I’ve been working for quite some time now in what I call a 90-minute sprint. Put simply, it’s a way of working where you work on one thing for 90 minutes (120 minutes max) followed by a 15-30 minute break.
Those 90 minutes are further subdivided into three increments of 25 minutes each followed by a 5-minute break, with the final 25-minute increment followed by a 30-minute break. I wrote about this in sitting less.
So, in essence, I work for 75 minutes in a 2-hour work window, which also includes renewal. In a given workday, that would look like doing 4.5 to 6 hours of real work while the in-between time is spent on renewal (more on this later). This combined with scheduling work based on attention works great for me.
There are a few reasons why I work this way:
- Instead of spending more time at work, I work fewer hours with more intensity and efficiency. I end up doing more and higher quality work because of it.
Working this way helps me better manage my attention in the time I have allocated for my work. I’ve long discovered that my energy, will, and capacity for intense focus diminishes as the day wears on. When I put off any challenging work for later, it tends to not get done, and for me, it’s the most difficult work that tends to generate the greatest lasting value. I wrote about scheduling work based on attention previously.
I’m able to bring more energy into my work, which increases the quality of my work instead of using more time. It’s not the number of hours we work that counts, but the amount of energy we put into those hours.
By using this approach, I’m naturally aligning myself to the energy levels in my body. I’m managing my attention based on the ultradian rhythm that governs our energy levels, thus enabling me to do my best work in sprints (more on this later). Think of it as interval training for your mind.
Because I’m alternating between doing work and renewing throughout the day, I find myself having enough energy to sustain myself for the course of a day as opposed to getting fully drained after a conventional 8-10-hour work day. This ensures that I’ll have enough energy to spend outside of work.
So, why work in 90-minute sprints? In 1957, sleep researchers, William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered the Basic Rest Activity Cycle (BRAC) — the 90-minute periods at night during which we move progressively through five stages of sleep, from light to deep, and then out again.
Later, Kleitman observed that our bodies operate by the same 90-minute rhythm during the day. When we’re awake, the movement is from higher to lower alertness. Other researchers have called this our ultradian rhythm, which means “less than a day”. Researcher Peretz Lavie and others have found that the ultradian rhythm governs our energy levels.
During the course of a 90/120-minute sprint, we move from a state of high energy (crest) down into a physiological trough. What that means is that we’re most effective when we alternate between 90 minutes of work (120 minutes max) and 30 minutes of rest/renewal. Our ability to focus/concentrate diminishes rapidly after 90 minutes, so we need to renew our bodies/minds with a 30-minute break to replenish our energy.
When we keep working past the 90-minute mark, we train ourselves to ignore signals from our body when we need rest/renewal. These signals might include fatigue, frustration, fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness, loss of focus, physical restlessness, irritability, difficulty in concentrating, and anxiety. Instead, we find artificial ways to compensate for this by feeding our bodies with caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and our own stress hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol, which provide us short bursts of energy but leave us feeling overstimulated and anxious.
When we intentionally align with our body’s natural rhythms, we learn to listen to its signals. When you notice them, it means you’ve hit that 90– or 120–minute mark. At that point, you should take a break even if you’re on a roll. Because if you don’t, you’ll pay the price for it later in the day.
Also, keep in mind that even though ultradian rhythms govern our energy levels, our overall attention diminishes during the course of a given day regardless of the in-between renewals. So, even when we take breaks after these 90-minute sprints to renew ourselves, we’ll still have less energy than when we started with at the beginning of the day. The fact that we have renewed helps us make the most of our energy at that point in time. I wrote about this briefly in Getting Work Done.
High performers in fields such as music, sports, science, et al. intuitively understand their own work cycles. According to a 1993 study of young violinists by performance researcher K. Anders Ericsson, the best performers all practiced the same way: in three increments of 90 minutes with breaks between them. We’re applying the same principle to our work lives.
I wrote about the mechanics of how 90-minute sprints work in sitting less.
The next time you find yourself in your office, I want you to sit and work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break by getting up from your chair and moving around. After repeating this thrice, I want you to take a 30-minute break, thus completing 75 minutes of (hopefully) uninterrupted work time in a 2-hour window. Wash. Rinse. Repeat three to four times a day. So, it’ll look like 25w, 5b, 25w, 5b, 25w, 30b, where w is work and b is break.
The key to making these sprints work for yourself is to first schedule them in your calendar. Then it’s a matter of showing up and doing the work. For more on this, I suggest reading Thinking and Doing and Getting Work Done.
When you show up enough number of times, it will become automatic (in other words, a habit) and you won’t have to think about doing it. Because, if you have to think about doing it, then that’s too much work and you won’t do it, and it won’t be sustainable. For more on converting a ritual into a habit, please read Rituals and Habits.
When you work in these 90-minute sprints followed by 15-30 minute renewals, you’ll be able to focus far more intensely and get more than you would have otherwise had you worked continuously (or without managing your energy appropriately) for 8-10 hours, which is the typical hours for a work day.
Also, the quality of the renewal matters more than the quantity. To perform at our best, we need to renew not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. When we build and follow this rhythm in our lives, it changes everything.
You can use software like FlexTime or BreakTime on your computer to help you set appropriate reminders for taking those breaks. I use a combination of FlexTime on the Mac and Timers on Apple Watch to take those breaks and return back to work.
As we just discussed in the previous section, you need to schedule these sprints in your calendar. I suggest scheduling two hours for each sprint; that way, you’ll have some buffer just in case.
To make the most of these sprints, I schedule work based on attention. This helps me compartmentalize my work in terms of work modes or areas of focus without having the need to prioritize, among other things. Though I may not always adhere to this framework strictly, it’s nice to have some kind of structure in place to act as a constraint in which I’ve the freedom to do my best work.
Also, it’s best to schedule these sprints after your renewal. So, you could schedule the first sprint first thing in the morning right after you wake up. This way you can get the most out of your work time because you’ve optimized the amount of energy you can have during the course of that day. In a traditional 8-hour work day, this would look like working 6 hours with your complete focus in an 8-hour work window. You’ll end up producing far better work in those 6 hours than you ever could by working the more conventional 8-10-hour workdays (if not more so).
Figure out your work areas of focus, and allocate time for it. Divide your day or week in terms of your work areas. That will ensure you spend sufficient time in each of those areas. I suggest reading Getting Work Done for more on this.
Work no more than 40 hours per week to do your best work and to create high satisfaction for employees at work. That also means taking the weekends off, along with a no-email policy after Friday at 6pm until Monday at 9am. Also, I suggest taking more vacations; this will lead to higher focus and engagement for employees at work. This all harkens back to doing one thing well. When you’re at work, work. When you’re playing, play. You can read more about Work and Play.
By working this way, you can help your organization sustain high performance by better meeting the needs of your employees.
There are a couple challenges you might face while doing these 90-minute sprints.
First, you can only show up to do these sprints when you’ve already defined your work. For more on this, I suggest reading these pieces: Thinking and Doing and Getting Work Done.
Secondly, you can make 90-minute sprints work for yourself, though it might be a challenge to do so when working with others. What you can do in that case is schedule individual work that only you can do in the morning, and schedule group work in the afternoon. At least that way you’re scheduling work based on attention and making the most of your day.
Once you start working in these sprints, it’ll be hard for you to fathom how you worked before. Using this approach, you’re naturally taking advantage of the way your body works, thus enabling you to make the most of your attention and perform at your best.