CTO Compass

How to craft your day for maximum focus

Last week, we delved into the importance of finding opportunities to move in our day. Before that, we unravelled the secrets behind circadian rhythms, shedding light on the importance of winding down before sleep. Today, let's discuss another rhythm that heavily influences our days - ultradian rhythms.

Did you know that our brains operate in cycles lasting approximately 90 minutes? These cycles, known as the Basic Rest Activity Cycle (BRAC), determine the optimal length of time we can fully focus before our motor and perceptual skills begin to falter. Within each cycle, our brain becomes a voracious energy consumer, depleting our reserves and disrupting the delicate balance of sodium and potassium, which scientists believe contribute to these rhythms. Subsequently, our brain requires rest to restore this equilibrium before we embark on the next bout of intense focus.

Yet, we often find ourselves pushing through these natural cycles, only to be confronted with the unwelcome arrival of stress-triggered, overworked brains. But what if we could harness the power of these ultradian rhythms to our advantage?

Imagine achieving higher levels of focus and getting your most important work done while maintaining the energy you have in the early part of your day all day.

By aligning our actions with our body’s natural rhythm, we enhance our ability to concentrate and nurture our overall well-being and zest.

To maintain and maximise our daily focus, the goal is to work for around 90 minutes (everyone’s rhythms are individual, so that could be anywhere between 60-120 minutes) with intense effort, followed by a break for 15-20 minutes to recover. Broadly speaking, for every 5 minutes of effort, you’ll want to accrue around a 1 minute break period.

In the Heroic self-development program, it’s no accident that we have Energy as the third category alongside our Work and our Love. You’ll have a hard time showing up at your best in your Work and in your Love if you don’t have your energy dialled in.

By consciously crafting our schedules to exploit the ebb and flow of ultradian rhythms, we can design our days for a life that maximizes focus, creativity, and engagement.

While the answer is simple, it’s often hard to apply in practice. With the demands of the modern world and our colleagues constantly tugging at us, it isn’t easy to follow through on our intentions.

Take control of your time and energy

First, use your calendar proactively to block out your focus time, and keep these appointments with yourself just as you do when they’re with clients and team members.

Let your colleagues know what you’re doing ahead of time so that they aren’t surprised or annoyed. Remind them that the next 15-20 minutes following the block is a great time to talk with you.

Everyone’s different, but most people are more alert and focused earlier in the day. Start your days where possible with your most important work that requires maximum focus. Plan ahead so you know what you’ll do in those work blocks so as not to waste the time and momentum.

Here’s where I find technology to help since I know that when I do get into flow, time passes quickly, and I can easily blow past the optimal window and forget to take a break and move.

Quick and simple, use a timer app on your phone, set an alarm for the end of the focus block, and set another one for the break period.

Brain.FM is another app on my phone and computer that I use to help me quickly get into a focused frame of mind. It plays a particular type of music which stimulates your brain. It has a timer mode, too, so when the music ends, I know the time is up and it’s time to move.

Finally, I also have a little widget on my computer that helps enforce taking a break. When the timer is up, it can lock the screen for the prescribed break period.

All breaks are not created equally

Taking a break is an essential part of the cycle to maximise your whole day. It can be incredibly challenging in a work environment because, to the untrained eye, you can appear to be slacking off.

Find ways to build in natural breaks in alignment with your optimal focus periods. In software development, for example, it’s good practice to have automated tests to exercise the code and ensure regressions don’t happen. An established application with a comprehensive test suite can take a while to run. It provides a perfect opportunity to take a productive break and allow your brain to recharge for the next intensely focused stint. Often, during this “break”, by doing something else, your brain will devise a solution to the problem you have been working on. A double win!

Don’t go blowing your brain up with distractions. It’s essential to do something that re-energises you.

Don’t go checking your emails. Don’t go on social media. Don’t read the news.

They will cause your brain to be distracted and scattered, heightening your emotions and increasing your stress, not decreasing it.

As we discussed last time, this is a great time to move. Talk a short walk, even if it’s just around the office.

Simple menial tasks are another option. When you’ve moved, or at least stood up to reset your metabolic system, there are likely plenty of simple tasks on your list that need doing which aren’t mentally taxing and which aren’t emotive. It’s not as good as a proper break, but it does provide an opportunity to reset. If you’re working from home, it’s a great time to do the dishes or put a load of washing on. They are short, simple tasks that don’t tax your brain, allowing it to refocus.

I also recommend sitting up straight in your chair and taking a few deep breaths to calm your nervous system and/or close your eyes and take a few minutes to practice mindfulness.

Be as intensely off as you are intensely on

Your day should resemble a wave pattern. When you’re on, you’re on. And when you’re off, you’re off. Be as intensely off as you are intensely on.

Build your discipline to stick with an optimal cycle, working with your body instead of against it. Experiment to find your personal optimal envelope of focused effort and ride the wave!

When you work with your body, and not against it, you’ll find that you better maintain your energy levels throughout the day and finish the day feeling less stressed and overworked. As a bonus, you’ll have achieved more from the intense focus and concentration.

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

In your Thinking Time this week, you might like to consider how you could incorporate more focused blocks of deep work into your days, taking into account your specific reality.

How can you ensure that you maximise your work blocks? How and when would you plan the work you’ll undertake in the blocks?

Make a list of activities you can engage in to recharge and recover so that you already know what you will do and not allow yourself to get dragged back to