It may seem counter-intuitive that they key to being more productive is to NOT work for periods of time, but there are many reasons why this is, in fact, the case. And the science backs this up. It’s clear that taking regular breaks promotes productivity.
The human brain isn’t designed to focus for 8 hours at a time, and neither was our body designed to sit or stand for 8 hours at a time. So taking regular breaks makes us mentally and physically healthier as we move our body in our breaks.
Additionally, there is such a thing as decision fatigue, in that the need to make frequent decisions throughout the day can wear down our willpower and reasoning ability. Taking regular breaks helps us to avoid that.
Research also suggests that taking regular breaks raises the level of engagement which, in turn, is highly correlated with productivity.
And refreshing our brain can often help us to see things from a different way, or even to come up with the perfect solution to something that is perplexing us.
So, with this in mind, there are 3 different productivity break methods that I’d suggest you try, and see what works for you.
The Pomodoro Method is probably the most well-known. It’s named after a popular kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) that its creator, Francesco Cirillo, was using to support his study habits. This technique uses a timer to break work down into intervals of 25 minutes followed by 5 minute breaks.
I’ve tried this and, to be honest , I’m just getting stuck into something at 25 minutes and am reluctant to stop, so this doesn’t feel right for my type of work. But I can certainly see it working for studying and perhaps other types of work as well.
The second method is the Ultradian Rhythm method . For this time management technique you work for a 90-minute period and then have a 20-minute rest period.
Nathan Kleitman first discovered the 90-minute pattern when studying sleep stages. It refers to the 90–120 minute cycling of the sleep stages, but Kleitman also discovered that those same cycles apply when we are awake as well, from high alertness to low alertness.
90 minute blocks seems more reasonable to me than 25 minute blocks. I can get a ton of focused work done in 90 minutes, and then a 20 minute break feels well-deserved.
But it’s the 3rd option that intrigues me the most – the 52:17 method. DeskTime, a time-tracking and productivity-tracking app, analysed their substantial data and, using the top 10% most productive employees, determined that “the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before getting back into it.”
“The reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst.”
“During the 52 minutes of work, you’re dedicated to accomplishing tasks, getting things done, and making progress. Whereas, during the 17 minutes of break, you’re completely removed from the work you’re doing — you’re entirely resting, not peeking at your email every five minutes or just “quickly checking Facebook.”
So this is what I’m working on. But it’s really not as easy as it sounds.
In order to be able to do this I needed some way of tracking my time so that I know when my 52 minutes is up. There are several options out there, including some Chrome add-ons that remind you and even change your screen so that you’re forced to take a break. I chose one that allows to set the time ratio 5 more minutes so that I can just finish that sentence I’m writing or that journal I’m entering. There are also a ton of phone apps as well.
The next thing to get my head around is what to do in the break. I initially started by doing a 50:10 ratio, just to keep things in alignment with appointments in my calendar which usually happen on the hour or half hour.
So I’d duly get up from my desk and go have drink of water, go to the loo etc,. and come back to my desk feeling like it was time to get back to work, only to find that only 5 minutes had gone by.
So taking a 17 minute break seemed a bit perplexing. What on earth was I going to do in that time?
Well, this is the time to surf your social media accounts, or to eat, or to talk to a friend or colleague or make that dentist appointment or, better still, to get outside and walk or exercise in short bursts.
We live at the bottom of a short, steep hill. So for me, I can go outside and walk to the top of the hill and back each break. Imagine what a difference that could make. Or I could walk to the local coffee shop in time for my next focused 52 minutes. Or I could do a short yoga routine. Or just sit outside and ponder and solve the questions of the universe. My universe at least.
I think that everyone is going to have a different routine and with different work styles and work types, you need to find a work:break ratio that works for you. Follow one of the methods above, or make up your own. But take your breaks! This is a habit that we all need to develop because the research is clear that we are more productive when we do so.
Good luck! Feel free to report back to me what works and what doesn’t, and how you overcame challenges in making this happen. This topic is fascinating to me and I’d love to hear about your experiences implementing it into your life.