In the real world, people cannot perform at their best 24/7. We aren’t machines that can systematically perform at the same rate. We are human. We go through emotions, have moods, and many other factors that affect our productivity. The way to reach peak performance is by listening to your body and making your schedule based around your body’s state. When you do this that’s when your productivity super powers come alive and when you play, as we call it, at hero mode.
Body Rhythms 101
Before we delve into how you can get to the level of hero mode (we got the name from our friend Kevin Pearn whose blog is also amazing), you first have to understand a couple concepts on your body’s natural rhythms. As you know, everyone has 24 hours in a day, but our bodies also go through a 24 hour cycle each day which is called a circadian rhythm (“your internal clock”). This is where the body sleeps, releases hormones, processes food, etc. Pretty much anything your body does on a daily basis. If you ever had jet lag and woke up at times when you’re supposed to be asleep at your new location, that’s your circadian rhythm doing its own thing.
Whereas once a day your body goes through a circadian rhythm, your body also goes through multiple cycles called an ultradian rhythm. Every 90 to 120 minutes or so your body goes through an ultradian rhythm. This is what causes you to have different periods of alertness and drowsiness throughout the day. Each ultradian starts off with alertness but after 90 minutes or so, this starts to fade away and your body wants to rest and take a break. This is when you start to get hungry, you yawn, you’re most likely to procrastinate, you find it difficult to concentrate and you want to stretch your body. This is also around that time when you are most likely to make mistakes.
Why am I telling you all this? The ebbs and flows of energy we experience throughout the day are directly tied to your ultradian rhythms. We are not like machines that can perform at full capacity 24/7. We can focus for a period of time, but then we also need to take a break and eat before we can go back to engage at whatever you want to do. Expert Rossi explains it very nicely here why adhering to your natural body’s rhythm is so important:
The basic idea is that every hour and a half or so you need to take a rest break – if you don’t you may be well on your way to the Ultradian Stress Syndrome: you get tired and lose your mental focus, you tend to make mistakes, get irritable and have accidents – If you continue to ignore your need to take a break you can experience more and more stress until you actually get sick.
Playing at Hero Mode
The key to high level performance and peak productivity is by aligning your work with your ultradian rhythms. That is when you play at hero mode. This is when you are so focused at the work in front of that you forget what time it is and you’re in “the zone.” You don’t see everything that is happening around you. It’s when you get so much work done you even surprise yourself. We all have had these hero mode moments, and I’m confident that those happened during times of the day when you are naturally alert or focused. The great thing is, you can reach this state consistently by aligning your most important tasks with the times of the day when your body is ready for the heavy lifting.
It is important to know your own periods of when you are most alert and when you’re most dull, because this allows you to plan properly. When you align your most important tasks with the times of the day when you are most alert, you will get more work done and more effectively. We can go against our own natural rhythms, but this requires a lot of willpower and release of stress hormones that should be only used at appropriate times (like emergencies or life-or-death situations). Rather than going against the current, go with the flow. In other words, organize your day based on your ultradian rhythms.
For example, a lot of people are the most alert in the morning. If you are one of those people, like yours truly, you should plan your day so that your highest priority tasks are scheduled in the morning. In the afternoon is when your body’s circadian and ultradian cycle reaches it lowest point. This when you’re most likely to be drowsy and low on energy. Like we said in our sleep article, we are hardwired to take a nap around that time.
Now that you know the importance of your own rhythms, it’s time to start planning your perfect day. The first thing you need to do is to identify your most productive hours in a day. In other words, what times of the day are you most creative, focused, or alert. If you do time tracking like we do, you can go over your data and actually see it. But to make it easy, you can download this Excel file to help you find when you can play at hero mode.
This is how you use it:
- Each hour, write down in the box your level of physical energy, concentration, and mood.
- Scores: 1 = low, 2 = medium, 3 = high (the higher the number, the better).
- Track this for at least 5 days, Monday through Friday.
Your physical energy is your indication how energized you are. If you’re energetic score it at a 3 but if you’re feeling tired then score it a 1. The same idea goes for concentration and mood. After a week of tracking, review your scorecards and see where you have the most threes. Those are the times when you should play on hero mode. You don’t need to have all columns at three, although that would be perfect.
Also, you don’t have to have it by the minute, but be aware of specific times of the day. Some people are more productive in morning, some are in the afternoon. Zooming in when exactly your hero mode hours are is important, because there is a big difference between working at 7am and 11am. Both are technically in the morning, but at very different times of the day. This Excel sheet will help you identify around which times of the day you should bring out your super powers.
Build Your Perfect Schedule
Now that you’re aware of when you can hit peak performance, it’s time to build your perfect schedule. We have mentioned a simple habit before that we call frog eating, which is a simplified version of this article. But we are taking it to the next level.
When you start your day and have prioritized which tasks you want to do that day (whether it’s using the Covey quadrant method, Ivy Lee’s rule of 6 or something else), arrange your schedule so your most important tasks are scheduled during your peak times. On the flip side, this will also put your low value tasks at times when you’re not that focused or energized. Bonus points if you can plan your day like this the night before.
When you reach your end of your cycle, that’s when you need to take a break. Look for signs around the 90 minute mark when you start to feel like doing something or when you aren’t as focused anymore. You don’t have to adhere rigidly to 90 or 120 minutes, but look for cues around that time when you aren’t as focused. That’s when you know you’re reaching the end of your ultradian cycle and once you’re reaching that point, we highly suggest you do one of the following things:
- Clear to neutral.
- Hydrate yourself with a glass of water (or two).
- Have a small meal of around 300-400 calories (avoid stuffing yourself with a lot of carbohydrates, they make you feel lazy).
- Disengage from your workplace. Go somewhere else so your brain changes “frequency” to a different environment so you disengage from your work.
Then go back to your workplace and play at hero mode again.
The alignment of your highest value tasks during the times of the day when you are most alert, energized, or creative, is really a game-changer for a lot of people. You probably do this naturally already to an extent, but I’m confident you can do it even better and step it up a notch. If you are someone who flames out fast and you maybe just have one or two periods of hero mode moments in a day, the first thing you want to look at is the following points:
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- Are you eating (just) enough food and drinking enough water? We will cover nutrition a lot more in the future.
- Do you exercise? Regular exercise will increase your effectiveness but also the number of hero mode moments you have in a day.
To give you an idea how you can apply the concepts, I’ll give you an idea how I use this hero mode concept. The graph above shows you when my body naturally is most alert. As you can see, I’m a guy of extremes; I’m most alert in the morning and late at night. That’s when see me play at hero mode. The times in between I’m mediocre. Sure I can do multiplications like 3.5 * 3.5 in my head but anything between 3pm and 6pm really shouldn’t be focused work. The graph below is annotated for when I’m bringing out my super powers.
I wake up usually at 7am and then do my morning ritual. After my morning ritual, that’s when I’ll start doing my most important task of the day (that I planned the night before). After my lunch at around noon, I’ll hammer out one more big task (so I have completed three major tasks already, see the peaks) and then I’m off to la-la land. Not really, but I just know that in the afternoon I have a hard time focusing for long periods of time. This is the time when I do my low energy or low value tasks of the day. When dinner time hits, I’ve had my dessert, and a little bit of relaxing, and that’s when I usually feel like doing focused work again. At around 11pm I’ll go to bed and then a new circadian begins.
- Identify times of the day when you can play at hero mode.
- Build your perfect schedule based on your body’s natural peak times.
- Schedule your highest value activities for when you at play hero mode.
- Read The Power of Full Engagement if you want to delve deeper into peak performance for productivity.
Photo by JD Hancock.