Rhythm, Cycles and Your Productivity – Unlocking the Secrets to Sustained Performance in Your Engineering Career

Generating sustained high levels of productivity in your engineering career requires more than 3 cups of coffee or a day of energy drinks. It requires getting in tune with your biological rhythms and cycles. When you set a battle rhythm of productivity, you are unlocking the secrets to sustained performance in your engineering career.

“Productivity is never an accident.  It isalways the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.”  Paul Meyer

Bottomline: each of us wants to be productive in our engineering careers and our lives.  We want to be energetic and have the ability to be creative when required.

This week’s article is more of a “how to” than anything else and is based on my experiences over the past few years.  It’s not empirically based, although I’ll provide you with references so you can go dig into the details more if you want them.

To achieve these states, however, takes self-observation and time because you’ll have to figure out your rhythms and cycles in order to achieve sustained performance in your engineering career.

1.  Rhythm Set’s The Beat of Your Productivity.  

I love music and I love playing the saxophone.  Jazz and classic rock are my favorite genres and decades of improv have taught me to be aware of not only the chord structure and energy level of the band and the audience, but their rhythm.  See, when you get tied into a rhythm, it will impart energy to you and from that energy you can create some very amazing sounds.

The leap to productivity in the workplace is this:  you need to set a rhythm to your work day.  When do you start?  What tasks do you accomplish when?  When do you take breaks?  When do you give yourself time to read/take or make phone calls?  

This might sound like “scheduling” because it is.

Following the same schedule daily supports you in setting a rhythm to your work day.  Applied to an entire work week and you set a different rhythm.  The benefit from following a set schedule during the day and over a week are:

  1. Reduces decision fatigue.  Tim Ferriss refers to decision fatigue as “ego-depletion” in this article off his blog.  I wrote about the real dangers of decision fatigue a couple years ago here on Engineering.com in my article “Building Decision Stamina”.  Essentially, as your day goes by your ability to make good decisions wanes.  The same occurs over a week period.  The best way to reduce decision fatigue is to  remove as many decisions as possible that you have to face.  Setting a rhythmic schedule is one way to do this and hence free yourself to focus on the decisions that will support your projects, your career, or other important goals.

  2. Allows you to batch schedule similar tasks or types of project work.  I recently wrote about batch scheduling similar types of tasks (e.g. phone calls) or project work.  When you do this, you can both reduce decision fatigue and increase productivity by knocking out similar types of work in one set session.  You eliminate the wasted time that comes from switching between tasks.

  3. Provides you with a structural foundation for getting things done.  When you have time set aside each week to accomplish tasks like phone calls or conference follow-up or reviewing codes/design standards, you aren’t scrambling to figure out how to fit it all in.  Essentially you know that you have time set aside to do certain types of tasks, so you can add it to your list and accomplish it later.

The main benefit I find from setting a daily and weekly rhythm is that I tend not to procrastinate or wonder “what’s next”.  I know what’s next because it’s scripted before me.

During my military career we called this “setting the battle rhythm”.  Essentially the battle rhythm was the daily, weekly and monthly line-up of meetings, briefings, or deliverables.  The set battle rhythm was how we operated as a team and individually to prepare for all of the different sessions.

Overall, this type of rhythmic structure has allowed me to juggle multiple projects and multiple pursuits.  Combined with my understanding of Circadian rhythm, I’m able to maintain consistently high levels of productivity.

2. Understanding Circadian Rhythm to Let Biology Work For You.

Although many may seek to be ultra-productive all the the time, the fact is that we are hampered by biology from achieving the ideal maximum. We’re not machines and we were never intended to be 100% all-in 24/7.  In fact, as I’ve been alluding to in my articles this month here at Engineering.com and over on The Engineering Career Coach, we absolutey have to incorporate rest and recuperation.  Some R&R to recharge, refresh, and restock for the next engagement.

When we are in work-mode, however, our bodies are still governed by Circadian rhythms.  These are our physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle.  They are found in most living things, including animals, plants and you.  These are built-in operating scripts that can be affected by environmental factors such as light and temperature.  But for the most part, you cannot entirely override them.  

Since you can’t bypass your inherent Circadian rhythm, you need to learn to operate with it to achieve your highest levels of sustained productivity.

What does this look like?  As illustrated in the image, our bodies follow a natural ebb and flow of energy as the day progresses.  Upon awakening, the body receives a dose of cortisol to jump-start alertness. As the workday begins, most people require a few hours to reach peak energy and alertness levels about mid-day.  However, not long after lunch those levels begin to decline bottoming out about 3pm.  This is often blamed on lunch – I certainly thought so – but it is a natural part of the Circadian cycle.  After the 3pm rut, our alertness increases again towards a second peak about 6pm.  Alertness tends to decline following the second peak over the evening through the morning hours towards its lowest peak about 4am.  Then alertness begins to increase the rest of the morning towards the mid-day peak.  

And the cycle repeats.  

But as Christopher Stone, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business and researcher that worked with the Air Force on fatigue countermeasures, shares in this HBR article:

“Managers who want to maximize their employee’s’ performance should consider this circadian rhythm when setting assignments, deadlines, and expectations. This requires taking a realistic view of human energy regulation, and appreciating the fact that the same employee will be more effective at some times of the day than others. Similarly, employees should take their own circadian rhythms into account when planning their own day. The most important tasks should be conducted when people are at or near their peaks in alertness (within an hour or so of noon and 6pm). The least important tasks should be scheduled for times in which alertness is lower (very early in the morning, around 3pm, and late at night).”

You can sustain high productivity levels, but only by working with your natural rhythms and cycles.  These are different for each person and it’s important as an engineering professional to know what your rhythm is and then take action to adjust your daily and weekly schedule to fit.  

The rationale is simple: our work on design and project management requires us to be technically and ethically “switched on”. We want to be both productive and produce high-quality work in our engineering career, and this can only occur when we perform our most important work at our highest peaks of alertness.


Stone, Christopher. “The Ideal Work Schedule, as Determined by Circadian Rhythms.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 July 2015.

Clear, James. “How to Sleep Better: The 3 Ways to Improve Your Sleep.” How to Sleep Better: The 3 Ways to Improve Your Sleep. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2015.

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is an engineer, infrastructure program manager, coach and author. He has extensive experience in leadership, management, and engineering earned from a career as a civil engineering officer in the U.S. Air Force.  He now coaches engineers enabling them to create an engineering career and life of fulfillment at The Engineering Career Coach.

Image courtesy of start08 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net