Science has discovered many biological rhythms that play out in our lives. When we understand how our internal rhythms operate we can use them to avoid burnout.

Many people have heard of circadian rhythms. These are biological rhythms that play out over about 24 hours. An example of the circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle. We are alert and awake part of the day, and then move toward drowsiness and sleep later in the day.

We also have Ultradian rhythms which play out in increments shorter than a day. They optimize our internal body clocks for greatest efficiency and wellbeing. If we are attuned to them we can avoid burnout.

In 1960 pioneers in the field of sleep research discovered the various stages of sleep. We now know this as non-REM and REM sleep. This is when our bodies go through alternating periods of rest and activity. This lasts between 80 – 120 minutes.

  • The Activity (REM sleep) cycle is on average 20 minutes
  • The rest (non-REM sleep) cycle is around 90 minutes

A similar “rest-activity” cycle occurs more while we are awake. During wakefulness, this is flipped on its head. When we are attuned to our biological rhythms, we experience 90 minutes of activity followed by 20 minutes of rest. This happens over and over throughout the day.

Ernest Rossi PhD outlines the best way to utilize our waking rest-activity cycles in “The 20-Minute Break”. It is a framework for individuals to experience more fruitful lives and avoid burnout.  He calls his framework the Ultradian Healing Response.

How to Get the Most out of Your 20-Minute Break

The following is a basic checklist from Ernest Rossi:-

  • A short break is better than no break. Taking only 5 minutes to chat with a co-worker, is better than nothing.
  • Try to avoid anything taxing, including reading and watching videos. If reading is the only thing that helps you relax, then go for it.
  • This is not meant to be nap time. Naps activate the sleep version of the rest-activity cycle, which works differently than the waking rest-activity cycle. If you are so fatigued that you need a nap, and a nap is available to you, then by all means take a nap. Jump back into the waking rest-activity cycle when you are ready.
  • Walking is fine if you work in a sedentary job, but find a route that is relatively free from loud distractions. Otherwise find a quiet place to sit or lie down, or remain at your desk if that is the only option.
  • If you are sitting, close your eyes and listen to your breath and sense your pulse. If you are walking, listen to your breath and sense your pulse. Ease into these biological rhythms.
  • This may feel like the beginning of a meditation, but that’s not what we are after. Here, you can allow your mind to go pretty much wherever it wants. Daydreaming and fantasizing are perfectly fine. Try to think comforting or restful thoughts. Feel free to work though any real-world challenges, but try not to get caught up in any negative emotions that may arise as a result.
  • Each person has their own baseline cycle duration, but this can be altered by extenuating circumstances. If for some reason you work through your healing break, that doesn’t mean you have to wait another 90 minutes before you can take your break again. Take a break whenever you can, and then perform a shorter work session the next time. Your body is adaptable and can return to baseline if you let it.

Final Thoughts

This is a great tool for time-management and productivity. It also encourages us to take good care of ourselves and to heed the messages from our body.  When we do this we can avoid burnout.

Realistically, if you are in employment you would have to engage in activity longer than 90 minutes. You could take min-breaks. Talking to a colleague, visiting the bathroom. Practice belly breathing so that you can give your body a break. Waking mindfulness practices may also help.

The 20-Minute Break by Ernest Lawrence Rossi, Ph.D.

I am Linda Clarke, personal coach, relationship counsellor and mental health expert with 14 years’ experience in private practice.

I have helped many people promote wellbeing using hypnotherapy, NLP, mindfulness practices and personal coaching.

I have been featured in several South African radio and TV programmes and was part of a Fox TV film documentary, where I was working with Nelson Mandela’s Granddaughter overcome a phobia.

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