What is it about 90 minutes that makes it the ideal time period for getting things done with maximum focus, resulting in better results? While researchers are still debating the exact nature of this phenomenon, it does well to know the 90 minute rule, which although is associated with one’s sleep patterns, can be applied to other spheres of life too. You can enhance personal and organizational productivity and time management with ease if the 90 minute rule is incorporated into the home and work environment. There are roughly three areas of your life which will benefit the most from this method – sleep, time and productivity. With practice, you can extend the habit to almost everything you do. Here’s a closer look at how you can apply it in daily life:
It was Nathaniel Kleitman who first discovered the ‘basic rest-activity cycle’ or the 90 minute sleep cycle, which is optimum for the human body. The human sleep cycle consists of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep. Sleep occurs in periods of 90 minutes each, wherein the first 65 minutes are the non-REM sleep time. This is followed by roughly 20 minutes of REM sleep, which is said to be the deepest stage of sleep, where we also dream. This is again followed by a period of non-REM sleep for 5 minutes. This is one complete 90 minute cycle of sleep experienced by everyone. Something called a period of “limbo” happens between the end of one cycle and the beginning of another, where disturbances, both internal, such as a full bladder or external, such as light or sound, can cause one to wake up.
Sleep patterns scheduled around this 90 minute cycle result in a more refreshed body and mind. For example, let us assume that your usual waking time in the morning is 6 am. If we count backwards in blocks of 90 minutes, we have possible sleeping times of 4:30 am, 3 am, 1:30 am, 12 am, 10:30 pm, 9 pm and 7:30 pm. If you’re aiming to get at least 8 hours of sleep, then the first four options are ruled out. You can probably aim at a bed time of roughly 10:30 pm in order to get requisite number of sleep hours and also wake up fresh and energized. Waking up in the said period of “limbo” is the most ideal time to wake up in order to avoid feeling groggy in the mornings. Using the 90 minute rule in the sleep cycle can solve your problems of sleeping enough hours, yet not feeling completely fresh in the mornings. This happens because your sleep cycle is broken midway. Try sleeping with this rule in mind, and see the results for yourself.
There are many time management techniques out there and we must choose wisely in order to make the maximum use of our time. Techniques such as Pomodoro are great if your work does not require prolonged periods of uninterrupted activity, however if you do need to work for longer hours at a stretch and don’t face problems with attention span, try using the 90 minute rule. The idea is simple: break your work down into blocks of 90 minutes, and take a long break of say 15-20 minutes between these 90 minute bursts, to regain lost energy and concentration. Try to physically remove yourself from your place of work and do something unrelated to it. It has been found that the mind can in fact focus for a period of 90 minutes straight with ease, however towards the end of these 90 minutes, the body begins to run out on its resources, resulting in loss of concentration, fatigue and hunger. At this point, it is necessary to take a break from work and not resort to energy drinks or caffeine to keep your mind alert, because the ultimate crash caused by these drinks at the end of the day is extremely harmful for your overall health.
The research conducted by Kleitman for sleep cycles at night led to the finding that our bodies operate in similar 90 minute rhythms in the day. During sleep, the pattern oscillates between non-REM and REM sleep. In waking hours, it goes between higher and lower levels of alertness. Like we mentioned under time management, the act of resorting to caffeine or other stimulants to pump up energy is one way in which we try to ignore the body’s natural signs that call for a break. Coupled with these external stimulants, we also end up using our stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help us maintain mental and physical alertness beyond the 90 minute period, but by using these emergency reserves in our bodies, we unknowingly go into “fight or flight” mode. The problem with our working environments in this day and age is that everything is connected digitally almost 24X7, and we use technology as a frequent excuse to use these stress hormones to cope.
The problem with relying on these hormones is that the prefrontal cortex in the brain, the area responsible for concentration and focus, begins to shut down. We become more reactive and are unable to think clearly. At this point, our work quality is easily affected. Experts in this field use the 90 minute rule as a key method in increasing productivity and call it “living like a sprinter;” you work at your highest intensity and focus in the mornings for 90 minutes, and then take a break. Keep up the cycle and aim at two to three breaks a day. This method has been found effective across various kinds of lifestyles, be it sportspersons, corporate professionals, musicians or writers. All of them have given this method a try and have found a marked difference in the amount of work they’re able to finish in 90 minute cycles.
The whole idea of the 90 minute rule is to understand your body and the way it functions and to use this knowledge to your advantage. Instead of fighting against our natural processes, we can learn to work with them and get the maximum benefits, both in the personal and professional spheres.