There is an old Japanese Zen story in which the master is asked the secret of his enlightenment.
“When I am hungry I eat. When I am tired I sleep.” the master enigmatically replies.
“And?” … … you may be thinking. But think a bit longer. Who in the world of business do you know who can put their feet up when they feel the need? At the very least it requires an office with a lock on the door and perhaps a secretary to hold your calls. There are the lucky few in upper management or those who work from home who can do this. Those who do it swear that it profoundly enhances their alertness, productivity and creativity.
Compare this to the energy cycles of an ordinary office. Bright eyed and bushy tailed one moment. Ten minutes later tempers, with colleagues and customers, are fraying, silly, avoidable, mistakes are made on the computer, coffee cups are spilled over documents on the desk, personal memory banks short circuit for no apparent reason. What causes these phenomena that do so much to interfere with a companies competitiveness?
Everyone is aware of the twenty four hour circadian rhythm of sleeping and waking. There are also other, shorter rhythms, of drowsiness and alertness which last from ninety minutes to two hours, known as “ultradian rhythms”- meaning that they happen many times a day. Most people are vaguely aware of this shorter rhythm- one famous example being the mid-afternoon “graveyard shift” which is dreaded by so many.
Research into the bodies ultradian rhythms started in the 1950’s and soon gained momentum as the American military establishment poured millions of dollars into researching how an enhanced awareness of the peaks and troughs of alertness and fatigue could affect the vital skills of key military and aviation personnel. The researchers found that the ultradian rhythms affected both mental and physical performance- concentration, memory, learning, creativity, physical co-ordination and reflexes and of course energy levels. It was also established that long term interference with these rhythms are associated with a host of stress related conditions including gastric problems, breathing difficulties, skin problems, alterations in heart rate, extreme mood swings all of which lead to mediocre performance.
These rhythms are unconsciously recognised in the way that a standard working day is organised i.e. with tea breaks in the midmorning and the mid-afternoon. This has traditionally given the employee a vitally needed break in which they can refresh and rejuvenate both mind and body. In the UK however many companies have slimmed down the size of their workforce with the result that a single employee may be doing a job that was previously covered by two or even three people. This leads to situations where employees, through a sense of guilt, fear or duty regularly override their natural rhythms- tea breaks and lunch breaks are skipped and with them the opportunity to follow the natural drowsy and rejuvenating aspect of the ultradian cycle.
At this point the famous Zen master of old would probably have lain down for twenty minutes or sat on his meditation cushion, stretched his spine and breathed deeply- and promptly have been fired for neglecting the job. (But then perhaps the Japanese are smarter at running businesses than we are.?)
SYMPATHETIC AND PARA-SYMPATHETIC
The alertness and drowsiness cycle reflects the activities of two branches of our nervous system – the “Sympathetic” branch and the “Parasympathetic” branch.
The sympathetic branch is concerned with arousal, external events and doing. It usually generates sufficient energy for us to move through our activities in a relaxed but vital way. When it is highly activated, however, it causes the heart rate and breathing to speed up, the muscles to contract and the blood pressure to increase. In extreme cases, such as battle ground terror, the bladder and the bowels may empty to prepare the body more effectively for fight and flight. You would be forgiven for thinking that the word “sympathetic” is something of a misnomer for this branch of the nervous system! Perhaps the “sympathetic” part is a reference to the strong survival advantages that it confers when one has to get out of the path of a car travelling at high speed.
While “battle ground” activation is less likely to happen within the working context it is not at all unusual for internal alarm bells to clamour loudly when staff are struggling against time to meet deadlines and targets.
The other branch, the parasympathetic, is concerned with more internal processes such as the heart rate slowing down, with drowsiness, a decrease in alertness, a release of muscular tension, with not-doing. It is associated with dreaminess, fantasy and building castles in the air. People may experience a “melting” feeling and a temporary dissolution of the usual boundaries of the personality when they are in this state. This state, which is wonderful for rest and replenishment, typically lasts about twenty minutes and corresponds with the energy replacement trough in the ultradian rhythms.
Typically the rest part of the cycle either escapes our notice or is ignore. Stimulants such as sugary snacks, coffee or simply gritting the teeth are used to override our needs for rest and replenishment. This puts us into adrenaline overdrive. And adrenaline is a stimulant that can make people feel high even as they are damaging their body- think of the football players who fracture an ankle during a game and feel nothing until afterwards. These addictive behaviours eventually catch up with the worker in question through health problems and/or errors in judgement. One can only speculate that the enormous errors in judgement exhibited recently by some financial traders might be linked to this kind of adrenaline addiction.
RECOGNISING THE REST AND REPLENISHMENT CYCLE
So what are the signs and signals that can alert you to the need for an “energy exchange”? Yawning, drowsiness, mind wandering, fantasy and dreaminess, irritability, muscular tension, muscular slackness and even the need to visit the loo are all signs that you are approaching the energy trough.
In the best of all possible worlds one would then lie down for twenty minutes and focus on the most comfortable part of your body and let the comfort spread. This leads to a sense of spacing out that for many people is accompanied by pleasant dreamlike images- a state that hovers between sleep and wakefulness.
But not everybody works in a sympathetic context where it is possible to take a twenty minute break. Some people will go and lock themselves in the toilet for five minutes at this point and simply let their mind wander pleasantly as they breath deeply and easily. Or, more actively, they may go for walk around the block or walk from one part of the building to another or simply stand up for a stretch and a yawn. In all these cases their is a shift down in gear from a goal getting pace to a less hurried process orientated pace. It is at this point of detaching from the goal orientated tasks that many philosophers and scientists have the “aha!” or “Eureka!” experience when the solution to problems that they have been grappling with become amusingly obvious.
This is a more naturalistic approach to stress management that, with a little practice, anybody can incorporate into the midst of their working life.
There is a tendency within cohesive teams towards entrainment of ultradian cycles. In other words the energy peaks and troughs of well integrated teams will tend to dovetail. Remember the chapter on rapport? Co-inspiratur? Emotional intelligence?
BREAD, WINE AND THOU
“…by eating with another person, both of us reset our rhythms together and fall into mind-body synchrony on a variety of levels. This may be why breaking bread together is inherently such an important sociobiological act, woven deep into our genetic fabric.”
Ernest Lawrence Rossi – “The Twenty Minute Break” pg 87
Rossi continues to outline how, in many world cultures, such an emphasis is placed on shared meals over which business is often conducted. Because shared meals tend to bring the participants mind and body rhythms into synchrony
TIMING CRITICAL APPOINTMENTS TO COINCIDE WITH ULTRADIAN PEAKS
So how would the Zen master/manager organise staff and him/herself so that they were winners in the market place?
The Zen manager knows that they are getting their moneys worth from an employee who takes breaks- individual working rhythms are respected as the foundations of high performance.
Breaks will be taken in team meetings when significant numbers of employees show signs of going into energy troughs. “Spacing out” is encouraged during breaks as a way of generating high quality solutions to company problems.
Important meetings, phone calls, presentations and negotiations will be scheduled, wherever possible, to coincide with the employees high performance energy peaks.
Is this an example of Utopian thinking? I do not think so- the quality of a company can never exceed the quality of its workers and managers.
Winston Churchill, wartime manager of U.K. plc, was a great believer in taking naps in the middle of the day. He claimed that it not only gave him enough energy to do a day and a half’s work but that he could not possibly have fulfilled his responsibilities to the country with it.
Perhaps our true secret weapon was that we had a Zen master at the helm after all.
TIME AND MONEY
“Give me a long enough lever and a place on which to stand and I can move the Earth.”