I yawn and check the time. I’ve been working on this article for five hours straight and it’s not shaping up well. It seems the more effort I put in, the more garbled and inconsistent it becomes. To be honest, I’m not even sure what the whole thing is about any more. I push back from my desk, the little casters on my swivel chair squeaking, and decide to take a break, and maybe floss my brain.
The term “Diminishing returns” comes to mind as I wait for my kettle to boil. It seems that the more effort I put into this piece the worse it becomes. I wonder, as I make a cup of tea, just how long I should be working for, how often I should take a break and, what I should do to be refreshed and raring to go when I sit back down at my desk.
In the 1920s a business owner observed that, contrary to commonly held ideas, increasing the number of hours that individual employees worked for, productivity actually went down. He realised that the productivity of an employee was not a constant, rather it varied dependent on the amount of work that they had already done. He changed his work week from six days to five and limited workers to eight hours a day. He found that workers produced just as many cars in five days as six. The man was Henry Ford, and he was a visionary when it came to work and the production process.
According to governmental guidelines, employees should have at least a twenty-minute break every six hours, at minimum eleven hours between shifts and a twenty-four-hour period once a week where they don’t work. But what if, like me, you are self-employed? What if it is down to you to make your business profitable? How should we be dividing our time between work and play to maximise our productivity whilst minimising the effort we put into our work?
Pick your hours
One of the great advantages of being self-employed is picking our hours of work. This is useful in so many ways such as making time to pick the kids up from school, get jobs done around the house or slipping in that all-important afternoon nap… Or maybe that’s just me.
Rather than looking at when not to work, it is important to consider when we do work. All of us work on a twenty-four-hour clock and as humans, we are creatures of habit. We eat at certain times, we sleep at certain times and we are productive at certain times.
Unfortunately, there is not a specific time that all humans excel as we all have different habits. Personally, I work well at creative tasks early in the morning whilst the vestiges of dreams still cobweb my mind, whilst more systematic tasks such as dealing with emails or logistics come more easily during the afternoon. Some people work better later in the morning when they have settled into the day whilst others produce their best work in the darkest hours.
The ability to work well at certain times of the day is all down to Ultra High-End Rhythm. We experience cycles throughout the day that account for highs and lows in our productivity. The research originated with a sleep researcher called Nathan Kleitman, who first identified the behaviour in sleeping minds before observing it in wakefulness.
All well and good, but how do we use this information to power up our productivity?
Time to tabulate
As there is no specific time that all of us work best, it is important to observe ourselves. Create a document and separate it into hour slots throughout the day. Each hour fill it in with a number from 1 to 5, 1 being when you’re on the edge of nodding off, 5 being the time that your mind is a veritable Roman candle of inspiration and creativity. It should only take a few days before you can spot a pattern.
Now we know when to work, we need to know how long we should work for…
Time on, time off
There have been many studies undertaken to establish the perfect amount of work to rest ratio to achieve maximum productivity. Desk Time, a productivity application, discovered that the most productive users of its software worked for fifty-two minutes and had a break for seventeen, but before you set your stopwatches and try to work out if you can make it to your favourite hipster coffee shop for a free range avocado espresso and a ethically sourced pumpkin flapjack in just seventeen minutes, stop. These were taken as averages and only represented the top 10% of productive employees.
More effective are simple reminders to have a break. Cornell University ran an experiment to find out if work accuracy could be improved by reminding participants to take regular breaks. It found that, compared with the control group, the subjects who were reminded to take regular breaks were 13% more accurate. Not the greatest gains, but not to be sniffed at either.
As we worked out the time of day when we are most productive, we can take a look at the amount of time we can work for before we start flagging, staring out the window at pretty clouds, or becoming distracted by more important thoughts, like the meaning of life. Or what to have for lunch. The general consensus is that people work best on an around 3 to 1 ratio, with some saying 90 minutes on and 30 minutes off however, this is completely dependent on you. Personally, I like to break for a shorter amount of time so I’m still in the same mind set, whereas others like to completely remove themselves from the work place and wander off for a skinny quinoa latte and a gluten free bag of air.
How to chill
Of course, a rest is all very well as long as it is restful. Dropping everything to rush off and deal with an infestation of bats in the attic or to confront your neighbour over her late-night vuvuzela parties will most likely put you in a terrible mood and unable to focus, unless you like swatting bats with a tennis racket or being honked at.
What we need is a way to calm our minds, to take a step back, get some perspective so that we return fresh and invigorated ready to finish this article… I mean, ready to be at maximum productivity.
Though we’re not necessarily athletes, what we put into our bodies during breaks is important. Sugary foods, though giving us energy in the short term, will lead to us flagging far before we are scheduled for our next doughnut, sorry, break. Instead we need to eat slow release foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains and fish.
The same is true for what we drink. Though it feels like a coffee boosts our performance and concentration it can also increase anxiety and disrupt sleep patterns which, of course, has a knock-on effect.
With apps such as Headspace and Calm rising to the top of app store charts, it is obvious that meditation is undergoing a renaissance. Though the list of dubious benefits seems to grow by the day, including anti-aging, curing disease and, for a lucky few, peering into the eye of the creator, meditation is scientifically proven to decrease stress levels which in turn leads to clearer thinking and higher productivity.
Work it out
Similar to meditation, exercise is an excellent way to destress, release endorphins and clear the mind. It is recommended that adults take 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week which includes a brisk walk, so scheduling in a walk each day will not only help us to concentrate, get us away from the desk and see the world around us, it might also save your life… There, I just saved your life. No charge.
Ignore me at your peril
So, I’ve presented you with some facts, some suggestions and some hipster menu suggestions… Now, like the horrific images found on tobacco products I’ll attempt to terrify you into complying…
If you work too hard, you’ll drop dead… Okay, that’s not true, but when we consider quality of life alongside work and the stress that it brings, we see that, though working hard is admirable, it’s not always the best way to go about things.
We are indoctrinated from an early age that effort equals success and, in my view at least, this isn’t completely true. Yes, we need to strive to achieve our goals but, without being mindful about how we work and paying attention to our reaction to work, both physically and mentally, we are in danger of mindlessly hacking away at tasks when there are, given a little thought, easier routes to success.
As Henry Ford looked at his factory and realised that there was a better way of doing things, we too should take a step back from time to time and take a look at our own factories, whether they are real or metaphorical. We owe it to ourselves to, not only improve the quality of our work through mindful practices and self-assessment, but also improve the quality and scope of our lives beyond the work environment.
Oliver Kennett is an author and freelance copywriter living in Bristol. A graduate in both law and engineering, he enjoys exploring science, technology and social impact through his writing. As well as clients in the technology, tourism, legal and lifestyle sectors, he has written extensively for charity. In his spare time he writes short stories and novels for children and adults in the horror, sci-fi, fantasy and humour genres.Read full profile