Manage Your Time Effectively by Following Your Body’s Internal Clock
The reason for not being able to wake up early might be in your genetics
From the vibrations of an electron to the motion of planets. From the thumping of our heartbeat to the thundering seasonal rainfall. Countless rhythms help us in understanding the universe around us.
By identifying these rhythms and patterns, we reduce the unpredictability of our future. We created clocks and calendars to align our activities according to nature’s rhythm. We work during the day and sleep at night. We sow seeds during the same time of the year and harvest the crop at the same time.
Similarly, our body has a clock that modulates a rhythm called the circadian rhythm. Like any other rhythm, it has its highs and lows, troughs and crests. If we align our daily tasks to this rhythm, we would face the least resistance from our mind and body; like how a farmer would enjoy a bumper harvest if he or she sows and harvests his or her crops at the right time of the year. But if we are out of synch with this rhythm, our body will wilt. Just like how the crops will, if the farmer doesn’t keep an eye on the calendar.
So, it’s important to know how your body’s clock works. But the hard part is that everyone has a slightly different circadian rhythm. Some people can sleep for only 4 hours and wake up brimming with energy. Others sleep for at least 8 hours but still wake up tired.
How can we identify and be in synch with our circadian rhythm? Let’s start by understanding how this clock ticks.
The clock that is in every cell of our body
Not able to wake up early despite all your efforts? Don’t get disheartened. You might be genetically hard-wired not to wake up early. That is because our circadian rhythm is determined by our genes. In fact, each cell has its rhythm, its own clock. And all the cells in our body follow roughly the same 24-hour cycle.
Apart from these tiny clocks in our cells, we have a master clock in our brain called the Suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). It coordinates all the cellular level clocks in our body and accounts for external cues, such as sunlight, to prepare our body for daily tasks. It also regulates the physiological aspects of our body such as blood pressure, heartbeat, and glucose. So, our energy levels vary as the day progresses. Which means, that we are essentially different persons at different point in time of a day.
Chronobiology is the arm of biology that studies circadian rhythm. It’s a recent phenomenon but gained prominence quickly. In 2017 Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young received the Nobel prize for their research on the circadian rhythm in fruit flies. Not only in fruit flies, but scientists have also discovered the same 24-hour cycle in mice and many other animals, including humans.
It’s a result of thousands of years of evolution that our bodies have adapted to the 24-hour cycle of earth’s rotation. At the crack of the dawn, our body produces certain hormones to get ready for the day. At night our blood pressure decreases, and our body produces melatonin — the sleep hormone — to relax, break down all the proteins, fats, carbs, and recover from the wear and tear of the day.
Physiological effects that follow the circadian rhythm
- Blood glucose levels increases between 4:00 AM-8:00 AM to boost you for the day ahead.
- Melatonin levels increase as the sun sets, and are highest around 2:00 AM-4:00 AM which results in a much-needed deep sleep.
- Heart rate and blood pressure are the lowest at night around 10:00 PM and gradually increase during the day to reach their peak around noon.
- Cortisol levels gradually start increasing around 3:00 am and reach a peak around 8:00 am.
- Your digestive system requires at least 12 hours of rest to process and recover from the day’s activities.
When the clock doesn’t know what time is it
Although the circadian rhythm is intrinsic, it gets disrupted by external factors. When our internal clock gets conflicting external cues, its rhythm is disrupted. Gorging on the burger at half past midnight, you are sending your body a signal to hang on and prepare for more work. This disrupts its natural timetable and your master clock tries to synchronize itself with the new pattern.
Similarly, people working in night shifts are exposed to artificial light the whole time. Their internal clock is confused and tries to adapt itself to the ill-timed external stimuli. This disruption has a tremendous impact on their body ranging from loss of appetite to increased risk of cancer.
Jet lag is another common phenomenon that is caused because of circadian rhythm disruption. It takes almost a week for a person to recover from jet lag because our internal clock is trying to adjust to the new time zone.
Forget the night shift workers and the travelers, some studies suggest that the Friday night jamboree that sometimes lasts till the next day morning is as harmful to the body as a jet lag of multiple time zones. This disruption is so common that it has been assigned a term: the social jet lag. Now you should know that it’s not only the alcohol that’s causing the hangover.
So, overall your circadian rhythm can get disrupted either by exposure to untimely light or by your gluttony. If at night you are glued to your screen, your brain would go in a tizzy as its internal clock would signal to sleep, but the external stimuli would signal otherwise. So, no melatonin is produced and you don’t sleep.
Similarly, if you eat anything in the middle of the night, you wake up your digestive system from its deep sleep and ask it to work again. No one likes to work out of schedule.
Effects of Circadian rhythm disruption
- Shift working is associated with an increased risk of cancer.
- If the circadian rhythm in children is disrupted often over a period, they become more prone to diseases such as ADHD.
- If we eat medicine at the wrong time of the day, instead of benefiting us, it can cause us more harm.
- Circadian rhythm disruption because of erratic food habits results in obesity.
- Chances of diabetes, stroke, and other diseases increase.
Master the master clock to make the most of your time
By aligning our daily schedules according to the circadian rhythm, not only can we live a better life, but we can also increase our productivity. Sailing against the wind is hard. We need to figure out the daily wind patterns and then sail along the wind’s direction to reach our destination quickly and effortlessly.
For instance, we can identify the time of the day when our body is at its peak energy level. And then plan to do the most important work at that time. I, for instance, feel energetic after my afternoon nap around 4:00 pm. I leave any analytical work for the latter half of the day. You might brim with energy at a different time, but the idea is to be aware of that time and make use of it for important tasks.
Managers, as noted in this HBR article, can map the circadian rhythms of employees to understand when an individual employee can be the most productive. This would improve the satisfaction of the employees and increase the productivity of the team as well.
Studies have found that a 10-hour time-restricted eating results in weight loss, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, less stress, and increased productivity. In fact, the International Space Station is going to install circadian lighting to improve the well-being and increase the productivity of astronauts.
So, how do we train our bodies to ride the ebbs and flows of our circadian rhythm?
Light is life
- Fill your room or your WFH coop with natural light during the day. This will signal your body clock that it‘s time to be alert. One study found that just by sitting close to a natural source of light during working hours, employees reported an increase of 2% in their productivity.
- If filling your room with sunshine is not possible, go for a walk outside in the sun for a few minutes every day— without wearing your sunglasses. Bask in sunlight for real.
- Limit your exposure to artificial light after sunset — especially the blue light. Because of the ill effects of blue light on our bodies, circadian lighting is gaining popularity. It automatically dims when the sun sets and brightens up as the sun rises. Truetone and night shift are some features in your phone that follow circadian lighting.
- Wear blue light filtering glasses after sunset. Studies have shown that they can help you in falling asleep an hour earlier than your usual time.
- Install blue light blocking screens on your laptops.
Food for clock
- Stop eating at least 2 hours before you sleep. Our body requires at least 12 hours of fasting every day to breakdown the nutrients and repair the cells and tissues.
- Eat within the same 10-hour window every day. It will keep your energy levels high during the day and give your body ample rest at night.
- Have a heavy and nutritious breakfast to match your intrinsic energy levels. A filling breakfast has also been associated with weight loss, provided you maintain a schedule.
- Don’t fall for your midnight cravings. It can make you overweight quickly.
- Allow yourself the fun of few cheat days. It’s difficult to follow a tight schedule for social animals like us. But we need to be aware of the fact that when we eat is as important as what we eat.
If we align our lifestyle with the circadian rhythm, we are going to be at peace with our minds and body. We will be fresh, brimming with energy every single morning, and fast asleep as soon as we jump into our beds. But our lifestyle has made it difficult for us to follow the natural rhythm of our body. Living indoors, gazing at your screens all day, eating whatever food whenever you want, partying till mornings, warps our sense of time. From sleepless nights to a higher risk of cancer, the consequences of such a lifestyle are many.
We need to respect our body’s sense of time and synchronize our activities according to it. Being in rhythm is not only more efficient, it even gives us pleasure — ever heard a perfectly synchronized orchestra?
Finally, if I would have to compress this article into three actionable takeaways to make the most of your time, those would be:
- Expose yourself to natural sunlight as much as possible during the day and reduce your exposure to blue light at night.
- Identify patterns in your body’s energy levels. Take up the most important task of the day when you are the most alert. Usually, most people are active around 6:00 pm.
- Follow a 10-hour time-restricted eating schedule and give your body ample rest by not eating anything after dinner.