I was skeptical
When Courtney explained we would work for 25 minutes then take a 5 minute break and that it would make us more productive, I admit it. I was skeptical. 25 minutes? Seriously? That sounded like slacking off, not working. People have been talking about such things for years, but I’m a nose to the grind kind of girl.
So, why did I decide to sprint?
We were preparing for International Coworking Day (August 9th), a day when Cowork Frederick, along with other coworking communities around the world, would celebrate the movement that is changing how we work. I was refreshing my memory about the start of coworking (see How Coworking Began) and found a blog Brad Neuberg posted in 2005. I was struck by the daily routine of those early coworkers – and the good habits it reinforced:
“We begin the day with a short meditation and circle to set our personal and work intentions, and check in physically and emotionally with where we are. Then, we work … We take lunch as a group, and then later in the day have a 45 minute break where we do a different healthy activity every day, such as guided yoga, meditation, a nice walk, or perhaps a bike ride in the sun. We end the day at 5:45 PM sharp, supporting each other in both starting a good work day at 9 AM and ending our work in a healthy, balanced way at the end of the day.”
Coworking spaces around the world were talking about doing work sprints as a way to celebrate International Coworking Day. Brad’s post and talk of work sprints inspired me, so after collaborating with fellow Cowork Frederick coworkers, we decided our celebration would include two work sprints in the morning and two in the afternoon. In between, we stretched our legs with a walk to a local restaurant for lunch.
How work sprints work
The basic idea is to stay focused, working on a task without interruption, for a short period of time and then to give your brain a recovery break. And by break, I mean a trip to the break room or a stroll outside. It’s a mental break, when your brain can relax and wander where it will, not just a break from the task. Then the next sprint begins. Lather, rinse, repeat, until your day is done. Some advocate 90 to 120 minute stretches of work, with a 20-30 minute break. Others, like Francesco Cirillo who defined a technique called the Pomodoro, recommend 25 minutes with a 5 minute break.
Since fellow team member Courtney had experience with the Pomodoro Technique and really liked it, we decided to go that route. To me, it was something fun to do. I didn’t expect these Pomodoro’s to have much of an impact on my work day. Boy, was I wrong.
What I Learned
The start of the first sprint was announced and I began. As I worked, I quickly realized I had developed some bad habits: looking up, checking the room, checking my phone, bouncing between tasks. I was surprised that I found it difficult to work 100% focused on a single task for 25 minutes. External distractions weren’t the problem. It was me. I was mentally distracted.
My understanding going into all this was that I was blocking out time to do certain tasks. I realized what I was actually blocking out were distractions so that I could get the tasks done.
I welcomed the end of the first sprint, and immediately switched gears to work on the stuff my brain kept trying to drift to during the sprint. I didn’t take a mental break. As a consequence, the next work sprint was more difficult. We headed out for lunch, I chilled a bit, and found the next sprint came much easier. Lesson learned: the break is just as important as the focused sprint.
Turns out, it really works
I used to power through my day, forcing myself to keep going even when my mind and body were screaming for a break. I thought it was a matter of discipline. I understood about brains getting tired. My method to address that was to switch from one work task to another (e.g., work on a blog until I was losing focus, then update our event calendar, then something else) – no breaks.
That method of working wasn’t working. Sprints do. Using these timer-based, intense-focus, then rest cycles has led to a noticeable increase in my productivity. By the end of the day I had knocked out several tasks I’d been putting off. It felt really good.
Experts have been touting this for years
Many years ago, people spoke of time boxing, a simple technique to manage time and become more productive in which you allocate a block of time to an activity in advance.
Then Ernest Rossi, author of The 20 Minute Break, taught us the human body operates on cycles called “ultradian rhythms.” During each 90 to 120 minute cycle, there is a peak when we are most energized and a period when we are exhausted. The body gives clues (difficulty concentrating, yawning, hunger) signaling the need for rest and a change in physical and mental activity.
Francesco Cirillo built upon the above to create the Pomodoro Technique over 30 years ago. Make a list, prioritize it, then tackle the list 25 minutes at a time. Following the guidance of Rossi, after several Pomodoro’s, it’s time to take a longer break.
Continuing the thought trend, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz (The Power of Full Engagement) propose that managing energy, not time, is the key and Daniel Pink (When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing) suggests we should also pay attention to our larger energy cycles in our day in order to time tasks optimally.
Work sprints work. And, in a world where increasingly we earn our money by using our brains more than our hands, training our brains to be highly productive just makes sense.
I definitely recommend giving work sprints a try. Start small with one or two short Pomodoro-style sprints a day, making sure you rest in between. Build yourself up to being able to sustain the sprint-rest cycle your entire workday (don’t forget the longer breaks).
I’m still a nose to the grind girl, I’m just doing it a lot better.