We live in an always-on era. We’re always online. Our phones are always on. The lights are always on. This state of being permanently switched on is damaging to our health and productivity. Each generation is working more hours than the one before them and while it’s easy to blame big corporations for making us work longer we really only have ourselves to blame.
And there are two key reasons for that:
1. We set our own expectations for how many hours we spend in the office.
2. By never switching off we make it acceptable to make and receive calls/emails at all hours.
Too much work is a bad thing
It’s a false economy to think you get more done by starting earlier and staying later – in most cases it is the opposite. And because we are always working our productivity suffers.
When you work too hard (yes, that’s actually a thing) your productivity is affected. Quality cannot be maintained at a consistent level for a whole day. Our brains are no different from our bodies in that respect. You can no more function at the same level for 12 hours than you can run at the same speed for 12 hours (or at all).
Productivity can actually be improved by working fewer hours and taking advantage of our natural cycles of activity. Sleep studies conducted in the 1950s discovered REM sleep. Further studies resulted in something called the ultradian rhythm – the cycle of neural rest-activity we experience throughout the night as we progress in and out of light to deep sleep.
The relevance of this is not to recommend you get more sleep (although that is proven to boost productivity), it is to apply this knowledge to your work day.
What we can learn from sleep
Scientists found that REM and the basic rest-activity cycle of 90 minutes applies to our conscious selves too. In short, our brains function best in 90 minute bursts. You may not know this but your body does, and it does its best to send you signals. Think about the last time you were in work and if you experienced any of these symptoms:
Hunger (hours before or after normal meal times)
Loss of concentration
Struggling to think of simple works or recall fine details on command
This is your body telling you it needs a break, but the chances are you ignored them and sought out a caffeine, sugar or carbs boost. That probably caused your body to create stress hormones which further slowed you down and forced you to work late to get something finished.
The 90/20 method
Our bodies can only cope with bursts of activity lasting no more than 90 minutes at a time. The ‘second wind’ we get after a rest can easily be harnessed to be a third or fourth wind if we learn to implement a system of 90 minutes of working followed by 20 minutes of rest – just switching off, tuning out or getting some exercise.
The 20 minutes you spend resting will not be a waste of time because of the energy you regain during that period will allow you to work at a more productive and consistent level for the next 90. If you’re working 10-12 hour days with few breaks, it is likely you’ll be working at 70%. That’s the equivalent of 7 hours of work at 100%.
Working in 90-minute bursts followed by 20 minutes of rest would allow you to work 7.5 hours at 100% in 8.5 works hours. You’re getting more done in less time and your day would look something like this:
1) 8.00am – Period 1
2) 9.30am – Rest
3) 9.50am – Period 2
4) 11.20am – Rest
5) 11.40am – Period 3
6) 13.10pm – Lunch (take a full hour!)
7) 14.10pm – Period 4
8) 15.40pm – Rest
9) 16.00pm – Period 5
10) 17.30pm – Home
Time spent in the office 8.5 hours, not including lunch. The take away from this is we should all be working for 90 minutes and then resting for 20 minutes to be at our most productive. We cannot artificially boost our cognitive energy levels. Protein bars and caffeinated drinks aren’t going to help; the only answer is to take a break. Once we are refreshed and renewed, we enter the next work period in peak condition.