Why You Need To Unplug Every 90 Minutes

You're an organism. And organisms run in cycles. Here's how to work with yours.

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.

The cycle of doing your best work

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.



What working with the rhythm looks like

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.

To be "gotten over"

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.

The origin of the 8 hour work day and why we should rethink it

[Image: Flickr user Samuel John/ Graph: DeeperDish]

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38 Comments

  • automotivesocial

    I have speculated for years as an adult learning seminar leader that breaks are required ever 90 minutes... It is rewarding to read that there is scientific evidence of what I have anecdotally observed for many years.

  • Steve

    This only works for those that don't have ADD.  It takes me a half hour to read an article 8-)  I just drift off all the time.  I put my spring rolls in the oven for 40 min on high because I forgot to turn it off after 10 min....I just drift off...

  • John S Wolter

    The mind needs a break every 15 minutes, some Psychologists who treat Adult ADD say every 5 minutes to remain on focus.  When I do software development I find the 15 minute interval may need to be reduced.  

    I think a more flexible Pomodoro Technique explained here http://www.pomodorotechnique.c... is useful for task oriented work like specific software development.  This is like Agile Scrum with a Kanban, board, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K... where specific software objects are posted for developers to check out, develop, & return the description card when the work is completed. 

    Using a screen timer, Focus Booster, from here http://www.focusboosterapp.com... can replace the kitchen timer.

    Pomodoro and other such attention and direction methods do not speak to deciding what are the priorities or preferences for development.  Project managers may help the big picture but still push some level of decision making to the individual or small team.

  • John S Wolter

    The mind needs a break every 15 minutes, some Psychologists who treat Adult ADD say every 5 minutes to remain on focus.  When I do software development I find the 15 minute interval may need to be reduced.  

    I think a more flexible Pomodoro Technique explained here http://www.pomodorotechnique.c... is useful for task oriented work like specific software development.  This is like Agile Scrum with a Kanban, board, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K... where specific software objects are posted for developers to check out, develop, & return the description card when the work is completed. 
    Using a screen timer, Focus Booster, from here http://www.focusboosterapp.com... can replace the kitchen timer.

    Pomodoro and other such attention and direction methods do not speak to deciding what are the priorities or preferences for development.  Project managers may help the big picture but still push some level of decision making to the individual or small team.

  • John S Wolter

    The 15 minute break time helps arthritic knees.  The University of Michigan Medical School Study called AIM claims dramatic improvements in knee functioning.  The idea is to stand up every 15 minutes for a minute or two.  When mostly standing, sit for a few minutes.  Use a small kitchen timer in your pocket.

    When you stand you uncover a portion of your knee cartilage covered while you are sitting. It helps the body repair the knee cartilage.  A percent that gain improved knee function & reverse a portion of their knee arthritis is as much as 30% .  As many as 70% regain knee function at different levels and slow or stop the progression of knee arthritis using this non-drug approach.

    This roughly follows the ideas of this article.  Curious how to very different things are the same 15 minute time period in the body.

  • Tom Foremski

    Makes sense... I observe a 45 minute rule, broken into 15 min "units." It's like Pomodoro but mine is 40% faster :) 

  • Caleb Jenkins

    I totally see the value in recognizing a person's own rhythm. Like the times when a person "get's their second wind" - right after feeling slow and sluggish (this happens to me almost every night).

  • jmco

    You have to maintain you machines and operate them with care and give them time to rest and oil them. Humans are no different. Even the most extreme type of job, like the Marines know this and, after taking a Marine to the limit and beyond, they eventually send in relief or, it is hold at all cost. You can't do hold at all cost very often or you go out of business.

  • Tyler Stender

    I completely agree. I wish this was the reality when I was in school. Impossible to sit through a 3 hour lecture or have back to back classes without a break. 

  • Rdf Sweetwater

    np, dont do it, it wont affect you one way or another- he didnt say go on vacation, he sed unplug momentarily, or as you can, then resume.... thanks, works for me, I get rated on results, not how hard I appear to work...

  • Smita_kalagi

    Indeed,a small break does'nt matter whether its 10 or 20 min does help you recharge yourself and getready for the next job at hand. However things may get complicated if the cycle gets reversed(20min work and 90 min rest!!!!!!!!!!)

  • Scott B

    And what of the article last week that said avoid distractions? Every time you stop working it takes 10-20 to get back into the "flow".  Like almost everything in life, it all depends....

  • Jmparker89

    LOOK AT COLLEGE COURSES---

    Classes are never longer than 1 hour and 20 minutes... (unless you take One 3 hour course...Im sorry! Even then though, you get a break right in the middle)

    Efficiency is key. Can you work longer than 90? YES! Will you be as high energy and creative as your first 90 minutes...No. 

    Be flexible. If a 20 min break isn't feasible, make it 10! 

    p.s. 1 hr 20 min course is 80 min.... I believe the ratio should be 80/20.

    Just saying!

    Think Outside The Box,
    JP

  • Lizz B!

    Never say never: My alma mater has 5 hour long studio courses, we were expected to take at least 3 of these per semester, and they were weekly classes! lol

    Of course, breaks were involved, but not on any typical schedule and not usually significant breaks. Although I will say, one does get used to it.

  • Walt

    Bringing this message to business leaders is the key to true long-term success. A great piece. Thank you.

  • hostile_17

    "Why?"

    Oh go on, tell us! Dunno why you're asking us, you're the one writing your article.

  • khaled.el-sayed.

    This is a luxury that not all of us have. But it differently works effectively if applied.!