There is so much advice about productivity floating around out there. Work this way, get up at this time, set your day up this way and you’ll reach peak productivity! How do you decide which technique will work for you? Here’s a research-based technique that works for me: working in sprints, not marathons.
Working in sprints is based on the brain science that tells us that our brains are muscles. And we all know that muscles need rest to recover so they can be used effectively. This means your productivity increases when you work for a set period of time (your sprint) and then take a planned break. The break gives your brain time to recover.
Take a break
Studies show that the most productive workers work intensively for an amount of time and then they take a break. They get more work done, are more effective, and out produce their co-workers over and over again. Why? Because brains need breaks. When you work for 3 hours straight without taking a break, you are literally straining your brain. It’s like running a marathon, by the end of the marathon, you’re spent. When you do a marathon at work, the same thing happens to your brain – it’s spent, done, exhausted. So you slow down and your productivity disappears.
Maximum focus time
So how long should your sprints last? The same studies show the optimal time to focus on a project is about 52-minutes, followed by a 17-minute break. I’ve found that the length of the work period and the break are best defined by what I’m working on. For example, when I’m working on a book or creating a new program, I use the 52-minute sprint followed by a 17-minute break. And it works. When I come back from my break, I find that I can move past any blocks I had before the break. I also come back with fresh ideas to improve the project.
Then there’s the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro refers to the amount of time you spend working before you take a break. In a strict Pomodoro you work for 25 minutes and take a 5-minute break. After 4 cycles, you take a 20-minute break. Remember, any advice about how to achieve maximum productivity and results must match with what you know about how you work best. You may prefer to work in longer 52-minute sprints, or, like me, you may find that you need to switch up the length of the sprints based on the tasks before you on a particular work day.
For example, when I’m working on a bunch of quick, small projects or tasks, I take more frequent breaks. I will work for 30 minutes and take a quick 5-minute break. 30 minutes gives me time to complete a couple of quick tasks and changing my focus during the break brings me back to the remaining tasks refreshed.
Set up your break
The structure of the break is as important as the break itself. You get the greatest benefit from your break occurs when you totally disengage from your desk, your screen, and your tasks. If you can, walk away from your desk (leave your phone behind) and go outside for a few minutes. Being in nature helps your brain and your body recover from intense periods of work.
If you can’t go outside, walk away from your desk (leave your phone behind), find a window, and look outside. Walk up or down a flight of stairs. You could also have a healthy snack (something that feeds your body instead of draining it) and don’t forget to drink some water!
What if you can’t leave your desk? Then turn off your computer monitor, plug in your headphones, listen to some music, and do some chair yoga to get your blood moving. The most critical piece of your break is to disengage completely from whatever task you were doing and disengaging from your any screens. Don’t check your email, Facebook, or Twitter. This allows your brain to rest and refresh.
Productivity timing tools
Then comes the tricky part, returning to your work. There are several tools and methods to track your work and your breaks so you return to work when you need to. The cheapest thing to use is a timer. You can use the one on your phone or a traditional timer. Fun fact – the creator of the Pomodoro Technique named it for his timer which looked like a tomato! There are also apps available for your smartphone and computer. I use an app called BreakTime ($4.99, available for iOS and Windows). It gives me the ability to set up the amount of time I work and the amount of time for the break and notifies me when it’s either time to take a break or return to work. I don’t have to reset it after each break.
It also helps to set up your tasks at the beginning of your day. Many people find it helps to set up their tasks for the next day before they leave the day before. When you start your day with a predetermined task list, you always know what to do next. And, after your break, you pick up the next task on your list and get going on it.
Break your way to a more productive day
So, to re-cap: your brain is a muscle and needs periods of rest for optimal productivity. Research suggests that the ideal period of time to work before taking a break is 52 minutes and the ideal length of a break is 17 minutes. You should also think about how you work best and set up your sprints and breaks accordingly. Set up your tasks for the day the night before or first thing when you arrive at work. Remember to use a timer so you don’t forget to take your breaks or forget to get back to work. When you get back to work, start on the next task on your list.
Try working in defined sprints with regular breaks and watch your productivity and focus soar!