Good news: Your body sets you up for success automatically

I could never quite get into the pomodoro technique, a time management system touted as the productivity hack of gods that slices your schedule into perfect half-hour bento boxes of 25 minutes’ work and five minutes’ rest.

For some, this approach works like a charm. They chop up their days into 30-minute chunks, and magically they’ve founded a new company, effortlessly entertained the kids, and meal-prepped dinner for an entire week. For others, though — especially creatives — a pause every twenty-five minutes feels disruptive. Trust me, I’m a professional at inventing reasons to be distracted, so I need deeper, longer sessions less worthy of sexy productivity monikers to get in the zone.

If your daily progress feels fleeting and inconsistent, it might be helpful to explore working with your body’s natural rhythms rather than against them. Our energy systems naturally cycle through two-hour intervals of arousal and fatigue known as ultradian rhythm, and embedded in these cycles are windows of peak performance in which your writing and creativity can really sing.

What is “ultradian rhythm”?

Researchers Eugene Aserinsky, Nathaniel Kleitman, and William C. Dement are credited with discovering REM sleep in the 1950’s. Their work examined how the human body rested and recuperated, and their studies revealed that our energy systems follow a wave cycle not only during sleep, but also in wakefulness. These daytime cycles came to be known as ultradian rhythm and are similar to circadian rhythm, but shorter in duration. Our bodies can concentrate and hold flow state for about 90 minutes, after which a break of 20–30 minutes is needed to mentally recover.

how-to-get-in-the-zone
(Source: Thanh Pham)

You’ve probably dialed into your ultradian rhythm before without knowing its name or interval. When I was enrolled in music school and training to become a professional musician, my best, most productive sessions always hovered around the 75-to-90 minute mark. I couldn’t quite explain why, but in this sweet spot, it was easier to detach from outside distractions and get “in the zone”.

A 1993 study on top-performing violinists led by K. Anders Ericsson confirmed that the best violinists chopped their practice sessions into ninety-minute chunks, then rested in between. (This is also the study that asserted it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become masterful at a craft.) Years later, as I began writing more regularly, I similarly found that longer bursts helped me go deeper, and when I went deep I made far better progress.

3 ways to tap into your ultradian rhythm and get in the zone

An obvious preliminary step would be to block off two-hour time windows in your calendar, which would equate to one complete cycle of ultradian rhythm. Try one or two in a given day to start, and then work your way up. I find getting started to be the hardest part, so here are a few tips that help me more quickly and predictably slip into flow state aka how to get in the zone.

Invent a trigger

What worked for Pavlov’s dogs can work for you too. Have some sort of ritual that acts as a trigger and signals to your brain that it’s time to enter flow state. I usually write in the mornings, for example, so my triggers are a cold brew coffee and a techno remix of questionable taste that I stream from Spotify on repeat.

The most important part of a trigger is that you reserve it only for those times when you want to enter flow state. Otherwise, you risk diluting the power of the trigger over time. Seek to make your trigger sacred and special, and it will become more effective with time.

Feng shui your writing space

Do you write your best stuff in an office, the kitchen table, or at home on the couch? Become aware and detailed about your writing environment and observe what works and what doesn’t. In a way, the nuances of your writing environment are also triggers that will help you find your rhythm. You’ll discover that certain nooks or idiosyncrasies help you get into your writing zone. For me, I sit on the couch, but on the opposite end from my usual side, and with the blanket curled under the laptop a certain way, because — you guessed it — I am insane.

Basic feng shui also notes that you don’t want to spend too much time working in a relaxation space, or vice-versa. If you’re pressed for space and have to make an area multipurpose, such as writing at your kitchen table, create some sort of transition ritual in which you throw down a tablecloth or centerpiece when it’s time to eat dinner; this prevents your rituals from becoming muddled.

Document and adjust to get in the zone

In music school, a mentor of mine had a saying: “Go by sound, not by feel.” This was hard for me to get behind at first, because I liked to emote and feel the music. But at the professional level, being objective and unemotional about sound quality was critical for success. For ages, I had the bad habit of convincing myself a solo or audition “felt good,” then would listen back and discover I was flat and dragging.

As you tinker with the conditions that create your best flow state, continue to play scientist and optimize your routine. How can you do more of what works and less of what doesn’t? I personally use a simple writing tracker to keep myself accountable; it documents word count on first drafts, time spent on second and third drafts, and also time spent practicing headlines, since headlines can make or break an article.

Once you have a few ‘deep’ writing sessions that align with your ultradian rhythm, I promise you’ll be hooked. You’ll write more and feel energized, not only because you’re working in tandem with your body’s natural rhythms, but also because you’ve made great strides forward in both your writing and your personal expression.