Circadian Rhythm Hacks for Productivity and Sleep
Ever see those people who are “with it” at all times of the day? Whether it’s first thing in the morning or halfway into the workday, they’re just cruising about with poise, control, and a seemingly unnatural level of focus. Chances are these people aren’t superhumans equipped with special capabilities. They might just be “biohackers,” which is just a fancy word to describe people who figure out how to regulate and amplify their body’s natural processes and systems to function at peak performance levels.
The good news is you don’t need any special credentials or education to figure out how to biohack your way into a productive flow state on a daily basis. By simply understanding and preparing for the natural ebbs and tides of your circadian rhythm, you can set yourself up for productive days and restful nights.
What is a circadian rhythm?
A circadian rhythm is basically an organism’s internal biological clock. The word is derived from the Latin denominations for circa (around) and dian (day). Nearly all living things operate on some kind of circadian rhythm. This includes animals, insects, plants, and even microbes. In fact, scientists have identified similar genes in humans, fruit flies, mice, and fungi that form the molecular components of this internal clock.
Naturally, one’s circadian rhythm is tied to the cycles of daytime and nighttime. Light plays the most critical role in this process; your brain uses light as the primary trigger to send different cues to your body about how to operate based on this ongoing 24-hour cycle. The cues range from changes in your body temperature and hormone production to your eating habits and mood. The most noticeable cue in the circadian rhythm is the feeling of drowsiness at night, which is triggered by the body’s release of the hormone melatonin.
While every person has a circadian rhythm, they don’t all use the same clock. Most people who work primarily during the daytime operate on similar schedules, but there are several factors that can change one’s circadian rhythm. The first factor is mutations of certain genes which can present as sleep disorders. Secondly, if you work night shifts or frequently travel across time zones, you may throw off your natural circadian rhythm due to unpredictable sleep patterns and schedules. Finally, exposure to blue light from tech devices late at night can disrupt the dim light melatonin onset (DLMO), which is when your body starts to naturally release melatonin to help you drift off to sleep.
Circadian rhythm productivity hacks
A study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine examined how circadian rhythms can impact attention levels throughout the day. The study found that “the components of attention reach their lowest levels during nighttime and early hours in the morning, better levels occur around noon, and even higher levels can be observed during afternoon and evening hours.”
Likewise, according to the Harvard Business Review, most people reach their peak levels of alertness at two specific time periods: from 11 am to noon; and from 5 pm to 6 pm. Conversely, the average person can expect an energy slump not just in the evening before bed but also in the mid-afternoon between 2 pm and 3 pm. Contrary to popular belief, this mid-afternoon lull is not a lunch hangover so much as a natural dip that’s part of your daily cycle.
With this knowledge, you can structure your day accordingly. Plan to accomplish your most important tasks that require heavy concentration in the late morning, between 10 am and noon, when you’re likely to feel the highest amount of energy and alertness. Then, as you head into the afternoon, use that time to tackle some of your easier to-dos which require less energy during your “slump” period. Finally, you can use the last boost of energy in the early evening to either get ahead on work for the next day, get a workout in the books, or spend time practicing your favorite hobby or skill.
Circadian rhythm sleep hacks
Similarly, you can plan for an optimal night of rest by playing along with your circadian rhythm. Most people’s bodies are wired to start winding down around 9 pm to 10 pm, which is when that DLMO process kicks in. Granted, this time period may be different based on your current routine. If you’re used to going to bed later, your DMLO time may not occur until 11 pm to midnight or even later.
Regardless, you use this process to your advantage by saving your relaxing activities for this time - especially the activities that don’t require technological devices which can be disruptive to the cycle. This is a great opportunity to enjoy some light reading, a warm shower or bath, or some deep stretching. Even if Netflix is a die-hard part of your evening routine, you don’t have to give up that luxury. Blue light blocking glasses can allow you to keep binging your favorite shows as part of your nightly wind-down without it triggering your brain.
Most people get into their deepest levels of sleep between the hours of 2 am and 6 am. Again, not everyone follows the exact same schedule. If you’re an early riser and up before 6 am, you can intentionally shift your sleep rhythm to start and end earlier - but we don’t recommend trying to shorten the total amount of sleep you get, especially not on an ongoing basis. You might be able to get away with fewer than seven to nine hours of sleep each night for a while, but over time you’re going to start accruing “sleep debt” and experiencing fatigue, mental fogginess, and other negative impacts to your health.
Regardless of your schedule and routine, these tips can help you use your body’s natural rhythms to your advantage and feel your best all day long. Have other tips we didn’t mention? Let us know on social media!