian rhythms have helped me utilise my time better and take the guilt out of stopping and enjoying some downtime because when we know our low focus and energy times – it’s easier to allow ourselves to relax into the moment. Keep reading below to find out how to map yours. 

Ultradian cycles are the pattern of highs and lows you experience throughout your day, from one moment to the next. These cycles are driven by ultradian pacemakers in your brain that control certain physiological processes, including hunger, sleepiness, alertness, and body temperature.
 
This biological process operates over 24 hours and is generally made up of 90 minute blocks. A peak can last from 60-90 minutes and a trough usually goes for 20 minutes.

What are the benefits of using ultradian cycles?

Learning to recognize and work with these cycles can lead to increased productivity, better focus on tasks at hand, enhanced well-being, and improved performance at work or in play.

More specifically you can use it to:

  • observe and track your analytical thinking, creative space, motor skills and motivation levels
  • know when to undertake certain activities -such as study, rest, exercise, complex problem solving, create masterpieces
  • understand yourself better
  • gain trust in your body and natural rhythms.

How do you map your ultradian cycle?

Here’s how to use ultradian cycles to help you get the most out of your day and your life.

  1. Purchase/find a small notepad (I use A6 size) or you can use your phone notes
  2. Make a table on each page, for each day
  3. Write the following column headings in – time, analytical thinking, creativity, motor skills, motivation, notes.
  4. On each row, you will have a 90 minute block and you will mark each of the categories as Low (L), Medium (M) or High (H) and any relevant notes

Next you need to start tracking your day. It helps if you wake up around the same time each day, but if you don’t just start your cycle from your wake up time. Also make notes of activities you were doing at the time – if it worked for the time block or not. It comes in handy when you are scheduling your time.

Here’s an example, where I’m a month in and have found activities that work well in each block.  

How can I use ultradian cycles to my advantage?

Once you have a week to a month of data (I recommend a month especially for women as you may find some slight differences over the course of your menstrual cycle), you can begin to schedule your time better.

I find doing a full stock of all my activities and responsibilities over a month and then figuring out what suits each time block best. Look at your activities, simply mark what needs analytical thinking, creativity, motor skills or motivation – or combo! Next, simply pop them into a weekly and monthly schedule.

Most people will find they have about 2-3 high energy/focus periods throughout the day. They’re the ones you really want to make the most of. 

Example 1: medium motor control, medium motivation levels

For example, one of my best times to do a workout is at approximately 5.45am – medium motor control, medium motivation level.

It means that if I can get enough motivation together to jump out of bed at the beginning of the cycle, I’ll make good use of this block. I like to be home as the kids are getting up, so I can also have a cheeky wind-down sauna or long hot shower before putting my “mum” hat on. 

A 7.00am class may work, but I’m usually dragging my feet with low motivation and it conflicts with my values – I prefer to be home with the kids and getting them ready for the day. An 8.30am stretch or light yoga type workout can also work but I generally need outside motivation (eg. a friend meeting me there). 

Example 2: medium or high everything

Where you have medium or high levels across the board, these are the time blocks you want to protect! That means these are usually your most productive times. Be mindful of what you schedule in here – make it worthwhile and make sure it’s connected to your goals and values. 

These are the times you want to put your phone away and limit distractions

Example 3: low everything

These are the usually the best times of day to mark as downtime. Watch a movie, take a nap, call a friend, read a book, play a game – whatever you consider downtime. Make the most of it so you feel refreshed and rejuvenated. 

Example 4: high creative time

Depending on your personal projects, hobbies or work projects, you may also want to protect these blocks too. It feels incredible when you are in the zone and your creativity is just flowing with ease. 

What happens in an ultradian cycle period?

There are three stages:

  1. warm up (5-15minutes)
  2. optimal time (60-80 minutes)
  3. downward slope (5-15 minutes)

The 90-minute block starts at the bottom of a mountain. It takes about 5-15 minutes to warm up and access those medium and high levels of energy. In those moments, there can be feeling of agitation and strain as you get into focus mode.

Next I have about 60 minutes to make the most of it before it starts to slide back into the trough. 

What’s really important is that you are setting yourself up for a successful block. This means that you are using the last 10 minutes of the previous cycle and up to the first 10 minutes of the next cycle to get where you need to be, have everything you need so you are ready and waiting for that energy to kick in. If you’re stuffing about, you may not ease into the block as well as you could. 

When you begin the downward slope, give yourself a time to stick to, I find it eases the fidgety energy that begins to arise. Eg. Tell yourself “in 10 more minutes, I’ll go make that tea.” 

Can I push through an ultradian cycle period?

Of course you can. Track your data and see how it works out for you. Notice:

  • the signals from your body when it needs a break (fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness, loss of focus, etc),
  • what you need to be able to push through  
  • how it impacts you (more react, less capable of thinking clearly and reflectively, ability to see bigger picture, etc)
  • how it impacts the remaining cycles for the day or the next. 

I find we balance it one way or another – if you push through a few hours, you may be need more downtime later in the day then usual. If you push through days or weeks on end, chances are you are going to need to recover that energy sooner or later. And of course we all know that when we don’t, it often leads to burnout, sickness or needing longer periods of rest. 

It’s also important to note that the 90 minute cycle is a guide. Some people have reported their cycles are more like 2hours. This is why taking the time to track your own data is important. 

The counterintuitive secret to sustainable great performance is to live like a sprinter. In practice, that means working at your highest intensity in the mornings, for no more than 90 minutes at a time before taking a true break.

Tony Shwartz, Author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working

What next?

It’s really about tracking your data, experimenting with it, getting to knowing your own rhythms and scheduling your time to make the most out of it. Remember, don’t treat yourself like a robot, remember a healthy mind is also important to get the most out of your day.

Need help aligning your goals, energy and time? Get in touch here or take a look at the free Goal Alignment Planner.

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Meet The Author

Amy Doyle

Amy Doyle

Amy is a Holistic Counsellor who helps her clients move from this idea that they are broken or missing pieces of their own puzzle, to owning their story, claiming back all parts of themselves and merging together as one team to allow them to rest and be in their deepest expression.

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