Since sprints get us to focus in and finish our tasks with crisp consciousness, we know they're the most effective way of working. But what's fascinating is why they make us work so well.
For Leo Widrich at Buffer, it's in human nature: while we often imagine ourselves as machines—which move linearly—we're actually organisms, which move cyclically. And to do our most creative, productive work, we need to step to that rhythm.
Your brain can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs a break, Widrich reports. Why? It's the ultradian rhythm, a cycle that's present in both our sleeping and waking lives.
As Tony Schwartz has reported, this was first discovered by Nathan Kleitman, a groundbreaking sleep researcher. He called it the "basic rest-activity cycle": the 90-minute cycles during which you progress through the five stages of sleep. Kleitman found the 90-minute pattern in our days, too, as we move from higher to lower alertness—the ultradian rhythm.
The 90-minute cycle works. Schwartz wrote a book in under six months by carving his workday into a trio of 90-minute chunks.
Without ever reading productivity posts (we assume), other fields found the 90-minute rhythm, too. In a widely cited study of prodigious violinists, psychologist Anders Ericsson found that the top performers all had the same practice characteristics:
- They practiced in the morning
- They practiced for three sessions
- Each sessions was 90 minutes or less
- There was a break between each session
That same pattern is found in other top performers, Schwartz reports: focus then rest, focus then rest.
In an elegant post on Medium, digital strategist Tom Gibson echoes Widrich's naturalism, observing that these ebbs and flows "make the pattern make the pattern of organic labour" and are not "to be worked around, to be 'gotten over.'" If you understand them—and work with them—you can do better work, the same way that knowing the mechanics of a truck's engine enhances performances.
In this way, the time you unplug is a part of, not opposite to, your workday, as Gibson continues:
"We need to incorporate 'off time'—the outward breath, the ebb—into our working patterns. Not with simple lip-service like 'you need to sleep better,' but as an integral, affirmed part of the process of working...
We need to understand that 'on' is impossible without 'off,' and that the distance between the two needs to be made closer: like the beats of a heart or the steps of a runner."
The question, then, is how to make unplugged time that a part of your team's culture. Luckily, we have answers.
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[Image: Flickr user Samuel John/ Graph: DeeperDish]