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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)
  • Anand

    This makes perfect sense…. 

  • essay writing service

    interesting post! thank u!

  • Diaghe

    I use to be like Bill.. but have learnt to value resting the mind like Nick. Turning from a Student to a Professional.. It took me a while to adjust considering tight deadlines for freelance projects had me thinking oh shii.. I cant afford to take breaks!

    Over time, I have a better understanding of how my brain and body works at its best. Thank you for reinforcing the value of simply resting the brain from a task to achieve more.

  • Duane Penaflor

    I find this article very insightful and enlightening.  It is a good compass we can use to guide our day to day activities and efforts.  Thanks for posting it.

  • Guest

    Didn’t you plagiarize this text off from ‘The Art of Choosing’ by Sheena Iyengar.

  • Francis Boudreau

    Wow this article is really interesting. Thanks for this pulse and pause technique. I will really try it for my freelancing in web design.

  • Nittsy

    This is really interesting.. I am like the Bill mentioned in the above article..
    I will surely try this.. 🙂 Will make it kind of a New Year resolution 😉

  • Film Courage

    Interesting advice, especially in the age of being praised for multi-tasking.  Taking breaks refreshes and clears the mind.   Especially when you are stuck on something that’s not working.  Thanks for posting!

  • Jake Rocheleau

    These are really awesome tips.. I appreciate the great post. 99% is a real cool blog

  • Qasim Askari

    Very interesting read and it does make sense. Somehow, I believe, sleep is a major factor to work with the concentration of Nick i-e 90%. If one is sleep deprived, he is bound to make more mistakes at work even if he is a smart worker.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Matthew Knight

    The challenge is not the pulse, but getting employers to use the work delivered as the metric to measure employees by, not the number of hours at their desk. there is still too much of a ‘work long’ culture, rather than a ‘work smart’ concept. hopefully as more employers support remote and flexible working practises, this will improve. do you know any employers/organisations which already support this pulse idea?

  • J D

    I would like to add that inexorably, “the zone” (the state of mind that computer scientists reach with some amount of uninterrupted concentration), should NOT be interrupted. If you interrupt it in promoting a balanced workplace, you may face a programmer/engineer’s wrath.

  • Justin Locke

    when i played in a pro orchestra, we had a 21 hour week, and were exhausted at the end of it.  we had an expression, “Don’t wear it out– save it for the show.”  you can only perform at top level for about 3 hours a day if that.  the 8 hour workday was created by unionized coal miners in australia in the 1890’s.  why we continue to use their system is beyond me.  — jl 

  • Tn


  • Tina Matsi

    Fantastic article…I think these are things that you feel instinctively at times but we get lead along by the status quo and feel uncomfortable when we are not “working as hard” as others are. We let others set the standard instead of listening to our bodies. 
    Thank you!

  • Peaceful Spirit

    This is actually the reason my husband is a former pilot. Crew rests are often not long enough for him to feel safe operating an airplane.

  • Kade Young

    I struggle with this on a daily basis.  One day I will follow this method, then the next day I will work 10 hours straight, only to end up worn out and of no use to my wife when I get home.  Thanks for the reminder and a clearer understanding of what is going on.  It helps me to take the step towards following this method every day.

  • clearsite

    So true. I have the tendency to not take enough brakes during the day. And indeed ending up at 60% of my capacity during the day. I will try to keep this article in mind for the rest of my career.

  • Lance

    This is a great article. Unfortunately, I’m paid hourly and have to work nearly 12 hr. days to scrape by. In reality, I get about as much work done pushing through 60 hrs. a week as I would if I only worked 30 hrs. and had a life. It’s also increasingly difficult to be creative when you spend most of your time in an office. Music is occasionally helpful in taking my mind away to other places. Looking forward to getting a better paying job, and I can chalk this up as a learning experience in rest and productivity.

  • Jen

    Pulse and pause works for me! I’m an artist and designer and I find my creativity comes more naturally when I take small breaks. My work is more joyful when I have the opportunity to physically move from one environment to another and then go back into the studio. There is nothing worse that sitting at a computer to design– hour, upon hour, upon hour, without a break. I did a lot of that in my 20s. What a waste! I’m much older and wiser today!

  • Lewis LaLanne - NoteTakingNerd

    Hey Tony,

    I learned about you before Eben Pagan brought you to his Get Altitude but with the help of Eben’s “Wake Up Productive” course I finally put this Violinist strategy to work for me and I’ve ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT!

    The biggest benefit I’ve gained from applying this has come from not doing anything BUT work during my 60-90 minute stretches and then doing nothing but play during my renewal times. I now play guilt free whereas before when my work day was one long marathon I used to sneak in all kinds of messing around and then I’d feel bad about doing that AND I would take forever to get stuff done.

    Work when you work, play when you play has been huge for me. As for the moving your body during the day, I would highly recommend people do body weight work outs vs. going to the gym. Getting to the gym is a process. Body weight exercises only ask that you’ve got a tiny amount of open space to work with and you can get incredibly strong with just resisting your own weight.

    The book Convict Conditioning has some outstanding progressions that allow people to work from couch to buff.

  • Kerry Newman

    It’s funny that I should read this having just returned from an hour’s walk with the dog, which in itself was a reaction to the stress I was feeling while looking at my inbox. I can now get back to work knowing that I’ve done the right thing. I’ve lost the guilt I felt before I went (because I knew the dog needed a walk) and now I’ve lost the guilt I felt for having taken time out to give her one. Fabulous!

  • Marisa Swanson

    Just read similar advice (50 minutes and then 20 minute break) in the book the “wealthy freelancer” and am so glad for it!!! Agree.

  • Immyfly

    I think this is spot on , and the example of someone over reaching is me down to the letter, Definitley one of my favourite articles on the site. keep it up

  • Incredible India

    This looks all the more ideal world !! Would say, it totally depends on your job profile. In case you have entangled yourself in a job wherein you feel even 24-hrs are not enough, I’m not sure how could you really spend your 10-12 hours in the office the way you mentioned!

    But, nevertheless, one has to find some time to get a break, and most important, do have atleast one good friend in your workplace with whom you can talk out things not relevant to work as well !! Goes long way in De-Stressing you out !!

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