Maybe you find yourself scrambling to finish last minute tasks before calling it a day? Or writing a to-do list for the next day, promising yourself that tomorrow you will be more productive?
If so, you aren’t alone. Most of us try to cram too much into every day. And in many cases, our rigid task lists, calendars and work habits work against real accomplishment and creativity.
Think About the Average Workday
Think about it: The typical workday runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a short break sometime in the middle. Managers are trained to expect workers to stay engaged and productive that whole day. But can you really focus for those long periods of time?
According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, the answer, for most people, is no. In fact, research shows productivity isn’t tied to how well we focus on a particular task, but on how much energy we have while completing it.
When we have energy, we can focus better and be more creative. When energy is lacking, we’re more easily distracted — after all, it requires less brain power to watch cat videos on YouTube than it does to write a report. Even the healthiest person, fully rested from plenty of sleep and who eats healthy foods, cannot sustain the same level of mental energy for hours on end. The human brain isn’t wired that way.
So what’s the solution? According to those same researchers, the 90-20 Rule will help you maintain your energy throughout the day, increasing productivity and creativity.
The 90-20 Rule in a Nutshell
The 90-20 rule is quite simple: Spend 90 minutes focused on a specific task, and then take a 20-minute break.
Studies show that the brain uses up most of its glucose — the sugar responsible for optimal brain function — in 60 to 90-minute intervals. By taking a break to get a snack, take a quick walk, or do something less mentally taxing, your brain can rebuild its stores of glucose, preparing you for another 90 minutes of work on your to-do list.
In a study of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music, researchers found the most accomplished violinists practiced no more than 4.5 hours per day, in intervals of no longer than 90 minutes. Those who practiced for longer periods found their performance suffered and they made more mistakes; they did not measurably improve. In other words, shorter periods of more intense focus are better than longer periods of potential distraction.
Workers who use this method also noted that the promise of a break after 90 minutes is a powerful motivator. Tackling an unpleasant task becomes much easier when you know you’ll take a break and do something more enjoyable soon.
The 90-20 rule improves focus and productivity, and has a powerful effect on creativity. Writers, artists, musicians and those in liberal studies point to the 90-20 rule as a habit that helps them be more creative.
Your brain is like a machine. Like any machine, if it’s left on for too long without time to cool down, it’s going to work less effectively. And when creativity is important – like when you’re working on that writing project for your fiction class or finishing a project for a client – you’re not helping yourself when you overload the machine.
Researchers are also quick to note that while the 90-20 rule works well during the typical 8 to 5 workday, most people have their own rhythms – and their peak creative energy may not be during traditional office hours. They recommend individuals find their own peak hours, which may be early in the morning or in the middle of the night. In these days of flexible work hours and virtual contributions, this makes the 90-20 rule even more powerful.
Try the 90-20 rule – and see if you aren’t more productive, and creative!