In 2014 we at DeskTime performed a study that analyzed the top 10% most productive people to see what they had in common. In essence, it was that they worked on average in sprints of 52 minutes, followed by a 17 minute break.
That study went viral, being referenced in every major news outlet from the BBC and The Atlantic to Inc and FastCompany, referenced in academic journals, and even has had digital tools created based on its findings.
7 years later, we’ve repeated the study to see what’s changed.
112/26 becomes the new productivity ratio
It was found that the top 10% most productive individuals now work at an average rate of 112 minutes, and then take a 26 minute break.
That’s over twice as long of a working sprint, and nearly twice as long of a break.
If previously it was found that a person would work at their computers for just under an hour, now they’re spending nearly two hours at a time sitting at their desks.
The pandemic effect – increasing work hours
The results of the repeated study need to be observed through the lens of the pandemic, which has taken over work norms for the past year and a half. Through dramatically shifting work as we know it, it’s not incomprehensible that the productivity ratio would have shifted.
The increase in working time can be partially attributed to the work from home model, which has been proven to show that remote workers tend to compensate for not being in the office by working longer hours. It has also blurred the boundaries between work and life, thus contributing even more to the extra hours worked.
Organizational psychologist, Katrina Osleja, also commented that the rise of online meetings could also contribute to more time spent sitting at the computer.
“At first glance, one may think that working remotely has led to longer breaks, and as such, improved work-life balance. However, a statistical increase in burnout rates and demand for psychotherapists speaks to the contrary. When working from home, work and home life responsibilities merge together, and breaks become longer. People used to use breaks to make a coffee, stretch their legs, or relieve themselves. Now, they use breaks to put in a load of laundry, help children with schoolwork, make their family lunch, and more. As a result, these breaks are no longer a treat, but rather even more work.
Meanwhile, if a meeting used to result in leaving the computer to go to a meeting room, now meetings happen on screen and result in even more computer time. This may be an indicator as to why longer hours are being recorded. Throughout my work, I’ve found that people are spending much more time in meetings than previously.”– Katrina Osleja, Mg.Psych., Organizational Psychologist
A growing trend – even before Covid-19
One important aspect to understand was if the changes in the productivity ratio are only due to the pandemic, or if there was already an observable change before that. To uncover this, we extracted the data from February 2020, right before the pandemic exerted impact on the working lives of people around the world.
The productivity ratio from right before the pandemic was 80/17 – 80 minutes of working sprints followed by an average of 17 minute breaks.
Knowing that the length of working sprints has increased since the study was first published points towards the tendency of longer work hours, and that the pandemic has accelerated the rate of this growth.
Working from home – a blow to personal wellness
What we see is that if in pre-pandemic conditions people were able to work in shorter sprints to get things done and take a well-deserved break (which is in line with scientific findings such as the 100% dedication theory and the well-researched Pomodoro technique), this is no longer possible in remote working environments.
The need to participate in online meetings, sometimes back-to-back, leads to extensive periods of time spent sitting at a computer. This can have far-reaching implications on health and burnout, as long-term sitting and computer use can lead to mental fatigue, visual strain, and more, which in turn can lead to more serious outcomes, such as burnout and heart disease.
If the most productive people are currently working in these conditions, working on average 112 minutes followed by 26 minutes of break, it shows us that even the most disciplined, high-performing individuals are placed at the mercy of the work from home overwork trap.
Tips on what to do to stay productive when working from home
The good news is that by knowing the situation we’re in, we can work to rectify it. If we know that the nature of working from home will trick us into sitting for longer periods of time, we can take steps to make sure we’re taking the breaks our body and minds need.
- Create a standing desk option – to give yourself the opportunity to stand up and move around, create a standing desk option. It doesn’t have to be an actual standing desk, it can even be a simple box placed on your table and your computer on top of that.
- Look into the distance – make sure to take your eyes off from the computer screen and look into the distance. This will relax the many small muscles around your eyes and take off some of the strain. It’s best to look out the window at a faraway tree or building.
- Take calls while walking – to give yourself the option to stretch your legs and move, go for a walk around the block when taking calls.
- Work breaks into your schedule – if it doesn’t come easy to you, schedule breaks into your workday. Your mind needs a break, no matter how tough you think you are. You’ll be more refreshed, will work better, and feel less stressed at the end of the day for it.
All in all, breaks are necessary to a person’s long-term ability to work productively. Despite the adverse conditions of working remotely during a pandemic, it remains crucial to provide yourself with those breaks to work to the best of your ability. If possible, try to return to the pre-pandemic 52/17 work rhythm that so many people have found to be not only good for their productivity, but good for their health as well.
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