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The waking REM cycle

Posted on 11 March 2013

Since we’ve just gone through a time change and I’m starting a three-month stint of beginning my workday at 4:30 in the morning, I’m trying to figure out how to best adjust my sleep cycle to stay productive, alert, and sociable. I have a few ideas, but one of the most interesting things I came across is by a guy named Tony Schwartz in the pages of the New York Times. He says that while we’re all familiar with the REM cycle of sleep by now- the notion that we go through intervals of light sleep and deep sleep throughout the night- more recent studies have found this pattern may continue throughout the day:

“Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves — the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

“Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.”

I’ve come across this work-as-sleep notion before in a TED Talk by Jason Fried. He says:

“I think that sleep and work are very closely related, and it’s not just that you can work while you’re sleeping and you can sleep while you’re working.That’s not really what I mean. I’m talking specifically about the fact that sleep and work are phased-based, or stage-based, events. So sleep is about sleep phases, or stages — some people call them different things. There’s five of them, and in order to get to the really deep ones, the really meaningful ones, you have to go through the early ones. And if you’re interrupted while you’re going through the early ones — if someone bumps you in bed, or if there’s a sound, or whatever happens — you don’t just pick up where you left off.”

Fried argues we need to reduce interruptions at work. Schwartz says he focuses on three 90-minute sessions of uninterrupted work with various breaks in-between. In both cases the off-on boosts overall productivity. I’m not sure I can reduce my workday to four-and-half hours, but I could definitely block out more breaks, and adapt to the REM cycle by alternating uninterrupted “heavy” work sessions with lighter working in-between. I’m also going to try to use exercise as a stimulant as opposed to caffeine and junk food. We’ll see how it goes- and any other tips from early-risers are welcome.


Filed under: misc

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