Do you work in sprints or stints?
Marathon working is more traditional in many workplaces. It fits into a nine-to-five structure where taking ‘extra breaks’ is looked down upon by employers. But taken too far, this style of work can be a slippery slope to exhaustion, burnout, and low productivity.
In a world of flexible working, and an economy where more of us than ever are freelancing and working for ourselves, the sprint working structure is now steaming ahead in the race - if you’ll forgive the pun.
In today's blog, we break down the benefits of sprint working, and how to figure out the structure that works best for you and your role.
The science of sprint working
Brains are muscles. When you hit the gym to train other muscles, you stop between each lift, squat or press up, right? That’s because we know that muscles need a rest to recover and nail that next push.
There are even specific kinds of exercises tailored around maximising the value of this stop-start approach. HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) workouts aim for exactly this: giving 100 maximal effort, in short, explosive anaerobic activity followed by a brief recovery period, allowing you to go again with the same gusto.
It’s the same with mental workouts. Working in sprints can allow us to hyper-focus, then completely rest, and so on, keeping our brains in top-performing condition instead of fatiguing over time.
Studies have shown that applying this model at work leads to more productivity and higher quality work. So, what’s the perfect structure?
The 52: 17
The same study, mentioned here, demonstrated that the optimal ‘sprint’ length seems to be about 52 minutes, followed by a 17-minute break. This tends to mean that you have long enough to get ‘stuck in’ to the task, and when you return from the break you are refreshed enough to work past any obstacles with a change of perspective.
The Pomodoro technique prescribes 25 minutes of work and a 5-minute break, for 4 cycles, after which you break for 20. This could be useful for those who benefit from frequent breaks to regain focus or avoid getting ‘tunnel vision’.
Whatever technique you use, remember that there’s no universal right or wrong. It’s about identifying what works for you. This might also be affected by the kind of work you do or the tasks you are focusing on that day. For instance, a bigger project could be tackled in more depth and in larger chunks using the 52: 17 rule. A lot of small individual tasks, on the other hand, might be better achieved using the Pomodoro.
Create a perfect break
Ever scheduled a break and then just carried on working? Us too. Ever taken ten minutes, pottered around the house thinking about work, and shuffled back to your desk? Yep, same.
The break is as important as the sprint, if not more. With an ineffective one, you might as well be doing a half-hearted marathon.
An effective break means disengaging from your desk, your phone and your screen. Put it all down, get up and move. It’s best if you can go outside for a few minutes. Even staying indoors, make sure you move about. It’s also a great time for a healthy snack and a trip to the hydration station (drink your water!).
You can still disengage even if there’s no change of scenery available. If staying at your desk, close the laptop or switch off the monitor, set a timer, pop in your headphones and consider doing a bit of chair yoga to relieve your posture.
If you haven’t heard of Parkinson’s law, it states that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’. This can often be seen with a long deadline; if the urgency is low, you simply tend to work slower.
The opposite applies too. Work can also contract to fit the time you allow. So if you set a brief window to complete a task, you’re likely to work harder and faster to get it done.
This is not the same as rushing your work, and we wouldn’t advise leaving things to the last minute in order to ‘thrive under pressure’.
Working in sprints, with breaks built-in, creates an artificial time limit allowing us to come back with fresh eyes to ensure that our work is top quality.
Ultimately, something different will work for everyone. Making adjustments to your role and the type of task at hand can fine-tune your sprint working technique even further. But in general, integrating breaks into your working day should start to increase your productivity, focus, and quality of your work, as well as support your well-being.