Performance Protocol is a sequence of steps and activities in order to stay alert, focused and creative during the workday.
Last time, we discussed science-based morning protocols for productivity and creativity: your temperature minimum, what’s best to do after waking up, when to have your first caffeine drink and hydration. We also touched on fasting. If you missed that article, read it here before moving further.
The Performance Protocols that we are exploring here work for Dr. Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine, and they may also work for you. To figure that out, read this article and share your comments below.
“And simply by getting the screen directly in front of me at eye level, it’s been completely transformative.”. Dr. Andrew Huberman.
You can do a couple of things that are grounded in neuroscience and physiology for optimising the workspace.
First, when your eyelids are open and your eyes are directed upward, that creates a state of heightened alertness. There is a relationship to the brain neurons that build alertness and control over the eye muscles and, believe it or not, the eyelids. If you are exhausted and need to feel more alert, looking upward will make you feel wide awake and will support your levels of alertness.
So that you can optimise your workstation in a physical way that leverages the aspect of the visual system and your level of alertness, position your screen or your tablet at least at eye level and ideally slightly higher. There’s a bidirectional or reciprocal relationship between the brainstem areas that control alertness and the eyes. It means that how alert you are controls how open or closed your eyes are. No surprise there. How open and upward-directed your eyes are, however, will increase your levels of alertness.
First 90 Minutes of Focused Work
“You’d be amazed how much you can get done in 90 minutes if you are focused.”. Dr. Andrew Huberman.
Your brain is going through a series of 90-minute cycles that are called ultradian cycles throughout the entire day and night. Every 1.5 hours, you shift from being very alert to less alert and then back to alert again.
Set your timer for 90 minutes and try to focus on work to be done with the complete understanding that the session will not be uniform in terms of your ability to focus. There will be peaks and valleys within that period. There will be portions when your brain is flickering in and out of focus and other parts where you’re entirely focused. That’s completely normal. 90 minutes is what your brain can handle in terms of a dedicated effort with a high degree of focus.
The moment you sit down to do some serious work and you flip off the internet, all of a sudden it’s as if the phone has a voice — it starts calling you. It’s almost as if the restroom has a voice. But you are familiar with the fact that, if you are focused on something, everything else melts away. So, the goal is to get into the tunnel — to get into a tunnel of quality work. The brain loves that state but it’s tough for many people to get into it. Not for you. You can enter that state.
“It just is setting yourself up for success when you try and capture this rising phase of your temperature.”. Dr. Andrew Huberman.
There’s a powerful way to put the timing of this 90-minute work in an optimal way. You have access to an essential piece of data that dictates when that should start, more or less, and when it should end. That piece of data is your temperature minimum which we discussed in the previous article.
You can be reasonably sure that your best work will be done anywhere from four to six hours after your temperature minimum. Nobody can say the exact time. You have to find it. It could be four, five or six hours after your minimum temperature and it varies from person to person.
If you’re someone who wakes up on average at 7:00 a.m., your minimum temperature is at 5:00 a.m. If you tend to wake up around 6:30 a.m., that means your temperature minimum is at 4:30 a.m. You can add five hours to that time which would mean that a 90-minute deep focus work session could fall at 9:30 a.m. and the timing would be pretty optimised. Or you could do it at 10:30 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. Somewhere in that time frame would be all right. Find the right timing for you.
Now, some people wake up and feel very alert first thing in the morning and that’s when they can do their best work. If that’s you, please continue to do that. Leverage that time. Use that time. But if you’re somebody who struggles to find focus, definitely let your physiology and the rise in your body temperature to support your efforts to focus. That is better than trying to do your best work at the times when your physiology is directing your body and your brain toward defocus and toward being more lethargic.
“Sort of odd that we’re talking about this, but this is one way in which I’ve learned to funnel my attention into whatever it is I’m doing.”. Dr. Andrew Huberman.
At the start of one of the 90-minute ultradian cycles, your brain is not quite engaged. Often you can have things jumping into your mind, so, how do you increase that focus and how do you use the timer feature? Put your phone into flight mode or switch it off. Use apps to get you off of the internet and other distractors. That means not checking the markets, social media, the news and email. None of that. Get dedicated to the work that needs to be done.
Do whatever you need to in order to self-regulate your activity. If you’re somebody who needs to be on your phone and the computer for work, well, that’s a different matter altogether. The point is to find the best solution and use that 90 minutes for deep-focused work to increase your productivity.
What about the restroom? Here’s an interesting little tip grounded in physiology. You have a direct neural connection from your bladder to your brainstem areas that increases alertness and that is why it is extremely agitating when you feel you need to go to the bathroom. It can be very, very agitating. Don’t fill your bladder up so much and resist going to the bathroom so that you are uncomfortable and can’t focus but, generally, you can drink liquids and work for long periods without visiting the restroom. That is one way to learn to funnel your attention into whatever it is you’re doing.
After The First Focused Work Block
“So on any given day, I finish that work block, and I train. I do some sort of resistance or endurance training.”. Dr. Andrew Huberman.
To support your brain health and function, and your organ health and bodily function in general, try to force yourself to do some physical exercise for about 45 or 60 minutes after your first period of focused work. The scientific data points to the fact that working out hard for longer than an hour can be detrimental because it raises cortisol. Cortisol can be a good thing if it’s appropriately timed and in the appropriate low levels. But you don’t want to have your cortisol levels up throughout the day or to have big spikes of cortisol repeatedly. Keeping workouts relatively short can help with that.
The scientific data says that to optimise your cardiovascular and brain health and other body systems, you want to exercise at least five days per week. The scientific data also tells us that the optimal level of exercise to promote longevity of the brain, ability to focus, cardiovascular health and all the other things that we know exercising supports are generally divided into two categories.
- First is strength and hypertrophy work: physical movements designed to make you stronger and make your muscles larger.
- Second is endurance work: physical exercise and movements designed to allow you to do more work over time or extend the amount of time that you can do work of any kind, both physical and mental.
Essentially, the structure of the exercise regimen that works to support health is going to be one in which there’s a 3:2 ratio:
- For a 10–12 week period, three of those five workouts per week emphasise strength and hypertrophy and the other two emphasize endurance.
- Then, after 10–12 weeks, you start another 10–12 weeks period of prioritising endurance work over strength and hypertrophy.
Both resistance and endurance training are very beneficial to the muscles and organs of the body and the brain because of the increased blood flow to the brain. Your brain is the most metabolically demanding organ in your body and it receives fuels through blood vessels, capillaries and veins. So, movement of various kinds is very crucial to get your brain to function properly. Resistance training turns out to be as essential as endurance training.
That’s all for today. Next time, we will continue with workday performance protocols, focusing on what more to do. Keep reading and share your comments below!
This episode is based on a podcast: “Huberman Lab: Maximizing Productivity, Physical & Mental Health with Daily Tools | Episode 28 on Apple Podcasts”. Please listen to that if you want to get more details. Many thanks to Dr. Andrew Huberman for sharing his knowledge.