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Conventional wisdom tells us that working harder means working longer. If we just spent a bit more time than anyone else, we would get more done, right? Wrong. Ironically, the secret to productivity…is working less.
Our Natural Energy Cycles
According to bestselling author and peak performance expert Tony Schwartz, we can only work at our optimal intensity for 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, we’ve exhausted our energy reservoirs and start feeling lethargic and unfocused. This is due to psychological cycles of rest and focus called the ultradian rhythms. Ignoring these rhythms causes stress, just like how ignoring our circadian rhythms by flying across the world causes jetlag. Thus, Schwartz advises us to synchronize our working habits with the natural phases of our bodies by taking a short break every 90 minutes.
Yet in today’s high-wired society, many agitated workers would scoff at the notion of taking so much time off. Whether they “don’t have the time to waste” or have “too much work to do”, there always seems to be an excuse to keep on working. Even if they’re aware of the benefits of replenishing their energy stocks, in moments of anxiety, it just seems too trivial for them to actually do it.
The leading cause of this is the guilt we’ve been conditioned to feel when we’re not working. We’ve developed a notion that we have to work a lot or else we’re being lazy, that every moment must be capitalized upon or else we’ll fall behind. Being stressed has become the norm, because if you aren’t stressed, you aren’t working hard enough.
If you want to get the edge over your competitors and truly be productive, don’t become a workaholic. It’s vital that you find the time, or rather, the guts, to take rest.
So this begs the question, should you simply drop your work every 90 minutes and relax?
You could, but I don’t believe that’s ideal either. First of all, it can be exceptionally difficult to implement. The reason? Because you’re measuring our productivity in terms of time instead of actual output. When time is your ruler, there will always be more work to do. This is expressed pointedly by Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the available time. To escape the self-imposed burden on our shoulders when you disengage from your work, you need to measure how much you’ve done, rather than how long you’ve spent on it.
The second problem with rigidly scheduling your breaks is that it can impart the wrong mentality. No matter you we are, you’ll inevitably be faced with tasks that you aren’t especially eager to do. If you tell yourself that you’re going to take a break every 90 minutes, nothing’s stopping you from slowly dragging along or going off on a tangent until the time is up. Although this might not trouble those with strong self-discipline, it’s something that the majority of people must contend with.
My solution is to chunk down my work into roughly 90 minute sections and take my breaks after I’ve finished the work. This way, my productive output is monitored by the actual work I’ve produced, while still in sync with my ultradian rhythms. Setting a 90 minute timeline also motivates complete my work faster, because I’m eager to go and do something I enjoy. If it ends up taking longer than 90 minutes, I make sure to keep working until it’s done. This enforces self-discipline, as the extension of the working period is like a punishment for not achieving the intended outcome. Of course, you have to be reasonable when chunking your work, and this might be a tad difficult for the highly ambitious.
So how do you slot in your breaks, and how often do you take them? Share your strategies in the comments below!
William is a high school senior with a passion for personal effectiveness, self-learning, and physical fitness. His blog, WillKwan.com, explores how we can get the most out of life with the least amount of effort.
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