Peak productivity: Why 52 is the magic number
We’re all guilty of falling into distraction mode. Your smartphone lights up and this kicks off a five-minute volley of texting. Your online research on trade tariffs somehow degenerates into a list of best ramen restaurants in NYC. We’ve all been there.
If you want to up your productivity game, concentrate on work for 52 minutes. Immediately reward yourself with a 17-minute break. It’s the 52:17 ratio that DeskTime, an employee productivity tracking app, has discovered to be the ideal combination for peak performance.
“I think that one hour is the maximum length of time our brain is able to stay focused and alert,” says Artis Rozentals, CEO of DeskTime.
“Like any muscle, the brain can’t stay tense for too long, and I think that 52-minute mark is the time it requests a break. You can notice that the brain needs to relax because keeping your focus becomes more difficult and you start to kill time instead of spending it productively.”
The 17-minute break is critical. Rozentals emphasizes this does not mean checking email or surfing online. This means physically stepping away from your computer, taking a walk outside or doing something that allows your brain to totally relax. In a recent DeskTime study of the most productive countries, Japan surprisingly ranked the worst.
This is a country where employees are known to put in long hours and tend to go home only after the boss leaves. Rozentals sheds light on this finding: “The general assumption is that the Japanese are hardworking. Japanese workers may indeed be spending more hours in the office than any other nation, but as you can see, it doesn’t mean they’re more productive. Probably, because they’re exhausted, which again highlights the necessity for breaks and work-life balance.”
The rhythm of your day matters
Author Daniel Pink writes extensively about human behavior in business. In his latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink makes the case that good timing is more of a science than an art form. He says most people go through a predictable pattern everyday: a peak, a trough, and a recovery phase.
This pattern will vary depending on whether you’re a morning person or a night owl or somewhere in between. For example, a morning person may be most alert from 6am-9am, sluggish after lunch, and regain steam at 3pm. A person who’s a night owl may feel mentally sharpest from 10pm-2am. It’s important to identify what your own daily rhythm is and work from that template.
In a recent Facebook Live book discussion with COO Sheryl Sandberg, Pink explains, “Research shows we should be doing our analytic work during the peak. That is work that requires heads-down focus, attention, the key word: vigilance. Can you bat away the distractions?”
The trough hours are when people tend to make the most errors. As an example, Pink points to hospital studies revealing more anesthesia errors are made at 3pm than 9am. “What we should be doing during then is our administrative work: routine emails, all the kinds of garbage we have to do in the course of the day,” Pink advises.
The recovery phase of the day is when most people feel re-energized and this taps into a different set of skills. “We have rising mood which is good, but we’re less vigilant. It’s a good time for the creative work such as brainstorming, things where you need to be a little looser,” says the author.
“Time of day explains about 20% of the variance in how people perform on workplace tasks.”
Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing
The productivity killer
Successful CEOs want to have meetings that matter. It’s up to the person calling the meeting to keep it tight; otherwise, the endless meeting becomes the biggest productivity killer.
“If people come unprepared and the meeting doesn’t have a well-defined goal—that’s a total waste of time,” says DeskTime CEO Artis Rozentals.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos carries out the “two pizza rule” when it comes to meetings. The gathering should be small enough and short enough to allow all participants to finish two pizzas. The idea is that only relevant people are present and a smaller group makes for a more fluid exchange of ideas.
“If people come unprepared and the meeting doesn’t have a well-defined goal—that’s a total waste of time.”
Artis Rozentals, CEO of DeskTime
Tesla CEO Elon Musk takes a more strident approach. In a company-wide email obtained by Jalopnik.com, he listed his own productivity tips:
“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”
“Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the ‘chain of command.’ Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere.” Musk’s approach garnered widespread criticism while his supporters contend extreme efficiency saves energy and money.
A few companies have banned cell phones at meetings while some executives prefer “Stand-Up” meetings to add a sense of urgency. While company culture may have different variations, the aim is the same: getting the work done on time.