For Better Productivity, Work in 90-Minute Spurts

What's more effective: working nonstop for five hours, or working in three 90-minute intervals interspersed with 20-minute breaks? For many office workers—those who skip lunch and don't leave their desks until 5—it might seem like the first option is best. But according to science, that's not the case.

Step Aside, Circadian Rhythms

This all comes down to our ultradian rhythms. Like circadian rhythms, ultradian rhythms make up a sort of body clock that cycles regularly throughout our lives. But while circadian rhythms keep track of the 24-hour day/night cycle, ultradian rhythms roll in 90–120 minute cycles; specifically, those of our individual brain-wave frequencies. Most people are familiar with the way we pass through different stages of sleep—these are our ultradian rhythms in action—but you may not realize that you also pass through different stages of waking.

Cycle Your Work

Studies have found that all sorts of things are affected by these cycles, such as dopamine levels, alertness, and especially attention. A 1993 study by psychologist Anders Ericsson found that the best violinists all practiced in three 90-minute chunks with breaks in between. A 1995 study found that people generally maintain their sleep cycles after waking as periodic "sleepiness" cycles. This is why experts such as Buffer CEO Leo Widrich and engagement consultant Tony Schwartz swear by a rest-activity cycle that builds breaks into the work day.

The Science Of Productivity

Find out what science says about working more efficiently.

Circadian Rhythms And Your Internal Clock

Here's how your body knows when it's day or night.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. The body's systems follow a circadian rhythm, which is synchronized with the rise and set of the sun. 00:37

  2. Humans are generally the only species who subscribe to a once-a-day sleeping pattern. 02:18

  3. Constant disruptions from our regular sleep patterns can be linked to diabetes, obesity and depression. 02:54

Written by Ashley Hamer September 30, 2016

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