Your work isn’t a sprint, a manager once told my husband early in his career. It’s a marathon.
The manager meant that my husband shouldn’t work himself to exhaustion trying to get something done every time there’s a looming emergency, even if the work that he does can save lives. My husband might save two lives today by getting something out the door a bit faster, but when he burns out, many more people whom he might have saved will end up dying.
That advice works for the big picture across a career, but what about for the small picture? What about reaching today’s goals, assuming that you’ve set reasonable limits on your work time in the first place to avoid the kind of burnout the manager was talking about? Isn’t a day’s work a sprint by definition?
It’s not. Not even close. Have you ever met someone who can sprint for four hours at a stretch, take a break, and sprint for four hours more? People might think of their work day as a sprint, but the average office worker gets in less than two hours of real, quality work done in a day.
Countless studies have shown that people can do difficult, creative (meaning making something or practicing something with attention to improve performance) work for somewhere between three to five hours a day. That’s all you get. The harder the work, the fewer hours you can do it per day.
Even more interesting, people can’t do this creative work or mindful practice for three to five hours straight. They need to break it into smaller periods of two to three uninterrupted stretches of an hour to two hours max. During this time, they do nothing else but their main creative task with absolute concentration. They allow no interruptions. They go full-bore into your most important creative tasks with full attention.
This is an actual work sprint: A short period of complete concentration on your main task. It’s scheduled into your day. It’s also protected fiercely.
This kind of sprint-based work schedule is what the most eminent and successful people do across a multitude of different fields. It allows people to be many times more productive than the average person in that field. The reason is that when they are “on” in their most important tasks, they are completely “on,” and when they are “off,” they allow themselves to recover.
An even better term for this might be a high intensity interval, which will be familiar to many as an exercise term. In exercise, you go has hard an as fast as possible for your high intensity interval and then rest completely or do low-intensity work for your low-intensity interval. Those who engage in high intensity interval training (HIIT) know that it’s extremely powerful, allowing you to make big gains in a very short amount of time, but it’s also exhausting. HIIT experts suggest that you should do HIIT, which often lasts no more than 30 minutes, no more than two to three times a week to allow your muscles to recover. Fortunately, our brains are a bit faster to recover than that. You can do high intensity intervals every day with mental work–as long as you don’t try to do too many or for too long!
I call the times that I set aside for this creative work my “golden hours” because they’re when I get most of my most meaningful work in.
“Well, I can’t possibly work only 3 to 5 hours a day!” you might say. Of course you can’t. Even if you could get everything done in that time, which very few people can, most bosses require 40 hours a week. Your golden hours aren’t your only work hours. They’re your hard work hours. You take care of everything else you need to do–meetings, reports, email, admin–during the rest of your work day. The other three to five hours, depending on your job, is the time that you permit interruptions and you deal with things that are urgent but not important.
The Pomodoro technique is a great and powerful way to protect your sprints. I do four in a row with the traditional 25/5 split and use the 5 minutes for tea or as a bathroom break or just to quickly review my progress that far. And I (ideally) do two of these two-hour sprints per day.
I’m currently in the middle of a massive remodeling project, and I also work from home, which all too often means working with actual ear plugs in the same room where people are using a nail gun or an electric drill. Though my productivity is way off right now, I’m still on course for producing about 700,000 words per year of published material (not counting this hobby blog!). That’s about 7-15 typical books, depending on the genre. This is more than Nora Roberts writes and about half of what James Patterson produces with all of his coauthors each year.
I can only do this because of my work sprints. Without them, I wouldn’t have a quarter of this level of productivity. I’m also working only no more than 60 hours per week, slowly cutting my way back toward 48, which is my goal. For this, too, my work sprints are absolutely critical.
To try out work sprints for yourself, map out two periods of 90 minutes in your day and defend them completely against all interruptions. Work from your list of most important tasks during this time and do absolutely nothing else. You may be surprised with what you can get accomplished in such a short amount of time!