Why routine and focus is a challenge right now


Illustration of the circadian rhythm

This week I finished listening to the audio version of Ross Edgley’s Art of Resilience.

He talks a lot about circadian rhythm in the book (which tells the story of his endurance swim round the United Kingdom) and towards the end he mentioned zeitgebers. All of this got me thinking about work, why we are struggling with such change to society and how understanding more about ourselves continues to help us manage such societal upheaval.

Circadian rhythm is the body’s built in clock. It works in 24 hour cycles and is responsible for regulating your biological rhythms – sleep, mood, cognitive performance etc.

Jurgen Aschoff, a German physician found that our circadian rhythm is synchronised to the earth’s 24 hour light cycle and the cues that we get from the earth like light and dark – these are zeitgebers. They are the cues that keep us functioning on a regular schedule.

Societally imposed timings like the working day, times to eat, school days etc are zeitgebers. Zeitgebers are intrinsically linked to our circadian rhythm.

To keep the circadian rhythm running as it should our bodies rely on zeitgebers.

Today, our societally imposed zeitgebers are gone. In turn, this is having an impact on our circadian rhythm. And that impacts our mood, our ability to sleep and our cognitive function. It’s why we are struggling to focus, struggling with any sort of routine and why our moods are changing.

The reason I wanted to write about this is because I think it’s important to understand more about how we work as human beings. Why we are finding things hard right now and what causes it. Once we understand more through diagnosing the cause we can then look at fixing it.

So how does knowing this help us?

Knowing that zeitgebers play a role in our circadian rhythm means we can now look more at what works for us.

Your circadian rhythm is individual to you. Which means that now the societally imposed zeitgebers are gone, you are likely to be adjusting to your natural rhythm. And it might not match the old ways of an office job that was 9-5.

As we look at a world of work that is changing and the flexibility that comes with more home working for many, we need to adjust. We need to acknowledge and understand ourselves so we can put our own zeitgebers in place to help us function.

When I run workshops or talks on productivity I talk about boundaries and finding what works for you. I now know this is why this is so important. We are all individual and taking the time to work out our rhythm without the societal timetable we have had imposed on us for hundreds of years will take time.

Boundaries in a blurred world
The physical boundaries between work and home have gone for many so how do we set them? How do we make time for ourselves? This was a question posed to me last week and I thought I’d add my answer here to help others with a similar query.

The answer is a firm talking to and it links to resilience.

You have to be firm about the boundaries you are putting in place and they have to be realistic. If you know your rhythm is now working later then make sure you start work later. Don’t just extend your day. Change your pattern. Start work at 11 and finish at 7 or 8. Create a working day around that timeframe and make sure you start and stop at those times.

It is easy to find excuses not to. I’ll just get this done. I’ll do it now so I don’t have to do it tomorrow. Don’t listen to that voice. Stop. It’s a discipline that you just need to embrace.

I did this years ago. I would start work at 6:16 on the train and get home at 7:30. I ate lunch at my desk and often missed the gym because of work. I decided this had to change so I told my boss I was doing 8-4. I am an early bird so mornings are my friend. Walking out the office at 4 felt alien. I felt naughty. I was full of shame as I scurried out. But, day after day, this got easier. If there was something urgent I was contactable, but I was heading home and going to the gym.

The lesson? Nothing bad happens. I didn’t get fired. I didn’t stop delivering my work. I had time for me. I was healthier. There were no negatives. We fear the unknown because we are hardwired to fear it. But taking the step is the first move forwards.

The important thing here is to tell people this is your pattern. I know most people start at 9 but it’s a conversation with your team or manager to ask for meetings to start a bit later to help you manage your time and workload. Sure there is compromise and this might not be daily but have the conversation and test it out. You might find you’ll have to change things again in a few months too.

As an example….

This year I changed my hours in August to 10-4 for meetings and calls. That doesn’t mean I’m not working outside of that time, it just means I want to that time for me. I’ve also just changed things up (this week) so that I’m exercising at the gym in the evening to stop me falling into the biscuits after dinner. Small changes, all to help me achieve my goals.

I said this linked to mental resilience and it does. Is this harmful or helpful? That is the question to ask about activities you are doing. It is harmful for me to eat biscuits of an evening? Yes. It is for me because I want to shift some weight so I need to stop that. I can stop that by doing something else to change the habit – the exercise time.

Find your new rhythm. Make it a conversation with those around you. Prioritise what is helpful not harmful. Be firm with yourself to stick to the boundaries that are right for you.

If you’d like to find out more, you can listen to my podcast episode on staying focused.

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