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How To Accomplish More By Doing Less

It's not just the number of hours we sit at a desk that determines the value we generate. Accomplishing truly great work also requires rest and renewal.

Two people of equal skill work in the same office.  For the sake of comparison, let’s say both arrive at work at 9am each day, and leave at 7 p.m.  In truth, a 10-hour workday is too long, but in most companies long hours are the norm at the management level.

Bill works his 10 hours essentially without stopping, juggling tasks at his desk and running between meetings all day long.  He even eats lunch at his desk. Sound familiar?

Nick, by contrast, works intensely for approximately 90 minutes at a stretch, and then takes a 15-minute break before resuming work. At 12:15 p.m., he goes out for lunch for 45 minutes, or works out in a nearby gym.

At 3 p.m., he closes his eyes at his desk and takes a rest. Sometimes it turns into a 15- or 20-minute nap. Finally, between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., Nick takes a 15-minute walk outside.

Bill spends 10 hours on the job. He begins work at about 80% of his capacity, instinctively pacing himself rather than pushing all out, because he knows he’s got a long day ahead.

By 1 p.m., Bill is feeling some fatigue. He’s dropped to 60% of his capacity and he’s inexorably losing steam.  Between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., he’s averaging about 40 percent of his capacity.

By 1 p.m., Bill is feeling some fatigue. He’s dropped to 60 percent of his capacity and he’s inexorably losing steam.

It’s called the law of diminishing returns. Bill’s average over 10 hours is 60 percent of his capacity, which means he effectively delivers 6 hours of work.

Nick puts in the same 10 hours. He feels comfortable working at 90 percent of his capacity, because he knows he’s going to have a break before too long. He slows a little as the day wears on, but after a midday lunch or workout, and a midafternoon rest, he’s still at 70 percent during the last three hours of the day.

Nick takes off a total of 2 hours during his 10 at work, so he only puts in 8 hours. During that time, he’s working at an average of 80 percent of his capacity, so he’s delivering just under 6 ½ hours of work – a half hour more than Bill.

Because Nick is more focused and alert than Bill, he also makes fewer mistakes, and when he returns home at night, he has more energy left for his family.

It’s not just the number of hours we sit at a desk that determines the value we generate. It’s the energy we bring to the hours we work.

Human beings are designed to pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy. That’s how we operate at our best.  Maintaining a steady reservoir of energy – physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually – requires refueling it intermittently.

It’s not just the number of hours we sit at a desk that determines the value we generate.

Work the way Nick does, and you’ll get more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality, more sustainably.
Create a workplace that truly values a balanced relationship between intense work and real renewal, and you’ll not only get greater productivity from employees, but also higher engagement and job satisfaction.

There’s plenty of evidence that increased rest and renewal serve performance.

Consider the Federal Aviation Administration study of pilots on long haul flights. One group of pilots was given an opportunity to take 40-minute naps mid-flight, and ended up getting an average of 26 minutes of actual sleep. Their median reaction time improved by 16 percent following their naps.

Non-napping pilots, tested at a similar halfway point in the flight, had a 34 percent deterioration in reaction time. They also experienced 22 micro sleeps of 2-10 seconds during the last 30 minutes of the flight. The pilots who took naps had none.

There’s plenty of evidence that increased rest and renewal serve performance.

Or consider the study that performance expert Anders Ericcson did of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and took a break in between each one.

The best violinists almost never practiced more than 4 ½ hours over a day. What they instinctively understood was the law of diminishing returns.

The top violinists also got an average of more than 8 hours of sleep a night, and took a 20-30 minute nap every afternoon. Over a week, they slept 16 hours more than the average American does.

During my 30s and 40s, I wrote three books. I sat at my desk each day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., struggling to stay focused. Each book took me at least a year to write. For my most recent books, I wrote in a schedule that matched the great violinists – three 90-minute sessions with a renewal break in between each one.

I wrote both those books in six months – investing less than half the number of hours I had for each of my first three books.

When I was working, I was truly working. When I was recharging – whether by getting something to eat, or meditating, or taking a run – I was truly refueling.

Stress isn’t the enemy in the workplace. Indeed, stress is the only means by which we can expand capacity. Just think about weightlifting.  By stressing your muscles, and then recovering, you gradually build strength.  Our real enemy at work is the absence of intermittent renewal.

What Do You Do?

Do you “pulse and pause” during your workday? How does it help your energy levels?

More Posts by Tony Schwartz

Comments (51)
  • Diane Bay

    I am blessed to work at home as an artist. I have therefore been able to set my own schedule, and I do work in this “pulse and pause” way. A couple hours on and a couple hours “off” all day.

  • Christina Garner

    I know this is true and yet when I’m in the flow I’m loathe to stop and take a break because invariably when I sit back down, I’ve lost the “magic.” Having said that, more and more of late (as I push for a the deadline of my second novel) I find myself feeling less and less “in the the flow.” Perhaps trying this 90 minute method requires a re-training curve. I’ll give it a shot and see how it goes after some time has passed.

  • AppalachianSettler

    This is a old story. The people here at 99% have wrote about this over and over. Usually that means it’s really important. Needless to say this is how I work anyways. I’m seriously ADD and my mind shuts down if I don’t eat.

  • AppalachianSettler

    Not bashing 99%, only saying that people should take notice to it’s importance.

  • Joel Tucker

    I am a graphic designer and “pulse and pause” is good to keep the energy flowing. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in a project and lose hours. But there are times that your creativity or energy level for producing good work runs low because you don’t take small breaks.

  • jkglei

    AS- Yes we have written about this more than once, but hopefully from a fresh perspective each time. But you’re right about the motivation: It’s because it’s so important! Energy management is one of THE BIGGEST challenges for working folks today in my opinion. And something that the “productivity” conversation often overlooks. -Jocelyn K. Glei /// Editor-in-Chief, 99%

  • Srinivas Rao

    I think the diminishing returns principal is spot on. This is why I have a real issue with managers who measure an employee by their face time in the office.  I’ve found in general that productivity happens in spurts and over the course of a day I get less productive. 

  • Matthew

    Great stuff. I am of the fortunate view who get to escape to the Pacific Ocean to surf on many of my lunch breaks. I can testify that I am more inspired and rejuvenated when I get back.

  • Tahlia Newland

    Good tips. It’s easy to just keep going, but we need those breaks. I can’t function after lunch if I don’t get a rest though so that’s taught me to take that break.

  • Sure

    Thanks for stopping me from working nonstop 😀 I will pay attention to it now!

  • Andrew Hanelly

    The biggest hurdle to implementing this is the cultural shift necessary at organizations who operate like and reward people like Bill. It’s too easy for clock-watching martyrs to chastise people who practice what you’ve preached (despite them actually being more productive). Shaking that old-school, factory mentality is tough, but once you’ve broken through, the reward is plenty. Thankfully, this post is another arrow in the quiver, ammunition for the argument. Great post. I hope to continue to shift my own habits more toward the Nick end of the spectrum.

  • Blaise

    Agreed – as a web developer I became more productive by copying the designers at work. In design, everything starts to bleed together if you don’t take breaks!

  • Annaqs

    Working for myself- it’s really hard to find the balance between the work-break system and ending up working all the time, with breaks. It’s crucial to be able to keep your breaks short and efficient, otherwise this system won’t work.

    For example, for me naps don’t work. If I go to sleep during the day (which I love to do), I will wake up 3 hours later- and half a working day wasted. That’s why it’s 3am now and I am still at work. My breaks were too long.

  • Say No! to the Office

    This is difficult to achieve if you need to be constantly available, for example, to answer the phone or do lots of little tasks that interrupt your main flow.  I’m constantly trying to balance the need to be available all the time with the need to able to focus on something for even a short period of time without being interrupted.  Very tricky.

  • Eryn

    Great info, But I’m with Annaqs, my naps are a few hours, not minutes, although I do feel much more productive after. I have definitely found that if I am starting to be unproductive, going for a run or taking a needed break can really help me get back on track and get more quality done. I don’t get so frustrated with myself, I used to think I was slacking off by taking a break. Now I think of it as work preparation (or refueling) and I get more done and I feel better about taking the time out.

  • custom essays

    Good post really cool!

  • Geoff Talbot

    Great Blog,

    My problem is predominantly one of having too many tasks and too many dreams. I am scattered and as such I focus on tow many things. I end up being good at many things but never really choosing which dream to chase?

    For example: I write, I act, I produce my own films,  I do social media and SEO work. The only trouble is that I never “seem” to have enough resource (time or money) to get other people involved. I am not a control freak… I just don’t like to choose which fish to chase?

    Any suggestions appreciated.

    Geoff Talbot

  • Ava Jae

    Really interesting post! I never knew about the diminishing returns principle, but it makes sense. I’m a writer and I’ve found that writing in 30 minute sprints allows me to write much longer (and faster) than trying to sit and write for hours without a break. 

  • MW

    I try to do this with a litle more flexibility, by setting a time goal (usually an hour) and assessing my progress when that time is up. If I’m on a productive jag, I’ll keep going, otherwise, time for a break or switch gears.

  • Em

    I recently came across the Pomodoro technique – where you line up the day’s projects, breaking them down into manageable tasks, set a timer and work for 25-30 mins on the first, take a 5 min break, then take a longer half-hour break about every two ‘pomodoro’s (four hours).

    The timer aspect in particular is forcing me to take more breaks – and be more productive!

  • Em

    And by “two pomodoros (four hours)” I mean four pomodoros (two hours”. I need a break!

  • Felone Graphics

    This could definitely improve productivity. I really have to try this method and stop smoking at those breaks..

  • Tom S.

    Awesome read. I’ve seen other posts along these lines in the past, but never knew there was an actual scientific law behind it. Now if we could only convince corporate America of these benefits instead of their constant “sit-down-and-work” attitude, we’d all have a better work life. (I used to print these kinds of things out and leave them randomly in the lunch room. I’m pretty sure HR was always tossing them though. Haha.)

  • freelance writing

    you very much for the advice, very helpful

  • Noway

    Most bosses will stupidly think Bill is the better employer.

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