52 Minutes On, 17 Minutes Off

Posted on September 6th, 2015 by Seth Nickinson

The next in our series about productivity and breaks.

As first reported in The Muse last year, and picked up by such reputable outlets as The Atlantic and Fast Company magazines, a recent study was conducted of office workers using DeskTime, a productivity app. DeskTime tracks employees’ computer use, and peeked into its own data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break.

What’s the likely explanation? Here’s Julia Gifford explaining in the Muse:

“The reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.

Working with purpose can also be called the 100% dedication theory—the notion that whatever you do, you do it full-on.”

The truth is, other studies have shown we get cognitive boredom when we keep doing the same thing over and over.

sleeping at desk with post-its

Image credit: Flickr user katiew

And the break those “most productive” employees took wasn’t just to check Facebook or email their mother. It was actually away from the computer. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer, by talking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers. Gifford again:

During the 52 minutes of work, you’re dedicated to accomplishing tasks, getting things done, and making progress. Whereas, during the 17 minutes of break, you’re completely removed from the work you’re doing—you’re entirely resting, not peeking at your email every five minutes or just “quickly checking Facebook.”

Telling people to focus for 52 consecutive minutes and then to immediately abandon their desks for exactly 1,020 seconds might strike you as goofy advice. But this isn’t the first observational study to show that short breaks correlate with higher productivity. In 1999, Cornell University’s Ergonomics Research Laboratory used a computer program to remind workers to take short breaks. The project concluded that “workers receiving the alerts [reminding them to stop working] were 13 percent more accurate on average in their work than coworkers who were not reminded.”

The Lunch Break

As a study out of the University of Toronto demonstrated in 2014, in office workers, the absence of a proper lunch break can actually lower productivity. As one of the study’s authors said:

“All efforts to control behavior, to perform and to focus draw on that pool of psychological energy. Once that energy source is depleted, we become less effective at everything that we do,”

wall clock

Image credit: Flickr user dgoomany

Smarter, Not More

The Atlantic has this gem of a parable:

Perhaps managing our office energy is a lost art. In the mid-1920s, an executive in Michigan studying the productivity of his factory workers realized that his employees’ efficiency was plummeting when they worked too many hours in a day or too many days in a week. He instituted new rules, including an eight-hour work day and a five-day work week. “We know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six,” he said. “Just as the eight hour day opened our way to prosperity, so the five day week will open our way to a still greater prosperity.”

That company turned out to be one of the most profitable companies of the mid-twentieth century, and the boss at its helm is remembered as one of the most talented executives in American history. His name was Henry Ford.

How to Get Breaks

Fast Company recommends a few straightforward ways to make sure you get those breaks in:

  • Schedule breaks into your daily calendar. Ideally every 52 minutes.
  • Set a timer to remind you when to take your break and when to return to work.
  • Make realistic to-do lists. “We often bog down our to-do lists and make them not feasible for us to accomplish [plus] we underestimate how long it’s going to take us to do something,” says Sexton.
  • Prioritize tasks. Choose three major tasks to focus on for the day and add other tasks as they pop up throughout the day to a separate list, readjusting your priorities throughout the day if required. It’s a lot easier to look at a list of three tasks than 30. Once you knock off the first three items, choose your next three priorities from your lengthier list.

In prior posts on this website we have discussed stretch breaks, yoga breaks, “instant recess” movement breaks, “brain breaks,” and water and snack breaks.