The Path to Productivity: Short Hours, More Breaks


You want to be more productive. Who doesn’t, right?

We’ve all heard suggestions for packing more work into the idle moments of our day and shrinking tasks by reducing the time we make available to them. If you have too much work, you’ll just have to work more to get it done. But maybe that’s actually the opposite of what we should be doing. The goal isn’t really to do more; it’s to accomplish more. We need to accomplish more of the things that are most important and do high quality work.

One counterintuitive way to increase your productivity is to work fewer hours per day. Even back in the early 1900s, studies had shown that working 10 hours a day did not result in any more production output than eight.

That’s why Henry Ford decided to scale back the work week for his employees, while still paying them the same amount. First he cut back from 10-hour to 8-hour shifts. Then, he trimmed the work week from six days to five.

“Now 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… 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.” — Henry Ford

Experiments in his own factories demonstrated that workers accomplished no more in 60 hours a week than in 40. It didn’t make sense to keep them there more hours if it didn’t result in more production, so he didn’t.

This was a radical move, and it still would be today. Many workplaces encourage and reward longer hours when they should be rewarding accomplishments. If factory workers get tired and experience degradation of performance over the course of a long day, how much more do people who do mental work?

The Case for Shorter Hours

It may seem too good to be true, but I did some empirical testing on this in my own life before I ever heard about Henry Ford’s experiments. When I was a grad student, I had a research assistantship for 20 hours a week. My boss, who was also my advisor, wanted me to be in my office during business hours–more like 40 hours a week–so the other professors would see how diligent I was and know I was working hard.

I quickly found that I didn’t accomplish any more by sitting there twice as long, and I felt horrible. Finishing four hours’ work in four hours feels good. Finishing four hours’ work in eight hours feels bad, and sitting at a desk in a windowless closet for eight hours a day is draining. My advisor didn’t like it, but I went back to four-hour days, started loving my life, and graduated in record time.

You may not be able to get four-hour workdays like I did, but if you are putting in non-mandatory uncompensated overtime, you could try eliminating that. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Another surprising productivity measure is to provide yourself more interruptions.

The Case for More Breaks

Most common wisdom suggests that if you want to accomplish what matters, prioritize. Work on what’s most important, rather than what’s most urgent, and eliminate all the interruptions you can. If your email alert pops up whenever you get a new message, and one of your goals is to keep an empty inbox, suddenly every new message becomes your first priority, whether it’s something important, or a notification from Nigeria about several million dollars they need your help with. Minimize these interruptions and focus on the task at hand.

This advice seems self-evident. However, a recent study published in the journal Cognition suggests that the opposite may be true. Rather than diminishing productivity, short breaks allow people to maintain their focus on a task without the loss of quality that normally occurs over time.

You may remember studying for final exams when you were in school. Most people can get a lot done in the first hour, and a reasonable amount in the second hour, but after that, less and less sticks. This is the same idea.

Specifically, the study gave participants the task of detecting short lines when they appeared on the screen instead of slightly longer ones. Normally, over the course of 40 minutes, each subject’s accuracy and speed declined significantly. The explanation is that our brains are wired to start ignoring things after they see too much of them. That’s why you stop noticing a persistent smell after awhile–your brain decides it’s not important and stops paying attention to it.

Similarly, when working on the same task without interruption, our brains get habituated and stop giving it their all. However, when subjects were given three very short switches to another task, that was enough to keep them fresh and prevent the usual loss of quality over time.

Who would have guessed checking your email or Facebook when you’re in the middle of a serious task may actually increase your productivity? But wait a minute, who ever heard of anyone getting more done because of Facebook? The problem is that we rarely check Facebook for only a few seconds. If you have prolific and interesting friends, Facebook can be a black hole for time.

The key is choosing a break that won’t last more than a few minutes. If you’re a person who can’t sit still, get up and walk around at least once an hour. If you’re someone who works best by getting lost in a task for hours, you can do that, but take a break whenever you surface. To get closer to what worked in the study, set up an automatic reminder on your computer to distract for a second or two you every 15-20 minutes.

If you don’t want to be quite that mechanical about it, here are a few ideas for short breaks at your desk.

  • Stretch. If you feel yourself getting squirmy on your task or even just pausing to think for a minute, do a stretch or two. I instituted this rule for myself when I injured my shoulder, and it’s helped with my focus and my shoulder.
  • Think about something else. This could be as simple as what to have for dinner tonight or as significant as a loved one.
  • If you have access to a window, look outside. If you stare out at the horizon, you’ll give your eyes a break as well as your mind.
  • If you’re going to use the internet, choose sites that don’t offer endless diversion. Stay away from the blogs with in-depth, interesting content and links to other thought-provoking articles. Instead, choose something small and light. Bad: The New York Times. Better: Cake Wrecks. Best: Flickr’s explore feature, which displays a different photo each time.

Beyond breaks, make time to just space out.

How many times have you had your best ideas or flashes of insight while driving, on a walk, or in the shower? For many people, those times are when they get their best thinking done. Our minds need the freedom to wander and space out in order to give us the really good stuff. Breaks are a great start, but to get the most out of your creativity, make sure to stay rested and allow yourself unscheduled time to just be.

In Closing

We’re human. There’s a limit to the amount of work we can accomplish in a given period of time. By frantically stuffing tasks into every corner of every day, working longer hours, and not taking breaks, we’re actually hindering our productivity. If you want to accomplish more, try a power slack. You may become the next office superstar.

 


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Cara is the resident writer and dreamer at 17000 Days, a blog about making the most of your time and making your best days a common occurrence. She’s also the author of How to be Happy (No Fairy Dust or Moonbeams required). Whether you’re stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, she wants to help because she’s been there.
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Discussion

  1. Daniel on the 25th March

    Interesting post, I use WorkRave (PC) or Anti-RSI (Mac) to remind myself to take regular breaks.

    • Cara Stein on the 27th March

      Cool, I’ll have to check those out! I have plenty of distractions at work, but at home, I tend to grow roots at my desk. Thanks!

  2. Ashraf Slamang on the 25th March

    This absolutely works! I tried out a great Mac app called “Time Out Free” (available on the App Store) which gives you scheduled breaks and mini-breaks. After attempting this method I just felt great instead of run down and tired by the end of the day. Now I totally swear by it!

    • Cara Stein on the 27th March

      Another great recommendation–thank you! I’m glad it’s working well for you.

  3. Bojan Djordjevic on the 30th March

    Never underestimate the power of short breaks. I take them throughout the day in 15 minute increments a few times a day. It helps me to focus.

  4. Ofer on the 2nd August

    I suggest another website for taking a break: Google Maps.
    It’s a mentally lightweight website and is also educational. You can passively get to know the streets of your city, or just wander around the world. Another option is wandering around looking at the satellite imagery in Google Maps, which is awesome by itself. Another option yet, is wandering around in Google Street View. It’s kind of like the online version of looking out the window…

    Happy resting!

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  8. Saad on the 27th April

    This is a great post and I love the study you incorporated.Slowly, workplaces are starting to catch on, yet unfortunately, it’s starting with the small startups first and the corporations seem to be the last ones. I’ve discussed a similar factor in my own blog, yet I used a different software (WorkMeter) as my example.

    Also, as a history buff, I enjoyed the reference to Ford. It made my day. Keep it up!

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