Keeping in Step with Circadian Rhythms: Find Your Prime Time

A “typical” circadian rhythm is probably an oxymoron; we all run a little differently. Still, each of us operates off a master clock. The precise times vary depending on when you wake up and go to sleep, but certain events happen in predictable intervals. For a rough idea of what that clock looks like, James Clear, on his aptly named James Clear Blog, suggests we imagine an adult who wakes up at 6 am and goes to bed around 10 pm.

At 6 am, light streams through your window, prompting your brain to release a shot of the hormone cortisol to wake you up. Not fully online yet, you might supplement that cortisol with a little friendly caffeine, in the form of a steaming cup of joe.

By seven, adenosine, the hormone designed to sedate you for nighttime rest, is no longer present in your bloodstream. The message is clear: there’s a brand new day waiting for you.

Around nine, your sex hormone peaks. (Of course, what you do with that information is up to you.)

By ten, you are at your daily high point in terms of mental alertness. If there is some critical thinking challenge ahead of you—an important deal to cut, a spreadsheet to build, a whitepaper to write, a speech to make—carpe diem.

At noon, you take in lunch, and your digestive system gets busy converting that food into useable fuel in the form of glucose. This affects your metabolic rate and your blood sugar levels. Just how it affects you somewhat depends on the contents of your plate. If you’ve eaten a lot of carbs, by 1:30 pm, you may be feeling a little tired and cranky.

After your digestive track gets a chance to work its magic, you manage to push through that post-lunch dead zone, and by 2:30 pm, you’re starting in on your second wind. This coincides with the peak of your motor coordination. If you’re thinking about any intricate physical movement, from practicing the accordion to hitting the ballroom to polish your pasodoble, the moment has arrived.

When 3:30 pm hits, you also hit your stride as far as reaction times go. Taking a little batting practice? Trying to get to the next level of Legend of Zelda? It won’t get much better than this.

By 5 pm, your cardiovascular system and muscle strength are at their zenith. Now’s the time to go for that bench press record, or challenge your officemates to a race around the parking lot.

When 7 pm rolls around, your blood pressure and body temperature are at their highest, much like a car engine that’s spent the better part of the day burning up miles on a cross-country road trip. Your brain, however, is not feeling as hot: fatigue has set in, and the quality of your decision-making has eroded by 70% compared to that 10 am sweet spot.

At 9 pm, your body starts preparing for sleep. Your digestive system slows and your bowels begin to suppress, making sleep more comfortable—and, given the alternative, more hygienic.

When darkness falls, your brain revs up its adenosine production, so that by 10 pm, there is enough in your bloodstream to subdue physical movement and conscious thinking, thereby ushering you into a night of peaceful sleep.

2 am finds you in the deepest part of your sleep cycle. If you wake up during this time, the result is grogginess, confusion—and a huge toll on your brain’s memory consolidation process.

When 4 am arrives, your body has fully powered down. You experience mini hibernation. You’ve cooled down to the point where you might find yourself pulling up the covers to squeeze out those last few hours of sleep.

Two hours later, sunlight streams through your window and a new shot of cortisol wakes you up. Another 24-hour circadian revolution draws to a close, a new one begins, and the cycle continues.

Successful Sales and the Problem with Adjectives

What makes a good salesperson?

Well, people on the internet certainly have some ideas. You only need to do a quick Google search for “sales attributes” to find countless articles of the top X characteristics of a sales pro. It’s maybe worth noting that there’s surprisingly little overlap from list to list.

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This word cloud aggregated ten lists of must-have sales qualities. See all the words in small font? Those are the terms that only appeared once. In other words, nobody seems to be able to agree on just what these supposed must-haves are.

You would not know this by talking to most selling consultants. Hire a consultant to fix your slumping salesforce, and chances are good they will bring in their own list. They’ll point out how any salesforce will follow the classic bell curve, and they’ll take great pains to prove that the top of the curve sellers are those who best embody the ultimate sales traits. The key, they’ll say, is to let your overachievers keep doing what they’re doing, tell your middle of the curve to be more like the top, and cut out the deadweight at the bottom who lack those magic qualities. Either way, they’ll say, it’s all about putting your faith in the list.

The problem is, if you really want to understand the secret of good selling, the list is baloney. It’s a matter of correlation doesn’t equal causation.

Logging the details of a cancer patient’s symptoms might give us a better understanding of their current situation, like their white blood cell count. But if your goal is to heal the cancer, you don’t just want to know what it’s doing, but why and how. Watching the outcome of the disease doesn’t shed a light on where it came from.

Similarly: are confident people more skilled at sales, or is it simply that being a skilled salesperson tends to boost your confidence?

Following the list rule is essentially saying that successful people are successful because they exhibit signs of having experienced success.

Culturally, we assume that great salespeople are the ones who were blessed at birth with innate gifts—deeper empathy, better communication skills. But neuroscience shows us again and again that these “gifts” are not fixed and immutable. They’re developed through practice, whether we realize it or not.

Can you train a salesperson to be more empathetic? You can certainly train them to mirror body language, to pick up on cues from their customers, to take notes on what their customer says and relate it back to them—all of these moves, executed correctly, build a connection that to any observer will look like empathy.

So instead of assuming that people are predestined to be good or bad at sales, and instead of automatically jettisoning anyone at the bottom of the curve, consider the fundamentally malleable, teachable nature of the human brain. And instead of fixing some nebulous adjectives to describe what a high-achieving salesperson “is”, focus on what they do—the concrete moves that can be seen and taught.

And thank neuroplasticity, because with the correct coaching, there’s hope out there, even at the bottom of the bell curve.

Your Brain on Idle

Idleness is the Devil’s workshop, or so the saying goes. Blame it on our Puritan origins if you like, but Americans take fewer vacation days than nearly anyone else. And worldwide, when it comes to how much paid time off a company must give its employees, the United States comes in dead last, at zero days. Uncle Sam, it seems, got the Puritan memo: downtime is laziness.

That’s a problem, says Heather Rogers in her Experience Life article, “The Upside of Downtime.”

Rogers cites Victoria Sweet, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and Sweet’s new book, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Sweet tells the story of her medical residency, where she was under enormous pressure to perform, and where, in response to that pressure, she began to take frequent smoking breaks.

This could’ve been disastrous for her health, except for one detail: Sweet didn’t smoke.

Instead, she used these little chunks of free time simply to decompress, gather her thoughts, and contemplate the patients she’d just seen.

What Sweet probably didn’t realize then was that unstructured free time activates the brain’s “default mode network.” This is when the insula, the switch that toggles between active focus and daydreaming, flips over into daydream mode, producing a mental state neuroscientists sometimes call incubation.

Incubation is the byproduct of idleness, and it’s associated with driving more oxygen and blood to the brain. This in turn produces clearer thinking, less fatigue, and more resiliency—all pretty important for a medical resident working 16-hour days.

Incubation is at the heart of freeform subconscious associations, commonly known as creativity. This is believed to be the birthplace of those aha moments.

Mark Twain already understood this concept over a hundred years ago when he said, “I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry, you’ve only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time—quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on.” (It should be noted that Twain’s version of the non-smoking break actually involved chain-smoking cigars, but this was long before people began to raise concerns about big tobacco.)

Taking five-minute breaks throughout your day stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing heart rate, creating better digestion, and producing overall better moods.

Still, with all that said, in a joint study, psychologists from the University of Virginia and Harvard found that 83% of subjects spent zero time “thinking or relaxing”, but 95% of the same group reported regularly pursuing some kind of leisure activity.

We are not comfortable with the idea of idle time. We prefer to to be doing something, even when relaxing is the goal. Checking e-mail, perusing Facebook, watching TV, or even listening to music does not jumpstart that incubation state. True idle time involves a quiet coming together of just you and your thoughts.

So maybe idleness is not the Devil’s workshop after all. Maybe it’s more akin to exploring the heavens of the subconscious brain, and getting in a little healthy R&R at the same time.

Based on current research, it makes perfect sense to let your thought tank fill up from time to time. It will, however, probably require reframing some of your thinking. For instance, consider the merits of Sweet’s non-smoking break. Then, perhaps, consider turning off this glowing screen, and indulging in a long cool draw off a couple of random thoughts.