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2021-09-20

High intensity interval work: How to organize the work day


Outline

Two months ago, I was invited to my first "Work Marathon". A few hundred people would get together in a shared Zoom call for four days of working near maximum capacity. The organizers, Team Ultraworking, guaranteed that the combination of accountability and structure—work was to be divided into "cycles" of 30 minutes of working and 10 minutes of reflecting and preparing—would make me four times as productive as normal. If the promise held up, it would be well worth the $100 investment. So I signed up.

A day and a half into the marathon, I realized it was not for me. The shared Zoom call was a source of stress—not of healthy accountability. The mere knowledge of several hundred eyeballs staring out of one of the many windows I had minimized in my menu bar was a distraction—if not the premise for an Orwellian nightmare.

Meanwhile, the regular breaks felt disruptive and annoying—not the boon of structure I had longed for. I hd never had much success before with the Pomodoro technique1, so I really shouldn't have been surprised. The allure of mythical productivity gains had swept me up and suppressed my better judgment.

So I ended up dropping out of the marathon to return to my one-big-chunk-of-uninterrupted-working-time ways. The Ultraworking Team made good on their guarantee, and I got the money back, in exchange for the sinking feeling that I had failed my fellow productivity supplicants.

As much as I tried to convince myself that I had made the right call—that I had laughed the sunk cost fallacy demon in the face yet lived to tell the tale—I couldn't shake the idea that perhaps I was in the wrong. That I hadn't tried hard enough to stick to the work marathon to see the benefits mature.

So I returned to the laboratory that is my agenda and spent a few weeks deep in the Pomodoro and all its variations. Supplemented with all the research I could find, my experiments led me to switch camps: I now believe that the best and really only sustainable way to structure your work is in half hour-ish blocks of time with at least a few moments to take pause in between.

In the rest of this article, I would like to take you through the reasons why you should consider incorporating more breaks in your daily routine.

Body

Countering Sedentarism

We've all heard that "sitting is the new smoking". Barring the fact that sitting still is not nearly as bad for us as actual smoking [0], it is not good for us. Worst of all are long periods of uninterrupted sitting.

From Dunstan et al. [0]:

"Intriguingly, adults whose sedentary time was mostly uninterrupted (prolonged unbroken sitting) had a poorer cardio-metabolic health profile compared to those who interrupted, or had more frequent breaks in their sedentary time [49]. These associations were observed even when accounting for total sedentary time and time spent in moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity."

Quitting our sedentary jobs is not a possibility for most of us, but at least we can stave off the worst impacts of sedentarism by getting up frequently. Dunstan et al. point out there are not yet any "definitive recommendations on how long people should sit . . . or how often people should break up their sitting time," but moving around for thirty seconds every half hour certainly will not hurt. This has been my baseline: let's call it "30m/30s".

As for standing desks2, 30m/30s still seems like a reasonable injunction. Sitting wreaks more than just "cardio-metabolic" havoc; there's also the musculoskeletal component. And I dare say that not moving in a standing position for long periods of time will not do your joints and muscles much better than not moving in a sitting position for long periods of time.

HIIT: Getting Fit

Taking frequent breaks is not just a tonic against sedentarism but also the founding principle behind that voguest of workout trends: high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Minute-for-minute, we know that HIIT is more efficient than its continuous, lower-intensity alternatives [0]—so much so that a single seven-minute workout a day can have a major effect (for example, decreasing waist circumference by 4cm in only six weeks)[0].

If so, why not view your working sessions as extended breaks in a day-long HIIT circuit? Even a 30s break is ample time to get your heart-rate up, and, in my own experience, a quick set of jumping jacks is the perfect way to recharge my energy levels.

Don't content yourself to just maintaining your current health level against the blight of sedentarism. Use your breaks to one-up that nefarious rogue and get fit for minimum input.

The 20/20/20 rule: Preventing Myopia

Next to our cardiometabolic and musculoskeletal health, there's eye health to think about. The 20/20/20 rule recommends us to take 20 seconds every 20 minutes to look at an object at least 20 ft in the distance.

Conventionally, opthamologists tout this rule as an antidote to eye strain. Less conventionally, amateur biohackers follow the 20/20/20 rule an preventive measure against screen-induced myopia. In fact, the End Myopia community3 recommends longer breaks: five minutes of distance-viewing for every 20 minutes of close work or a longer one-hour break every three hours.

Mind

Heart rate variability: Recharging Will-power

Will-power is finite. In a single session, the more you use, the less you will have left over at the end [0]. This phenomenon, known as "Ego Depletion", is why we are most susceptible to binging Netflix, junk food, etc. at the end of a long day of will-power-heavy work.

Fortunately, there are tricks to recharge will-power. A key angle of attack is to increase heart rate variability (HRV), the variation in time intervals between heart beats. Within limits (let's say anywhere less than full-blown atrial fibrillation), a higher HRV is associated to higher self-control [0].

Your break is a perfect time to increase heart rate variability and, in turn, recharge will-power. This you can accomplish through slow breathing techniques [0] or quick bursts of exercise [0]. You need breaks not just for physical health but for your mental ability to focus.

The Focused and Diffuse Modes of Thinking: Unstucking yourself

Our brain operates in one of two distinct modes: the task-positive network and task-negative network. These systems are mutually exclusive—at any given moment you occupy either one or the other but not both. [0]

As its name suggests, the task-positive network (also "focused" mode) is well-suited to completing clearly defined tasks and close-ended problems. Meanwhile, the task-negative network (also "default mode network" or "diffuse" mode), is well-suited to creative work where tasks are not clearly defined and the problems open-ended [0].

Excelling in the information economy requires a balance between the two systems, but the conventional workday overemphasizes the focused mode. This is great for minimizing distraction but is more likely to get stuck—you fail to see the bigger picture and are blind to indirect solutions.

When we end up stuck on a problem, one of the best things we can do is to take a few minutes away from the problem in the diffuse mode. Our unconscious machinery will continue working on the problem until we have one of those "a-ha!" moments, usually while doing something totally unrelated to the problem at hand.

So take a break to free up your full mental arsenal. A quick walk can do you wonders.

Review & Reflection: Ontracking yourself

Let us come back to the work marathon: Team Ultraworking recommends a 30m/10m cycle because the 10m break affords ample time to reflect on how the previous cycle went and to plan what you will do for the next cycle.

They provide an app, Headquarters, that helps you schedule these work cycles. It begins every cycle by asking you questions like "What am I trying to accomplish this cycle", "How will I get started", and "Do I anticipate any hazards and how can I mitigate them?" It also asks you to log your energy and morale—so you know when to do some jumping jacks or get a glass of water. It ends every cycle with questions like "Did I complete this cycle's target", "Was there anything noteworthy or distracting", and "What can I improve for next cycle?"

Ostensibly, these questions help you iteratively get better at reducing distraction and planning your work. But I actually think the more impactful consequence is that these moments of pause help you catch yourself when you have gone astray—for example, if after watching an educational YouTube video, you have accidentally stumbled into the YouTube death spiral. The cyclical work structure limits the amount of damage that any lapse in will-power can inflict.

This is especially helpful for open-ended tasks that are hard to estimate. The guided reflection helps you make the abstract goals a little more tangible and concrete.4

Conclusion

All in all, we should be taking frequent breaks in our work day not just for the sake of our physical health but for the sake of the work itself.

Key to making the most of these breaks is to impose some structure. Impose a time limit and do not let the pause become an excuse to scroll Reddit or Instagram or Twitter or whatever platform your digital Achilles's heel tends to be. Instead, keep your mind free and undistracted.

The reason I had little success with the Pomodoro technique in the past was that I had absorbed the idea that interruption was equivalent to distraction. I felt that the breaks of the Pomodoro circuit were brakes to productive work. This was wrong. So long as you actually treat the break as a break, you will find it incredibly easy to slip back into whatever problem you were working on. To a large extent, the ability to drop into flow is something you can train and facilitate with the right external structure.

Exactly how to structure the break is up to you and to the work at hand. When I have several hours to spend on grunt work—on simply getting through a list of tasks, I tend to keep my breaks a little longer and put more effort into planning each cycle. When the work at hand has a more restricted focus that will require several cycles (such as writing this article), I prefer shorter breaks to keep my mind closer to the problem.

At the very least, take 30 seconds to stand up, move around, and look in the distance. At the most, take 10 minutes to reflect and plan, run outside, squeeze in a seven-minute work out, get a cup of tea, go to the bathroom, and do a bit of tidying up.

I'll be coming back to the work marathon in the future (if not on Zoom then in spirit). And I'll be continuing to integrate work cycles into all of my workdays. It's not so much a nicety (or because Pomodoro timers are so hip and trendy) but a must when you spend 10 hours a day behind the screen.

If you're interested in trying this out yourself, Team Ultraworking is running a work marathon this very week. Check it out to get started. I trust you will have more success knowing everything I didn't know than I did.


Footnotes

Footnotes

  1. In its most narrow definition, the Pomodoro technique splits time into 25 minutes of work plus 5 minutes of break. In its more general definition, the Pomodoro technique refers to any schedule of regular intervals. I tend to use the former definition. ↩

  2. With walking desks, I have trouble actually using them for anything other than reading. But I have not yet done enough research/experimentation, so this will have to be a subject for another day. ↩

  3. I am currently testing out their techniques to see to what extent myopia really is reversible, and I will get back to you on their validity in due time. But be patient: at best, I'm hoping to reduce my myopia by about 0.75 diopters a year. ↩

  4. Another tip from Team Ultraworking: for each cycle, set a baseline goal that you are guaranteed to reach and a stretch goal that you would like to reach. The momentum you gain from completing even the baseline goal should help you accomplish more and more in subsequent cycles. ↩


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