Over five years ago, I wrote one of my first posts for the Fast Track blog. The article was about how I was able to hold down four paid jobs in addition to raising a toddler. Fast forward to today, when I am working on at least a dozen paid jobs and am responsible for an additional child. I’m still using the same system, and it’s still working.
One of the things I mentioned in the article is how I leave two hours per day for last minute tasks, essentially only scheduling enough productive work for six hours. During the remaining time, I manage administrative tasks, networking calls and gatherings, media interviews, research, and yes – downtime.
Julia Gifford is a self-proclaimed Canadian born tech-enthusiast who currently works for the Draugiem Group. Gifford published an article on TheMuse.com detailing her company’s research study on employee work flow. Using time-tracking and productivity app DeskTime, Draugiem looked at the habits of the most productive employees and pinpointed the work style leading to an incredible ability to get things done.
What’s the strategy? It turns out I wasn’t so far off in my approach to six hours of productive work and two hours of non-productive work or breaks. Draugiem found that the most productive 10 percent of DeskTime users work for 52 minutes without stopping, break for 17 minutes, and then get back to the task at hand. They repeat this technique every hour.
If this sounds familiar, you might have heard of a similar approach called the Pomodoro Method. Cited by Gifford, the Pomodoro Technique is a time management method that uses a timer to break down work into intervals of focus and rest. These intervals are called “pomodoros” (or “tomatoes” in Italian), after those tomato-shaped kitchen timers.
Pomodoros are separated by short breaks for distractions, daydreaming, snacking, etc. It works by choosing a task to work on exclusively for 25 minutes, setting a timer, working on the task until the timer rings, and then taking a five minute break. After going through this cycle four times, you take a longer (about 15 minutes) break.
The Magic of the Creative Sprint
Why do methods like 52/17 and Pomodoro work so well? How can people who don’t even work a full day accomplish so much more than those who clock way more hours? Gifford wrote that the reason the top 10 percent of productive employees are able to get the most done during a comparatively short period of time is that every interval of working time is treated as a sprint. During the 52 minutes, they work with intense purpose, and then during the 17 minutes, they remove themselves completely from the task so that they can be fully focused and ready for the next sprint.
Human beings, apparently, are actually built to sprint. The body is not meant to sit for eight hours straight, so breaks on-the-hour improve both productivity and health. The brain doesn’t love focusing for long periods either, and according to Gifford, concentration is like a muscle that needs to rest. Even if you’re a conscientious employee and love your work, doing it for hours on end will inevitably result in boredom and flagging attention. Psychologically and physically, being overworked is worse than being underworked.
Making the Most of Your Breaks
Your 17 minute breaks will be most effective if they allow you to completely disengage. Take a walk outside the building, visit your friend down the hall, or head down to the cafeteria or coffee station. If you’re stuck at your computer, resist the temptation to switch to another focused task until your break time is up. Instead, listen to music, check in on social media, or finish some of that online shopping.
Reputation is important, of course, so share this strategy with your manager and colleagues so they don’t question what’s going on when they walk by and your screen is open to the latest Saturday Night Live parody.
Also, don’t get carried away with the idea of “resting your brain.” The 52/17 strategy still equals spending the majority of the day engaged in productive tasks. If you find yourself peeking at Instagram during your 52 minute sprint and still breaking for your 17 minute rest, your productivity will slow rather than increase.
Finally, don’t rely too much on an informal assessment of your own productivity or efficiency. Consider using an app like DeskTime to paint an objective picture of whether this strategy is working for you, or whether you might be better off with something different.