Work in 90-Minute Bursts for Peak Productivity?


In this post, I talked about Parkinson’s Law and the notion that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Although I received some pushback from readers who vehemently disagreed with my assertion that we should cut the average office workday in half — I stand by my “Parkinson’s Law” theory (and the data provided in that post) that many hours in the workday are wasted.

I’m a big believer in setting time constraints on activities to help focus my brain to force myself to be efficient with my time.

For example, I’ve known many guys who spend 2.5 hours at the gym, but only do about 20 minutes of actual working out. The rest of the time is spent talking to friends, trying to pick up women, walking around “posing”, or simply taking their time between sets.

Of course, these people will tell you they spend 2.5 hours a day working out — but the reality is much less.

And so it is with work.

That’s why I’ve found it necessary, and so beneficial, to set time constraints. For example, when I do a resistance workout, I set a limit of 30 seconds rest in between sets.  It ensures that I keep the blood flowing, bring some cardio into my workout, and act efficiently with my time.

And then there’s my burst training workouts which, by definition, include short durations of activity with time constraints in between.

I’ve also found the same principle to be beneficial at work.  If I set a constraint of, say, an hour or two, it forces me to block out all distractions, focus on my priorities, and get my work done in a short period of time (leaving the rest of the day to enjoy life and spend time with my family).

As I wrote in this post, one thing that has helped me with this technique is to get an office outside of my home (for the first time in seven years) and limit the hours that I’ll be in the office.  I simply “bookend” my office hours with other appointments.  This forces me to focus and prioritize during the 2 or 3 hours that I’ll be in the office by setting real limits that I can’t exceed.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this:

  • This post suggests 48-minute increments are the best way to get work done.
  • Then, of course, there is the Pomodoro Technique, which uses a simple tomato-shaped kitchen timer to help you set your time constraints to get your priorities done.

It turns out there may be some science to back this up, with what are called “Ultradian Rhythms” — those 90-120 minute intervals during the day during which our energy and attentions spans are at their peak.  This intervals are followed by 25-30 minute periods of lower energy.  So, according to that theory, we should set the timer to work in 90-120 minute increments, followed by 25 minutes of rest.

Whatever your technique, I think it’s important to realize that time spent at the office (or the gym) does not equal time actually spend working (or working out).

Do you agree that setting such strict time constraints are beneficial to your work? Disagree?  Let us know in the comments!

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