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How To Survive Your Daily Dips In Energy

The author of The Myths of Happiness reveals the way to get past the daily lows that keep you from reaching your potential.

On August 9, 2010, a JetBlue Airways jet arrived at John F. Kennedy International airport in New York from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As it was taxiing down the runway, an altercation occurred between a passenger and a flight attendant. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, apparently decided that he couldn't take it anymore, directed several profanities at the passengers through the intercom ("Go f*** yourselves!"), grabbed two Blue Moon beers from the beverage cart ("I'm outta here!") and deployed the emergency evacuation chute, sliding down and disappearing into popular history. Although the reckless deployment of the slide endangered individuals on the tarmac and cost the airline $10,000, Slater became an instant working-class hero, striking a nerve with disgruntled employees everywhere who wished that they, too, could tell their bosses to take their job and shove it.

Yet we don't feel disaffected by our jobs all of the time. More likely, we experience the malaise or exasperation on a periodic basis. If we understood this fact, we could anticipate those moments and head them off.

Most of us have heard of circadian rhythms -- daily cycles that regulate when we feel sleepy (close to bedtime and throughout the night) and when we feel alert and awake (upon waking and throughout the day). The word circadian means "about a day," so a circadian rhythm occurs once in a 24-hour period. The circadian rhythm is essentially our internal biological clock, which is sensitive to light and dark.

Few of us, however, have heard of another type of bodily cycle, called the ultradian rhythm. We cycle through ultradian stages every 90 minutes, or so (but an ultradian stage lasts no longer than 120 minutes) during sleep. What's more, we continue to experience these 90- to 120-minute cycles while we are awake, as well. Practically, this means that for about an hour and a half to two hours after rising in the morning, we feel particularly vigorous and focused -- able to sustain concentration and energy throughout our activities. At the end of that interval, however, we experience a 20-minute period of fatigue, lethargy and reduced concentration. This is the "ultradian dip."

Business gurus have shrewdly commandeered these ideas to serve as the foundation for practical advice when they coach executives and leaders. Their message is that all employees should be aware of their ultradian rhythms, and when they feel the 20-minute period of lagging focus coming on, instead of pushing through it (thus risking inefficiency and errors), eating a candy bar or smoking a cigarette, they should take a break that brings about revitalization and renewal. At these times, we need to relax or switch our activity to something completely different -- for example, take a 20-minute power nap (the length shown to give us the most "bang for the buck"), take a walk outdoors, meditate, listen to music, read a chapter of a novel or gossip with colleagues (but not about work).

In a Harvard Business Review study conducted with employees of 12 Wachovia banks in New Jersey, those who were prompted to renew their energies in these ways reported being more engaged and satisfied with their work, showed improved relationships with customers and produced 13 percent more revenue from loans and 20 percent more revenue from deposits than did a control group.

Think back to the last time you felt particularly dissatisfied or stressed at work. It's highly probable that you were weathering one of those 20-minute ultradian dips. This doesn't mean, of course, that those feelings of disaffection or vexation aren't symptomatic of a real problem, but it means that we should be cautious about overinterpreting them. Many of us have moments when we feel powerfully that we've "had it" -- with our careers, spouses, children and even our lives. With hindsight, we recognize that these thoughts are typically ill-considered and short-lived.

A sound tip is to be mindful that the ultradian rhythm recurs throughout the day and that the times when our bodies move from a high-energy peak to a low, lethargic trough are opportunities for our most pessimistic thoughts to occur. Before acting on any hasty decisions, neutralize your ultradian dips by taking relaxing, channel-switching breaks. If the thoughts persist and persist, then it's time to take them seriously.

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