Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.
“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
I’m starting to restructure my days to get the most out of them – professionally and personally. I’ve found over the years that long days of work are counter-productive – while a lot *might* get done, the exhaustion makes it harder to work the next day and makes being a good father & partner very challenging. Any satisfaction from professional productivity was counterbalanced by personal dissatisfaction, making life a depressing zero-sum game.
My goal for the last few years has been 4 productive hours a day, as I intuited that was the amount of true, non-BS work I really got done. We’ve had a cultural ethos that more time equals more productivity. That might please the boss but it’s sheer negative when you have to spend you whole weekend recovering in order to start the grind all over again.
It turns out that research bears out my intuitions. First is the concept of ultradian rhythms, 90 minute cycles that our bodies operate on, either when asleep or when awake. The second is the concept of renewal – taking breaks. When combined, the effect is powerful, as the quote regarding elite performers notes.
So I now shoot for three 90 minutes blocks of productivity per day, with a 20 minute break between. I actually start the day with a 20 minute ‘break’, with my morning cup of coffee as I can’t dive into work immediately as it’s just a jarring way to start the day. This has been working out well – really well. 90 minutes is long enough to get stuff done and the 20 minute break is perfect for recharging & coming back strong.