Applying interval training techniques to work
Having worked at home for months now (like many others), it’s clear my most effective work pattern is analogous to Interval Training. The ability to intersperse short periods of “recovery” in-between high-intensity work sessions is exactly what I need to maximize productivity. In an office setting, these periods of reduced intensity might have taken the form of conversations with colleagues or a short walk outside. They were typically short breaks in duration and I sometimes found myself wanting a more distinct change of pace before returning to the task at hand. It turns out there is a limit on walking over to the kitchen as you can only drink so much coffee.
The nature of my work in technology and communications requires little physical activity, rather it is the equivalent of a mental workout. I like what I do, and I feel lucky to work in this field. But it can be mentally draining at times. Thus interval training is an appealing concept to apply to work-from-home. Unlike exercise intervals, I am either sitting or standing the majority of the time while working. Physical activity is then what I do during my recovery time. Do the same benefits apply to professional work as they do to oxygen uptake?
In my article on writer's block, I wrote about noticeable increases in creativity after taking a simple walk. Here we take it a step further (no pun intended) and examine a time management strategy larger in scope but leveraging similar concepts. Intervals divide your workday into (hopefully) productive blocks of time, but the breaks in between do stretch out the elapsed calendar time. For this reason, the approach is not for everyone. Some people prefer to do their work and be done with it. It depends on what works best for you.
Working an inordinate number of hours is not required. In fact, the opposite should be true if you realize an increase in output. Nonetheless, to get in an 8 hour workday, some time will be spent outside of “normal” business hours. If you feel like you are on the clock 24–7, then step back and re-evaluate your strategy, as that is not the goal.
Interval Training: Trend and Science
Interval training has been a top fitness trend for years now, and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is number two on the latest survey according to the American College of Sports Medicine. The primary benefit of HIIT is illustrated in a 12-week study where a group that exercised in intervals for 10 minutes a day had the same increase in oxygen uptake as a group that exercised at a continuous rate for 50 minutes. Oxygen uptake, or VO2 max, is a measure of how fast your body can take in oxygen, deliver it to the body, and use it for physical activity. It is a good general measure of cardio-respiratory health.
In steady-state or low-intensity exercise, oxygen uptake increases when you first start your workout but then it levels out after that. Similarly, I find working continuously on the same task yields one or two hours of high productivity initially, followed by a slow decrease through the remainder of the day. You’ll get a good workout in this way, but if you are like me, you won’t reach your peak total output.
When we stop one task and start another, we are context switching. We take all of the current thoughts and ideas and put them out of our minds for now in order to start thinking about the next task. In work terms, this often has a negative connotation as it takes humans time to context switch, thus there is some loss of productivity.
Computers perform context switching all the time. Your old single-core desktop performed only one task at a time. However, it appeared for all intents and purposes to run your twelve open applications simultaneously. It accomplished this by switching context between apps so quickly you likely didn’t even notice.
By using the interval approach, we intentionally segment our day and subject ourselves to context switching. On the surface, this sounds bad as it decreases productivity during those transition times. I have had managers who wanted me to avoid context switching. They would say it’s in my best interest. It would allow me to focus and complete a task uninterrupted. Clearly, there is a drop in productivity during a transition, however, I think the net effect is still a positive one. Personally, I like the variety of solving multiple problems concurrently and in fact, I thrive on it. The question becomes an optimization problem. Does your productivity increase realized from intervals make up for lost output due to context switching?
There is more to the story though. Although humans take longer to context switch than computers do, it is also extraordinarily common for us to do this. A 13-month Carnegie Mellon study of information technology workers in a financial services organization found that “people averaged about three minutes on a task” before switching. Say what? Three whole minutes?
The study also grouped related tasks together and then evaluated them as a single unit of work. They called these units a “working sphere”, and the study found that “people average about 11 minutes in a working sphere before switching to another.” That is an increase in time, but even at that duration, you end up with 43 context switches in a theoretical eight hour day. Not as many as your laptop, but that is a sizable amount. I had to do the math a few times to make sure it was correct.
Perhaps context switching is not as bad then as it is made out to be. Or alternatively, perhaps most of us operate at sub-optimal levels due to this. A key factor is the type of work you do. Software engineers, for example, spend time looking over existing code before making their changes. To reach a highly productive zone, it may take ten or fifteen minutes of focused thought and research to get there. Other occupations are less sensitive regarding start-up time, but certainly many tasks require a ramp-up before reaching a highly productive mode.
How long should your interval be? Apparently even one minute of intense physical exercise shows benefit according to a leading researcher in the field. For myself, I find that about two hours of work is the right duration. After that time, my mind will usually start to wander and productivity will slow down. Time to take a break and recharge.
How long should the recovery time be? Four work intervals lead to three breaks in total. As a basketball fan, my mental model is four quarters of work. I tend to allocate a shorter duration for the first and third quarter breaks. They might consist of some mundane activities like doing the dishes, switching laundry, or dropping off eBay packages at the post office. I need to move around and do something different, something that doesn’t require much focus. The midday break is my halftime. This is a bit of a longer break and when the weather is good, it includes a walk or a run. Don’t want to forget lunch either. Following that, it’s time for the next interval.
Practice Your Transitions
Athletes swim, bike, and run to complete a triathlon. There are two transitions in the race, and each can be critical to improving your overall time. In the first transition, you remove your swim cap and goggles and get your socks and biking shoes on. The second transition is simpler and primarily involves getting the bike back in place and putting your running shoes on. The first time you go through these transitions, it seems to take forever. After practicing and completing a few races, you establish a pattern and shave minutes off of your race time in the process.
Likewise, we can improve our mental transition times when going into work intervals. Discipline yourself. If it’s not time to check email or stock prices, don’t do it. Dive back into that report, document, or whatever it is you are doing. Mentally prepare to get back in the zone, and you will train yourself to reduce ramp up time. Context switch back to your high-intensity mental state of mind from the last interval. Write notes for yourself or use whatever reminder system works best to pick up where you left off.
Start Your Interval
You made it to the end of this article after having taken a break from whatever you were doing previously. Now it’s time to context switch. Are you ready for your next interval? Plan out your high-intensity interval strategy. Practice those transitions. Try it out for a week and see what impact it makes, if any. The approach may not be for everyone, but it could be a difference-maker for you if you have the schedule flexibility and it fits your work style. In any outcome, I hope your day is a highly productive one!