Circadian Boost for Work Life Balance

A “Circadian” Boost to Work Life Balance

We live in a time when we are now more reliant on our work life balance than ever before. It’s a critical ecosystem that keeps us from burning out. Working from home used to be a choice for select few till circumstances dumped it on a much larger crowd.

For some this was a new chapter of self realization. Many of us were unprepared for it, but hiding behind the chaos is an opportunity. In this post we will look at how both newbies and veterans of the work from home crowd can benefit from understanding what our body’s clock is, what it does and how do we benefit from putting it to work for us instead of against us.

Let me set the scene for you.

Take your positions...and Action!

Clock- Work
Granola - work life balance story
Laundry - work life balance story
Pretzels before lunch!
Work from home

After losing to the second snooze cycle on the clock I drag my shapeless molasses-in-pyjamas to the kitchen where coffee awaits.

Once the caffeine takes control of my systems I get to choose between prepping meals for the day or getting back to the mail that needed to be sent out to the team by 11 AM. I choose the mail (or the mail chooses me), so breakfast is now a granola bar.

It must be the drugs mixed with oats in the granola but I somehow send that Mail by 11:15 (acceptable delay) so I sneak in 40 minutes of resistance training.

The laundry pile looks on in dismay. Can’t do laundry in the middle of a Zoom call now, can I?

I cover the visible part of my body in acceptable clothes and power through the meeting. It’s 2 pm! Wow. Leftover pasta for lunch, then, while working on inputs for the upcoming business strategy meeting.

Need more coffee for that, gotta shake off that afternoon sleepy vibes. Coffee goes well with salted pretzels and maybe that caramel peanut brittle.

Phone rang, it’s the dirty dishes. No time, have to send two versions of the next quarter’s budget reports (one version makes the other look better).

Evening social media break! Gotta get my outrage on. That always puts me in a mood to wrestle with dirty clothes and a bit of the dishes too.

Dinner will have to be a one pot wonder. Have time to finish the presentation for the strategy meet.

This calls for a reward. Since the gang is trapped in similarly equipped cells, that would mean OverWatch with Ben, Jerry (Cherry Garcia) and Jumbo Dorito’s.

Sleep time comes when I looked up from the game to see myself walk drowsily across the hall to the bedroom (Deja Vu! Someone has been messing with The Matrix).

End scene, that’s a wrap! Good job everyone, go home and eat your guilt away.

Coffee - work life balance story
Workout - work life balance story
Multitask - work life balance story
Dirty Dishes- work life unbalanced
PC Gaming

All of us have lived through some of this, some of us through all of it and some through worse.

Work,Life: Meet your match

Seriously though.

Cut to the current situation, spaces that were once separated have now fused into one. You have carved out a corner where your laptop rests and you have to tell yourself that when you enter this space, you are insulated from what the home wants until you are done with work.

Practically though, everything comes in your way, Starting with your own routine. Many of us have chosen to lead a more organized day and seek to build systems that make us more efficient. Well, you found this blog, that’s something.

However, there is already a system that’s been working inside you all along. We’ve lived our lives wholly unaware of what it’s capable of, even ignoring strong signals from the system. It would help us immensely to know this system and how it works. It regulates more of our physical and mental health than we’d imagine.

I’m talking about the Circadian rhythm. Making it our friend will ensure that we improve our work efficiency, make workouts deliver, our food contributes to our well being and we get into a virtuous cycle of productivity

The Master Clock

But first, a quick word from Chronobiology 101.

The field of science that concerns itself with living organisms and their adaptation to solar and lunar rhythms.

For more than 25 years scientists have been aware of and actively researched our relationship with the 24 hour cycle.

Today we know that every organ, key hormones all the way down to cell clusters exhibit an approximate 24 hour pattern. In fact we are aware of genetic controllers of this internal clock.

If you want to sound smart in a conversation, and can confidently say Super Chiasmatic Nucleus (SCN for short); You could explain that this is a cluster of nerve cells within the hypothalamus.

This is the master clock within our body.

The master clock has two chief roles that is relevant for this article.

  1. It synchronizes with the outside world using the inputs of Light & Food (more on that later)
  2. It manages the varying 24 hour rhythms of different organs and systems within the body

It does that through release and suppression of triglycerides, melatonin, cortisol etc.

So important is the understanding of the Circadian rhythm and it’s influence at even molecular levels that in 2017 the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine was awarded to a trio of scientists whose work centered around this subject.

In an ideal world, the external triggers of Light and Food will work hand in hand with the master clock. We’d listen to the signs our body gives us, eat when it tells us to, do our physical work at the peak performance phase of the day, do analytical or creative work when our mind is in an exploratory state and sleep when we should.

In an ideal world, international flights would be operational and I’d be eating Pastel de Nata in Lisbon.

What does it do on a daily basis?

Infographic Circadian Boost for Work Life Balance

Starting from the time you wake up, SCN:

  • suppresses melatonin to make you less sleepy
  • raises your blood pressure to optimal levels to support physical activity
  • releases cortisol which helps regulate your metabolism and your stress response
  • gradually raises your body’s temperature across the day
  • gives you a testosterone boost in the morning
  • by late evening it starts to suppress cortisol, reversing the  cycle as the day winds down
  • starts releasing melatonin (you are feeling sleepy…sleepy…)
  • body temperature and blood pressure rates are lowered
  • suppresses bowel movement (so you don’t poop while you sleep)

Where do Light and Food come in this picture

  • Light, especially natural sunlight, resets the master clock allowing it to keep it’s routine synchronized to the passage of the day
  • Smart conversation tip: We have a cluster of blue-light sensing proteins called Melanopsin that are hardwired to the light receptors in our system. This feeds the information to the master clock
  • Food talks to various organs within our system, seeking and providing resources as soon as it enters our body
  • Food intake kickstarts the body’s glucose extraction, absorption and storage
  • Timing of food also regulates the insulin sensitivity

Hate to ask, but how are we screwing this up?

But of course we are. Here’s a list, you freak

  • Artificial light ensures that our body thinks night is day and since we’ve developed an allergy to sunlight we’d rather get an RGB LED tan instead of the real thing
  • Irregular eating times confuse the body, throwing our glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity out of order. So go ahead, Netflix and chill the night away with a bowl of froyo, see if I care 😒
  • Morning Coffee (No! not that… anything but that!) interferes with the natural Cortisol production and leads to dependence on caffeine for the kick
  • Delayed and/or inadequate sleep makes your body feel like it’s in a different time zone, disrupting the internal clock. This phenomenon is called “Social Jet Lag” for a reason

How do I turn this around

The circadian rhythm has its roots in our evolution. It was designed to guide the body through optimal hours for different tasks through the day. Knowing and harnessing this rhythm will help us achieve a work life balance. I’ve compiled key tips based on available research and put it in chronological order (where possible) across a typical day for a typical adult (that’s you)

Work-Life Circadian Boost!

06:00 - 06:45

Don't "Snooze"

The ten minute extension you get tends to confuse your brain. Suck it up and get yourself off the bed

06:45 - 07:00

Skip Coffee

It inhibits the body's natural wake-up process. Lots of options exist. Unsurprisingly, few of them beat a tall glass of water

07:00 - 09:00

Morning Mail

Verbal reasoning seems to peak earlier in the day. A warm morning shower can help with the process. Now is the time to read and respond to emails. Alright, some social media as well.

10:00 - 13:00

Deep Work Time

Cognitive responses are at their highest in the late morning. Time to delve into deep work, stuff needing sustained attention and access to long term memory

14:00 - 15:00

Afternoon Nap

Alertness drops after a meal, drowsiness is natural. The idea of "one session of sleep every 24 hours" is a man made concept. So if you can do it, a short nap is useful to reset attention

15:00 - 17:30

Get Physical

Late afternoon is when your muscle coordination and reflexes start to peak. Great time to do household chores and sneak in a workout while you're at it

18:00 - 19:00

Tired yet Creative

In the evening, fatigue sets in. According to a 2011 study, that's the best time to tackle problems needing creative thinking. So, when the body is tired the mind is out to play

19:00 - 20:00

Timed Eating

Eating within a 10 - 11 hour window has been known to reduce body fat, lower blood pressure, improve glucose tolerance. Look it up, focusing on when you eat is as important as what you eat

22:00 - 23:00

Winding Down

3 hours after the last calories have been consumed, start your winding down routine. Plan the next day. Do things that do not stimulate your senses too much, so, TV out BOOK in.

Closing notes

Understanding the circadian rhythm and matching our schedule (as much as we can) to it, puts you on a scientifically tested path towards productivity and work life balance.

It also gives us some surprising insights into why people behave the way they do. Circadian disruption is know to adversely affect our mood, appetite, immune response and a host of terrible things which listed here would seem like surfing down the Web MD rabbit hole.

But two factors are of interest and should determine how you use the advise above to suit you best.

  1. There is such a thing as a “Morning Person” and an “Evening Person”. Morning persons tend to wake up and go to sleep earlier and to be most productive early in the day. Evening people tend to wake up later, start more slowly and peak in the evening. You know who you are
  2. Changes to this circadian rhythm occur during adolescence, when most teens experience a sleep phase delay. This shift in teens’ circadian rhythm causes them to naturally feel alert later at night, making it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11:00 pm. If you are a teen, sorry about how this system wasn’t sensitive to this when school hours were designed. If you are the parent of a teen, they’re not doing that to annoy you, it’s their nature.

So, in conclusion, know what type of person you are, identify the activity that suits your circadian rhythm, win through it!

Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Which means that, at no cost to you, I get a small commission if you choose to buy through my links. Please go through my Disclaimer notes for more info

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