The basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC) is a mechanism proposed by the “Father of sleep medicine,” Nathaniel Kleitman. More commonly referred to as the ultradian (alt-ray-dee-in) rhythm, Kleitman suggested that our sleep and wake cycles occur in 90-minute intervals. – The Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine
Nathaniel Kleitman is considered the father of modern-day sleep science. Born in 1895, Kleitman immigrated from Russia to New York City, where he arrived penniless at the age of 20. By the age of 28, Kleitman had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
Dr. Kleitman etched his name into this history books with his book Sleep and Wakefulness, published in 1939. In 1953, Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky, one of Kleitman’s graduate students, published their findings on rapid-eye movement, or REM sleep.
Aside from the discovery of REM sleep, Kleitman’s findings on “rest-activity” cycles may be his most notable work. The Basic Rest activity cycle, or BRAC, states that human beings possess an inherent biological clock that operates in 90-minute intervals.
BRAC is more commonly referred to as the ultradian rhythm, which influences how the brain operates when we are both awake and asleep. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to focus on the effects of ultradian rhythm during wakefulness.
Researchers Explain Why You Should Take Work Breaks Every 90 Minutes
The underlying principle of everything Dr. Kleitman studied is that the human brain goes through different stages every 90 minutes. These stages, also referred to as ‘cycles,’ determine our levels of alertness. This principle has a more far-reaching impact than most people realize – and is something that we can use to our advantage.
Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of the Energy Project, a company “that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance.” Schwartz’s company has achieved success through the modern-day implementation of Nathaniel Kleitman’s research.
“The human body is hard-wired to pulse,” Schwartz says, “To operate at our best we need to renew our energy at 90-minute intervals – not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.”
Compare what Schwartz (and indirectly, Kleitman) is saying and then compare it to the modern workplace. Instead of implementing any kind of science-based work/rest schedule, most companies insist on draining every ounce of “productivity” out of their workers. There’s just one problem with this approach: it’s completely wrong. The problem, according to Schwartz is “that more, bigger, faster generates value that is narrow, shallow, and short-term.”
The solution: 90 minutes of focused work, followed by 20 minutes of rest. Researchers have discovered that this is the best way to work.
Schwartz and his team at The Energy Project have rightfully critiqued this antiquated approach to work – and have had success. They’ve attracted clients from sectors ranging from hospitals and police departments to Google and IBM.
What this means for you (Recommendations)
Firstly, it is important to understand and accept the universal truth that the brain works in cycles. No prominent neuroscientist alive would deny the science of brain rhythms and sleep/wake cycles.
Second, you must take into account your work environment. Hopefully, you have a bit of wiggle room when it comes to taking breaks. If so, set a timer on your computer or phone (plenty of free apps) for 90 minutes. Absent these resources, simply jot down the time you start work and the time 90 minutes after. When the timer sounds, take a quick break.
Here are some suggestions if you work in a restrictive or office environment:
– If you’re a manager or someone who carries some clout, talk to someone who will listen.
– If you have “flex breaks,” as in you can take your allotted break times whenever; use them strategically. Here’s an example for a typical 9-6 workday with an hour lunch period:
9 am: Start work and schedule your break for 10:30
12:15-12:45: Meal time (reserving 30 minutes for second half of the day)