Should work be like a marathon or a sprint? Prior to reading The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything by Tony Schwartz I would've probably said we should treat work like a marathon. Don't burn yourself out too quickly and settle in for the long haul, right? We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare -- slow and steady wins the race. Now, thanks to these two books and the research that supports them, I'd put myself firmly in the camp of the hare and his sprinty friends.
Schwartz argues we should treat our work day like a series of sprints. He cites research that gives credence to the idea that not only do we have a circadian rhythm that effects our sleep, but that it extends to our waking hours and results in us feeling more alert at certain times than during others. He also argues that the longest we can really focus on one thing at a time is ninety minutes before we need a break. Therefore, he argues we should work for 90 minute blocks of truly high intensity focus and concentration followed by periods of deliberate rejuvenation.
I was reintroduced to this idea in relation to work shortly after doing a decent amount of research about high intensity interval training (HIIT) for fitness. The ideas are remarkably similar. Basically, by pushing ourselves to the very edges of our ability for short periods of time we can have a greater effect on our ability to get stronger/faster -- both physically and in our ability to do intellectual work. This is in direct competition with the idea that the better way to develop fitness and get a lot of work done is to work at a lower intensity for a much longer time.
Like everything else, I'm putting this to the test by experimenting with it in my own life. I've been playing around with using a ninety minute timer to organize my workday as much as possible. One reason I really like the idea of this type of working is that it gives me more time to find flow in the work I'm doing and then doesn't interrupt me right away like a Pomodoro-style of work does. It also challenges me to develop my abilities of concentration and focus -- two skills that I sorely need to develop to a greater extent.
The biggest potential win from adopting this style of work is simply the ability to get more work done in less time. My intention is not to cram more work in the time I save by working more intensely, but to use that newly liberated time to have more leisure time, more time to explore meaningful hobbies, and more time to develop my physical health. There's more to life to getting more work done in less time, obviously, but if you're mindful of how you're going to spend that time I don't see that approach as having much of a downside.
If you're interested in this idea of sprinting as a way to work, I highly recommend you check out The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything.
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Photo by Andrew Pescod