“what the most productive 10% of our users have in common is their ability to take effective breaks”

A study recently conducted by the Draugiem Group, a Latvian IT company, provides another data-point about the important of rest in a good day’s work. Julia Gifford, a writer and consultant who ran the study, explains how she did it:

Using time-tracking and productivity app DeskTime, we’ve been able to study the habits of the most productive employees—and pinpoint the working flow that leads to that incredible ability to get things done.

And the trick might surprise you. Turns out, what the most productive 10% of our users have in common is their ability to take effective breaks. Specifically, the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes….

The employees with the highest productivity ratings, in fact, don’t even work eight-hour days. Turns out, the secret to retaining the highest level of productivity over the span of a workday is not working longer—but working smarter with frequent breaks.

Now, the only thing tragic about this is that it’s surprising, that the idea that we might work better when we take regular breaks isn’t common knowledge. But alas, such are the times in which we live.

In another post, Gifford explains the method behind the survey:

As a time-tracking, productivity app, DeskTime collects substantial amounts of daily computer-using behaviour (5.5 million logged records per day) . This gives us a ton of information that we can use to analyse the computer-use behaviour, through the spectrum of what the users themselves consider to be productive.

On Twitter, she explained that the data-set about 3900 people, using DeskTime over 15 months.

What we’ve done is isolated the top 10% most productive employees, and analysed their computer-use behaviour during one workday. The way we decided the most productive, is by taking the people who had the 10% highest ratio of use of “productive” applications for their line of work (each individual can have different apps they consider productive, ex. a marketer would indicate social platforms like Facebook as “productive”.)

The piece doesn’t go into great detail on this, but I think it’s not unreasonable to draw a line from this study back to my work on deliberate rest. Like the violinists who Anders Ericsson studied (who Gifford references in her DeskTime post), the best performers in the Draugiem Group’s study aren’t doing well just because they slavishly follow a schedule. It’s not the number of minutes that matter, as much as the quality of their focus, and the way they construct the relationship between work and rest.

According to Gifford, the super-producers “make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.” During the 17 minutes of rest, they’re “completely removed from the work,” not checking email or Facebook.

It’s not clear what they’re doing, other than not being at their computers (DeskTime doesn’t keep track of that!), but it seems that by and large they’re not doing computer stuff. Like many other models of creativity and productivity, and people with tremendous responsibilities, I’d hazard a guess that they get more done by maintaining a high contrast between work and rest— and thus getting more out of each.

As Jessica Stillman, who covers this beat for Inc. notes, this work reinforces a number of other studies that have reached similar conclusions.

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