The “Sprinter” Method of Increasing Productivity

Tony Schwartz notes:

Our most fundamental need as human beings is to spend and renew energy.

***

When I began to crash in the early afternoon following my red-eye flight, I took a 30-minute nap in the room we have set aside for that purpose in our office. The nap didn’t give me nearly enough rest to fully catch up, but it powerfully revived me for the next several hours.

At the other end of the spectrum, exercise … positively influences our cognitive functioning, and our mood.

The truth is that we ought to be exercising nearly every day, ideally for at least 45 minutes, including strength training at least twice a week.

***

The secret to optimal well-being and effectiveness is to make more rhythmic waves in your life.To build the highest level of fitness, for example, it’s critical to challenge the heart at high intensity for short periods of time, and then to recover deeply.

The bigger the amplitude of your wave — the higher your maximum heart rate, and the more deeply you recover — the more flexibly you can respond to varying demands and the healthier you likely are.

The same rhythmic movement serves us well all day long, but instead we live mostly linear, sedentary lives. We go from email to email, and meeting to meeting, almost never getting much movement, and rarely taking time to recover mentally and emotionally.

Even a little intentional recovery can go a long way. It’s possible, for example, to clear the bloodstream of cortisol just by breathing deeply — in to a count of three, out to a count of six — for as little as a minute. Try it right now. See if it changes the way you feel.

Paradoxically, the most effective way to operate at work is like a sprinter, working with single-minded focus for periods of no longer than 90 minutes, and then taking a break. That way when you’re working, you’re really working, and when you’re recovering, you’re truly refueling the tank.

Making rhythmic waves is the secret to getting more done, in less time, at a higher level of engagement, with a better and more sustainable quality of life.

Schwartz explained last year:

In the renowned 1993 study of young violinists, performance researcher Anders Ericsson found that the best ones all practiced the same way: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one. Ericcson found the same pattern among other musicians, athletes, chess players and writers.

For the first several books I wrote, I typically sat at my desk for 10 or even 12 hours at a time. I never finished a book in less than a year. For my new book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, I wrote without interruptions for three 90 minute periods, and took a break between each one. I had breakfast after the first session, went for a run after the second, and had lunch after the third. I wrote no more than 4 1/2 hours a day, and finished the book in less than six months. By limiting each writing cycle to 90 minutes and building in periods of renewal, I was able to focus far more intensely and get more done in far less time.

The counterintuitive secret to sustainable great performance is to live like a sprinter. In practice, that means working at your highest intensity in the mornings, for no more than 90 minutes at a time before taking a true break. And getting those who work for you to do the same.

Obviously, it’s not possible for every employee to work in multiple uninterrupted 90-minute sprints, given the range of demands they face. It is possible for you as a leader and managers to make a shift in the way you manage your energy, and to better model this new way of working yourself. Make it a high priority to find at least one time a day–preferably in the morning–to focus single-mindedly on your most challenging and important task for 60 to 90 minutes. Encourage those who work for you to do the same.

In addition, encourage your employees to take true renewal breaks intermittently through the day. It’s possible to get a great deal of renewal in a very short time. Try this technique, for example:

Build a more rhythmic pulse into your workdays and you’ll increase your own effectiveness and your satisfaction. Support this way of working among those you manage and you’ll fuel both loyalty and huge competitive advantage.

Sleeping On the Job Increases Productivity

Inc. magazine provided details of the benefits of short naps … even at work:

[S]everal recent studies reveal medical explanations for why naps increase productivity, too. In 2010, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley confirmed that napping can improve the brain’s ability to retain information, noting that a middle-of-the-day reprieve “not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before.” Two years earlier, at the University of Haifa in Israel, researchers found that naps help “speed up the process of long term memory consolidation,” while the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Atlanta concluded in 2007 that a short catnap during the day “may be a useful strategy to improve not only mood but also job satisfaction”.

James Maas, a sleep expert and Cornell social psychologist who coined the term “power nap” 36 years ago, recommends employees nap for 15-minutes when they feel sluggish to restore a sense of vitality to the workday.

“If we operated machinery like we operate the human body, we’d be accused of reckless endangerment. Just like machinery gets oiled, the human body needs to be nurtured and fed,” Maas says.

Maas says there’s a neurological reason power naps work. Though an EEG pattern—which measures the flow of electricity in the head—shows wakefulness while a person is excessively tired, the neurons involved in memory can be turned off, he says. So although a person is technically “awake” in this state of sleepiness, his or her memory neurons can go offline. Simply put, even though you’re awake, your brain isn’t. (A longer 30-minute or 60-minute nap, on the other hand, puts a person in Delta—or deep—sleep, he explains, which leaves the person groggy upon waking up.)

Maas, who also consults on workplace sleeping and productivity at Harvard, IBM, Goldman Sachs, and Blackrock, points out longterm benefits of napping, too. If regular, naps can reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems, including heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Studies have also shown that chronic drowsiness during the workday can cause slower reaction times, an inability to concentrate, and difficulty remembering information over longer periods of time.

Exercise Boosts Productivity

Studies show that exercise boosts productivity and helps us work better with others.  See this, this and this.

Meditation – Whether Religious or Atheist In Content – Increases Productivity

Numerous studies show that focusing on your breath or other mediation techniques increase productivity. See this and this. (*)

Some studies seem to indicate that meditation is more effective than napping in increasing productivity. However, it may be a question of preference or situation. For example, there are many times where someone at work can’t close their eyes to nap, but can meditation by focusing on a tree outside their window, for example.

Meditation need not include religious or even spiritual content to be useful. It can be simply a physical or mental practice utilizing sounds, breathing, mental exercises or concentration.

Meditation may also help us:

*For further evidence of the benefits of meditation on productivity, see D. Orme-Johnson, Pschosomatic Medicine 49 (1987) 493-507; Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation (Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1997); R. Davidson, J. Kabat-Zinn, et al, “Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation,” Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (2003) 564-570; The Boston Globe, November 23, 2005; H. Benson, M. Wilcher, et al, (2000). “Academic performance among middle school students after exposure to a relaxation response curriculum,” Journal of Research and Development in Education 33 (3) (2000) 156-165; Jones, Journal of Applied Psychology 73 (4) (1988).

Category: Philosophy

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

18 Responses to “How to Increase Productivity and Enjoy Life More”

  1. Drizzt says:

    nice article! thanks! but i doubt my boss or company would let me sleep during lunch time. they say thats their time.

  2. wisedup says:

    My experience is to prioritize internal meditation over a nap.
    Given a straight chair of the right height, a 15 min. meditation session beats the hell out of a 15 min. nap.

  3. howardoark says:

    I don’t have an opinion on whether he’s wrong or right, but I have read similar articles (different advice) given with the same tone of edict from the all-knowing.

    Everyone does seem to agree that exercise is good for you. Though I’m reminded of Jackie Onasis’s advice from her deathbed – “If I’d known it was going to end like this, I’d have never done all those push ups.”

  4. Bill Wilson says:

    I’ve found that bringing my lunch and healthy snacks to work helps me quite a bit. If I’m buying my lunch and snacks at work, I’ll usually make poor food choices in front of a vending machine. I even bring a thermos of coffee instead of buying it. I can make healthy food choices for myself in the morning, but I probably won’t make them later when I’m hungry.

    Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational touches on this when he talks about making decisions in a cool state or a hot state. I’d try to explain it, but I won’t do it justice, so I recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read it.

    This thinking can also apply to exercise, if you can build it in to your schedule to work out in the morning or at night, that can really help. That doesn’t work for me right now as I have to start work early and be available all day.

    I’m certainly not an expert on these things, just sharing what has worked for me.

  5. rktbrkr says:

    Too many Scrooges in the world for this approach to be widely adopted

    The Clash Magnificent Seven

    So get back to work an’ sweat some more
    The sun will sink an’ we’ll get out the door
    It’s no good for man to work in cages
    Hits the town, he drinks his wages
    You’re frettin’, you’re sweatin’
    But did you notice you ain’t gettin’?
    Don’t you ever stop long enough to start?
    To take your car outta that gear
    Don’t you ever stop long enough to start?
    To get your car outta that gear

  6. rktbrkr says:

    Too many Scrooges in the world for this approach to be widely adopted

    The Clash Magnificent Seven

    So get back to work an’ sweat some more
    The sun will sink an’ we’ll get out the door
    It’s no good for man to work in cages
    Hits the town, he drinks his wages
    You’re frettin’, you’re sweatin’
    But did you notice you ain’t gettin’?
    Don’t you ever stop long enough to start?
    To take your car outta that gear
    Don’t you ever stop long enough to start?
    To get your car outta that gear

  7. rktbrkr says:

    Most of us get pidgeonholed into an unhealthy lockstep, 8 hours a day, 3 big meals a day, we work and eat when somebody tells us to. Most of us don’t have the work flexibility of a rock star but we can steal a little bit back from the man. A long, healthy life is the best revenge against the scooges of the world.

    Pick an exercise or sport thats enjoyable and doesn’t feel like work.

  8. louiswi says:

    This is a terrific piece and should hold up as one of the best of the year-even though it’s early LOL.
    My father gave me pretty much exactly this advice 60 years ago as that is how he conducted his life. All through my working years I tried to do the same. I had a cot installed in my office and blocked time for a nap pretty much every day. A long walk every day was also part of the regimen. It works or at least it worked for me. It may not work for everybody and for some meditating may be the answer. Lots of bosses might not go along with this but the evidence that it is a good plan of action on a daily basis is hard to dispute.

  9. Bill Wilson says:

    Napping at work would be a sea change at most work places. I’ve spent most of my career working at Tech companies that generally have a relaxed work environment. People get fired for falling asleep. It’s amazing how you can spend six hours a day F-ing off buy you shut your eyes for ten minutes and it’s gonzo.

  10. Blurtman says:

    Don’t know about the nap. I use a C-Pap device. Apnea can kill.

    Exercize is definitely key. Getting that heart rate up is excellent advice. If you huff and puff climbing the stairs, that might be an indication that you are out of shape.

    I run and exercycle on a stationary recumbent bike. Using the heart monitor is very helpful. I also lift weights, just 15-20 pound hand weights, but do a series of exercizes with them. You lose muscle mass as you age, and organs tend to settle and bulge. Sit ups are important.

    And totally rule out fast food, and eat more veggies. I could eat salads every night for dinner. Ditch the carbs as much as possible.

    Look around. There are lots of oldsters in great shape. Weight gain and decreptitude are not inevitable. Challenge yourself.

  11. willia451 says:

    Hmmmm. I wish. The motto at my company is “The beatings will continue until morale improves”.

    You can’t even take a nice long regenerating stretch at your desk without someone dead in your sH%t. Much less take a power nap.

  12. Jojo says:

    You can’t even take a nice long regenerating stretch at your desk without someone dead in your sH%t. Much less take a power nap.
    ———-
    That’s what the toilet stalls are for! [lol]

  13. stanleopard says:

    Thank you for the well-written post supporting more effective personal practices. What you distinguish here is compatible with my recent post on personal practices (http://bit.ly/sieUmn) and I will forward your writing to my readers.

  14. digistar says:

    The sprinter idea appeals. I definitely find my interest lagging after too much concentrated effort – especially if it requires creativity. For me, creativity requires a fresh, rested mind. Better still, work the problem for a while then leave it alone for a while, ‘resting’, while your subconscious mind finishes working the problem.

    I take a nap in my office every day after lunch. Just 15 minutes is very restorative. I’m lucky to have a one-person office with a door. Some people think its a bit odd (the nap) – but they get used to the idea and don’t bug me about it.

  15. [...] Big Picture had a great post yesterday on how you can increase productivity by working like a sprinter, not a marathoner. Several studies show that people are way more effective when they work in [...]

  16. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    For anyone interested, Schwartz’s “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” is available on audible.com.
    Timesaver tip.

  17. Erich Lagasse says:

    These tips can make you more productive, and also feel more relaxed at work. We recently posted a piece http://academy.justjobs.com/come-to-work-charged-up-and-combat-ready where we talk about energy levels and how to maintain them to be more productive at work. I hope it helps. Erich

  18. [...] In late December I stumbled across this article: How To Increase Productivity and Enjoy Life More. [...]