Try the 90/10 Principle

Principle

90 minutes of focused activity, followed by a 10-minute interval of conscious rejuvenation, maximize productivity.

Yes, that’s the 90/10 principle.

Who came up with that, you ask? Professor K. Anders Ericson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.

Makes sense, right? Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, described in a New York Times OpEd piece how he applies this insight to his work life:

For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up to 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions – beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest – and took a break after each one … Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work. (Relax! You’ll Be More Productive; 2/9/2013)

Powerful, isn’t it? But how do we apply the 90/10 rule to a work routine that’s parceled into 30- and 60-minute chunks – especially when the parceling is not always controlled by us? Consider this:

  • Transitions

Running from one 1-hour meeting to the next 1-hour meeting is mental insanity. Our mind has no time to process and reflect on what happened in one meeting; it simply isn’t mentally ready for the next one. Shorten your meetings by 5 minutes. Create transition time. Make transitions part of your work flow. The moment you decide to do so, you will be astounded by how easy it actually is to implement.

  • 5-Minute Check-Outs

Schedule 5-minute-intervals throughout the day when you stop and check out. You decide what “checking out” looks like for you. Hint: Checking emails is checking in, not checking out.

A check-out might be: Sitting in the office and closing your eyes; listening to music that calms or inspires you; doing a series of vigorous body stretches; writing in a personal journal; laying down on a sofa or the floor; being still. You decide!

  • Bundle your Communications

I know, I know, this may sound utopian – but experiment with NOT checking emails every 5 or 10 minutes. NOT compulsively clicking on Facebook or LinkedIn. NOT acting on every whim to send a text message.

Bundling is old-school time management. We allot specific stretches of time for specific communication activities. Writing time, email time, social media time, phone-call time. In our increasingly distracted world, this is becoming harder and harder to do. When we stick with one communication mode at a time, we sharpen our communication focus. We are more impactful in every activity we perform. And we conserve the energy that gets frittered away by our frenzied, less disciplined use of time.

Think of 90/10 as the ideal. And yes, I get it, our work world is rarely ideal. But the more our habits approximate the 90/10 principle, the more energized and effective our days become. Go and experiment. Reap the rewards of a more intentional use of your time!

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Achim Nowak is an author, speaker, C-Suite coach, international authority on personal presence. His book "The Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating a Mindful Life in a Distracted World" (New Page Books) has just been published. His previous books have become prized resources for entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the globe. Achim and his work have been featured on 60 Minutes, Fox News, NPR, in The New York Times and The Miami Herald.