Understanding Your Body Clock

How to build around times when you’re at your best to get the most out of your day

Man checking his watch.

Every four months, Daniel Roark’s schedule flips. A control room operator for Chilled Water Plant No. 2, Roark’s 12-hour shifts alternate between day and night.

As a result, he’s keenly aware of how his body and mind react at different times.

Whether day or night, his shifts start with important tasks such as checking the function of the plant’s equipment and the chemical makeup of the water that runs through it. He knows he’ll be fresh for these important tasks.

“When I start, I’m always ‘Go, go go!’” said Roark, a member of Utilities and Engineering Services Management.

With the nature of his position throwing his internal clock curveballs, Roark’s situation highlights the concept of building your work tasks around times of the day when you’re freshest.

“You want to seek out ways to make the most out of your best time of day,” said Joy Birmingham, assistant director of leadership and professional development for Learning & Organization Development, a unit within Duke Human Resources.

Here are some thoughts on how to better understand and maximize your body clock.

Know your schedule

You have your own circadian rhythm, or natural 24-hour cycle that regulates how your body functions and when you feel energized and drowsy. The first step toward crafting a schedule that plays to the strengths of your circadian rhythm is understanding your rhythm.

Birmingham said most people know if they’re more alert in the morning or in the afternoon. But if not, it’s worthwhile to keep a log of your productivity over a period of a few days. Be sure to mark down how alert you felt. Odds are, you’ll discover a pattern that can help determine when you’re at your best and when you’re not.

“It’s something to have to know about yourself,” Birmingham said. “Then you can adjust your schedule to maximize your brain power for accomplishing highly focused work.”

Get consistent sleep

Jessica Lunsford-Avery, assistant professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences for Duke University School of Medicine.It’s no secret that getting enough sleep is an important part of being healthy. However, Jessica Lunsford-Avery, assistant professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences for Duke University School of Medicine, said that getting consistent sleep is equally important.

Lunsford-Avery was the lead author on a recent study by researchers from Duke Health and Duke Clinical Research Institute that showed that people with irregular sleep patterns weighed more and had higher blood sugar, blood pressure and risk of heart attack or stroke.

Lunsford-Avery also pointed out that other research showed the effects of irregular sleep patterns can alter your ability to function in other ways.

“You can get what we call ‘social jetlag,’” Lunsford-Avery said. “It’s where people can have the experience of jetlag without traveling. They’re tired because their clock isn’t synched up with their day, and this affects how they think, feel and perform at their jobs.”

Her advice is to set a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Getting regular sleep can help your body stick to a rhythm and allow you to identify and maximize your most productive times.

“There’s lots of research that shows that the more you’re able to fit to your internal clock, the better you’re able to function,” Lunsford-Avery said.

Battle the dip

Inevitably, there will be a point in your day when your energy level sags and getting work done becomes tough. Usually, this dip is from 1 to 3 p.m., according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Birmingham recommends saving less mentally taxing jobs for low-energy periods. However, if you can’t do that and must be sharp during those times, Birmingham’s advice is to find something that can recharge you during your lunch break. Eating a snack or getting outside to take a walk will leave you more refreshed than staying at your desk.

“It’s about a conscious strategy,” Birmingham said. “How do I get the best of myself during this lull in my mental state?”

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