The Big Picture had a great post yesterday on how to increase productivity by working like a sprinter. Several studies show that people are way more effective when they work in short bursts of 90 mins and take short breaks in between, as compared to forcing themselves to do tasks for long hours at a stretch. I started trying this out when I read a similar blog post on Study Hacks, which cited a 1993 study that showed that elite violin players had the same pattern of practising: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one. Similar patterns were found among the top performers in other professions: musicians, artists, athletes and chess players.
Most of us tend to romanticize, or at least look favorably on, the notion of the hard worker who dutifully plods through his assigned tasks through the day (and night). I’m all for hard work, but hard work without thinking is just plain dumb. Imagine this scenario: First thing in the morning, you power up your laptop and the RED SEA OF DEATH (a nickname I give to my emails because all unread mails are highlighted in red) washes over you, causing you to get stressed and hyperventilate. You try clearing them, but it’s like a frickin’ hydra – every time you answer one, four more come pouring in. Soon, it’s 10am, you’ve barely made a dent in your inbox and you need to get that other report out asap, so you start on that. You work through the rest of the day, intermittently checking your email to stem the Sea of Red (which now looks at large as Russia), yet your report is going frustratingly slow and the end is nowhere in sight. Sound familiar?
Just breathe. In for three seconds and out for six.
The key isn’t to play the game of futile catch-up, the key is to slow down before taking off like a rocket. Your mind can only stay focused on a task for a maximum of 90 mins before it starts to wander. As Schwartz (the author of the study) mentions: “Paradoxically, the most effective way to operate at work is like a sprinter, working with single-minded focus for periods of no longer than 90 minutes, and then taking a break. That way when you’re working, you’re really working, and when you’re recovering, you’re truly refueling the tank.”
I now work in stretches of 60 – 90 mins on one single task at a time. For example, I may answer emails for 60 mins, or work on that one important task I tell myself to accomplish for that day, broken up into 2 sets of 90-minute blocks. While I’m working, I don’t do anything else – I don’t stop to chat with colleagues, I close my email client so I don’t get distracted by incoming mail, and I don’t answer my office phone. (the only exception to this is calls to my cellphone – because they’re usually urgent. If it turns out not to be urgent, I tell the person to call me later or drop me an email) If my office is noisy, I retreat to a conference room. The key is to get in the zone when you’re working on something, and to not think about anything else except getting that particular task done. I set a timer for 90 mins because time usually flies when you’re entirely, completely focused on a task.
Then I take a break for 15 – 20 mins, away from my desk. I usually walk around or get a drink. Sometimes I might go annoy another colleague. Or check out my Twitter feed. Or if there’s a secluded spot available, I take a power nap. But I don’t think about work.
I’ve tried this for about two months now, and it really works. I think I’ve managed to complete literally twice the amount of work than I would usually have been able to. The breaks are key: they help you to recharge and refocus on what’s important, so that when the next 90-min sprint comes along, you’re able completely zero in on the task, taking over your other colleagues who’re just chugging along, wondering why they can’t seem to focus and what they’re gonna have for lunch. Admittedly, there have been some days when I’ve been so overwhelmed with work and pressure that I’ve skipped out on those crucial breaks. Paradoxically, for those days where I worked longer hours, I ended up accomplishing less.
Study Hacks sums up the issue pretty well: If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong. Instead of spreading your work haphazardly throughout the day and feeling a constant strain of busyness and stress, concentrate your energy into focused periods of peak performance – and then take a break. You’ll feel more relaxed, less stressed, and end up accomplishing way more than you thought possible.