One of the most unchanged elements of our life today is our optimal work time or how long we should work – generally, every person I’ve spoken to quotes me something close to 8 hours a day.

And data seems to confirm that: The average American works 8.8 hours every day. At least, those are the official statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

average work time - optimal work time

And yet, for most of us it is obvious that knowing how long the average person works every day has little to do with how efficient or productive that pattern is. At least, that is what I personally found for my own productivity. So what’s the the right hourly rate?

With success stories from people working 4 hours a week, to 16 hours a day, it’s hard to know if there is an optimal amount. So instead of going with my gut, which often fails me, I thought of looking into actual research on work time and how to optimize it for your happiness and success.

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Why do we have 8 hour work days in the first place?

Let’s start out with what we have right now. The typical work day is around 8 hours. But how did we come up with that? The answer is hidden in the tidings of the Industrial revolution.

In the late 18th century, when companies started to maximize the output of their factories, getting to running them 24/7 was key. Now of course, to make things more efficient, people had to work more. In fact, 10-16 hour days were the norm.

These incredibly long work days weren’t sustainable and soon a brave man called Robert Owen started a campaign to have people work no more than 8 hours per day.  His slogan was “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” 

8 hours labour, recreation and rest

It wasn’t until much later that Ford actually implemented the 8 hour work day and changed the standards:

“One of the first businesses to implement this was the Ford Motor Company, in 1914, which not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled their worker’s pay in the process.  To the shock of many industries, this resulted in Ford’s productivity off of these same workers, but with fewer hours, actually increasing significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years.  This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter, eight hour work day as a standard for their employees.”

So there we have it. The reason we work 8 hours a day, isn’t scientific or much thought out. It’s purely the a century old norm for running factories most efficiently.

Manage energy not time: How long we work isn’t important & the Ultradian Rhythm

Without wanting to fall into the same trap, it’s time to ask a better question. How many hours we work every day is barely important any more in today’s creative economy.

Instead, the right focus is your energy, according to famous author Tony Schwartz:

“Manage your energy, not your time.”

Schwartz explains that as humans we have 4 different types of energies to manage every day:

  • Your physical energy – how healthy are you? (We’ve written about that part before)
  • Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy – how well can you focus on something?
  • Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

One of the things most of us easily forget is that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. At the core, this means that machines move linearly and humans move cyclically.

For an efficient work day, that truly respects our human nature, the first thing to focus on are ultradian cycles.

The basic understanding is that our human minds can focus on any given task for 90-120 minutes. Afterwards, a 20-30 minute break is required for us to get the renewal to achieve high performance for our next task again. Here is a better representation of the ultradian rhythm:

Waveform of life, ultradian rhythm

So instead of thinking about “What can I get done in an 8 hour day”, I’ve started to change my thinking to “What can I get done in a 90 min session”.

Now that we know we got to split everything in 90 min chunks, it’s time to break down those 90 minutes sessions further. 

The core of a productive work day: Focus

The one most crucial to understanding our workflows is how well we can focus. In a stunning research project Justin Gardner found that to actually focus on something our brain uses a 2-step process:

1.)  “Sensitivity enhancement”: It means you see a scene or setup and take all the information in that is presented. Then you focus in on what needs your attention. Kind of like “a blurry photo that slowly starts to come into focus”, describes Lifehacker.

2.)  “Efficient selection”:  This is now the actual zooming in on a task happens. This allows us to enter into what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “Flow” state. Now our actual work on a task happens.

The follow figure probably describes it best:

single tasking versus multitasking brain 

In figure A, as our brain is presented with only 1 task, we are able to separate out distractors (blue) from what’s actually important (yellow).

In figure B, as we are presented with multiple tasks at once, our brain is increasingly easy to distract and combines the actual tasks with distractors.

The key conclusion that Gardner suggests from his study is that we have to both:

  • Stop multitasking to avoid being distracted in our work environment.
  • Eliminate distractors even when only 1 task is present

Sounds fairly obvious right? And yet, getting it actually done every day is much easier said then done. The good news is that after all, we can even actually change our brain structure from learning to focus. Here are some hands on tips:

The top 4 tips for improving your work day

For my daily workflow at Buffer, I’ve started to make 4 distinct changes to implement the above research better. Here is what worked the best:

  • Manually increase the relevance of a task: Now, a lot of us still might struggle to find the focus, especially if no one set a deadline to it. Overriding your attention system, and adding your own deadline together with a reward has shown some of the most significant improvements for task completion according to researcher Keisuke Fukuda. 
  • Split your day into 90 min windows: Here is something I’ve started to do. Instead of looking at a 8, 6 or 10 hour work day, split it down and say you’ve got 4, 5 or however many 90 minute windows. That way you will be able to have 4 tasks that you can get done every day much more easily.
  • Plan your rest so you actually rest: “The fittest person is not the one who runs the fastest, but the one who has optimized their rest time.” Says Tony Schwartz. A lot of the time, we are so busy planning our work day, that we forget about “how” to rest. Plan beforehand what you will do your rest. Here are some ideas: Nap, read, meditate, get a snack.
  •  Zero notifications: One of the best ideas I’ve ever had was to follow Joel’s advice on Zero Notifications.  Having absolutely no counter on my phone or computer changing from 0 to 1 and always breaking my focus has been a huge help. If you haven’t tried this yet, try to turn off every digital element that could become an alert.

Personally, my life has been pretty much turned upside down after implementing these findings over the past few weeks. And I couldn’t be happier. I get both more done and feel happier at the same time.

Oh and as a follow-up post to this one, you might also enjoy “The science of how temperature and lighting impacts our productivity” as well as “The 4 elements of physical energy and how to master them

Over to you now, what do you think is the best structure of work days? I’d love your insights on this topic.

Image source: Jay Mantri

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Written by Leo Widrich

Co-founder at Buffer.

  • What a fantastic read! This is wonderful info for those of us who like to get the most out of our days.

    I’ve found it really helpful to have a GTD-style Weekly Review, planning out all of my projects and blocking out chunks of time on my calendar. I’m going to make all my blocks 90 minutes long, after reading this article. Thanks!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Caelan, really awesome to hear the post was helpful. Ah yes, the weekly reviews is a great addition, I think that is really helpful way to see if you are on track with everything!

      • Vangelis Tartarakis

        Dear Leo,
        Thank you for the article, was a really helpful.
        The reason I’m writing you is to share with you my concerns in my working environment. I’m working in an construction company in UAE as Administration Manager. As per company policy we have to work for 6 days – 11 hours (one hour break). This can be applicable for site employees, with 3-4 days for tea and one lunch break. But in my opinion can’t work for the office. This form of work, coming from the old times, since the company operates for 60 years and never changed. People cannot understand that the employee in order to be more productive has to rest and work less hours. Every time I m going out of office for 3-4 hours I can easier think “out of the box” and give solutions to very serious cases. Additionally, I have started giving my people days “off” on rotation basis and when they come back to the office they are more productive. Their rest works more positevelly in their morale also.
        What can you advise me on this?
        Thank you for your time
        Kind regards

  • Another great read, Leo! I’m very interested in splitting my day into 90 minute windows, and seeing if I am able to cut back on multitasking / get important tasks done.

    • LeoWid

      glad you liked that one Sean!

  • Such an interesting read. I have set myself the goal of trying to work online for 12 hours a day, been attempting it the last few days and it’s hard going. Plus my sleeping pattern is an absolute mess too.

    • LeoWid

      Hi Jamie, thanks for stopping by and so glad the article was helpful. Definitely, I think that’s an interesting experiment and can definitely see how sleep suffers, whenever I tried this I had to stop, I do 4 * 90min slots a day now and it seems to work much better.

  • Joel,

    Have you experimented with the Pomodoro technique? It is interesting that the work to rest proportions are roughly the same to your approach, but they taken at different intervals.

    Pomodoro: 5 minutes rest/25 minutes work(20%)
    Ultradian Rhythm:20 minutes rest/90 minutes work (~22%)


  • Eric Thomas

    Good Post Leo. Sounds in the same vein as Gary Kellers as an real estate I’m going to implemet your stateryg and time block 90 min segemsts. The during my planning seesions decide what maters most for each 90 minute sesion

    • LeoWid

      Hey Eric, thanks a bunch for stopping by! Definitely, please give it a shot and thanks for the heads up on Gary Kellers, I’ve not come across it before, will check it out!

  • sourabh bajaj

    Interesting article, but does this 90 min and then a break philosophy applies to programmers as well? As I read in an article a while ago, (I guess that was also posted by you), a programmer must work continuously at least 4 hours to be the best of himself. Its a contradicting thought.

    • Dave Benoy

      Sourah makes an interesting point. Some programming problems can take more than 90 minutes to ‘get into’ and interrupting your flow really sets you back. I find a quick 5 minute break to make a cup of tea once every hour helps with the longer problems, followed by a long break once the difficult task is completed. For every other type of work I do, teaching and consultancy, the 90 minute guide is great.

      • sourabh bajaj

        Yeah that’s what solves this. Though I don’t drink that much coffee but a 3-4 min walk helps a lot in thinking the problem at a deeper level. You get a break without breaking the flow as deep inside, the problem is running continuously in your brain. Also, getting out of the seat you have been in for more then an hour really helps releasing the pressure. Thanks for the reply Dave. 🙂

  • Rob kennedy

    What an article you’ve written Leo. I have to congratulate you. Well done, other than a few typos, it was an excellent read.

    I’m a copywriter/editor and for me, it’s focus. Trying to maintain focus to get the words as right as can be, that’s the hardest things to do. I work in an open office and there are 12 people, most have different functions, and all have different levels of focus.

    Open offices work for many people, but not writers. It’s so difficult to read and edit while people are on the phone, talking, taping away at their keyboards and such. Everyone has their own level of focus, but we all work in the same office setting.

    It should be different for different positions. Then people might be able to focus better at work and get more out of their day.

    • Rhys Thomas

      Tapping away at their keyboards surely?

  • Awesome read, esp the 90-min work cycle. Seems a shame to inflict 8 hr workday upon ourselves !

  • Andi Jarvis

    Love this. Much to the horror of people around me, I often kill my email while at work – it’s the least efficient thing in the office. I also try breaking my day up into 30 minute chunks, but as this advice came from a Hollywood movie rather than a researched blog post, I’ll reconfigure and try the 90mins slots instead. Thanks!

  • Berenice Mann

    What I find interesting is that this is how we used to work. When I first worked, in a large organisation, everything revolved around standardised break times. You started at 8.30 or 9 am, had tea break at 11 am where everyone stopped and headed to the tea room (so was sociable too), lunch was a formal hour in the canteen or elsewhere, and then another tea break in the afternoon when everyone headed to the tea room. Then a couple of hours left until home time at 5 or 6 pm.

    So this article really says returning to those formalised breaks would make people more productive that sitting at a desk all day.

    • Rudolph Gartner

      Those standardized breaks over there in England sound appropriate and helpful. We should be so smart as to include such work schedules here in the U.S.

      • Steve Smith

        Rudolph brother you need to educate yourself, these breaks are standard in many many many large office settings – and every industrialized union shop.

        • jordan

          “industrialized union shop” that sounds like a great place to work, yeah…

          Unions, bureaucracies, hierarchies – they’re dead!

          Give me a team of passionate, self-directed go-getters and we’ll outperform the most unionized union of self-entitled Obama voters any day of the week.

      • David Ezra Sloan

        How about we just get politics out of it and let the free market decide (that’s how it started anyway). Either we accept oppression or we make it accept us. Either we allow ourselves to be stepped on or we stand up and demand respect. None of the government regulations have come from sound science.

    • jordan

      How about if you need a break then you just go ahead and take a break.
      A formalized break time sounds like someone is more concerned with perfecting a bureaucracy than letting people self-govern and perfect themselves.

  • This mirrors a bunch of thoughts I’ve been having recently, and made a post on over at Medium:

    It seems most of us are so used to thinking of output in mechanical terms that we fail to see we make ourselves less effective by trying to fit that mould.

    I think there’s a great open expanse available to us in terms of how we explore and reconsider our working practices, what it means to ‘work hard’, and how we ‘get the job done’.

    So, it’s really good to read other’s thoughts and research on the area. Thanks!

  • Kamal Kulshreshth

    insightful ! particularly about the 90 min cycle and 4 types of energy that we have

    • Yes, What can you get accomplished in 60- 90 minutes cycles? When a person applies this, it can/gives a sense of satisfaction each day.

      • Samuel Falvo II

        Absolutely nothing. I need no less than four hours contiguous to achieve anything of substantial value and feel any kind of satisfaction.

        • Samuel, you take a lot of pride in your work. 🙂 In speaking
          for myself, I can get errands accomplished, read a technical manual, and
          write a draft report in the time period. It goes without saying, some
          projects require more time; still, it is good to at least take a break
          to eat something, communicate with another worker, etc… Regards J.

          • Samuel Falvo II

            Software engineer here; it just doesn’t work that way. A 15-minute interruption will require me to spend another hour picking up where I left off, let alone continuing to develop. It’s a deeply creative and analytical vocation.

          • “Software engineer” it makes sense. Of course these 60-90 minutes cycle suggestions are not a one size fits all. Hey, I wish you best with whatever you are doing to keep up with your schedule and needed relaxation time.

          • Robert Dishong

            I’m a software engineer myself. If I get ANY distractions during the day, like Samuel, it takes a good hour or more to get my head back around everything. Creating a mind’s eye replica of what code you’re working on takes time and extreme amounts of focus that can easily be broken. An intricate house of cards that just doesn’t jive with the 90 minute thing.

            It always bugged me when coworkers would take their 20 minute distraction, only to come talk to me and set me back an hour and 20 minutes…

  • James Preston

    Hey Leo! Great post. Really educating and inspirational. Gonna try implement some of this to my workday and see what we come up with. It’s funny, I recently turned off Facebook & Twitter notifications for my BlackBerry, and I feel it has actually liberated me! So nice to see a little confirmation here. 🙂
    Also, you may want to re-read this article to make a few gramatical edits here & there. Only if you’re like me and the OCD type. 😉

  • Amekla

    Excellent Leo, I have been preaching energy optimization for years,.

  • Erik

    Interesting article, thanks.

    What is your source for the 90min / 20 min cycle?

    At university, lectures had a duration of 90 min. As far as I remember, I did not had a peek of focus about 45 min in but rather a let down. One professor actually did a 5 minute break (for smoking) after 45 min and I found it quite refreshing.

    I also remember at school, lectures where 45 min. I think my focus decreased at about 35 – 40 min, I rarely was caught by surprise by the end of the lecture.

    Today my focus time / attention span has not increased (except when I’m in state of “flow”). So I rather stay with pomodoro technique 25 min / 5 min but will thankfully make a longer rest after 90min.

    • Peter Bowyer

      > What is your source for the 90min / 20 min cycle?

      According to this Huffington Post article by Tony Schwartz:

      More than 50 years ago, the pioneering sleep researcher Nathan Kleitman discovered something he named the “basic rest-activity cycle” — the 90 minute periods at night during which we move progressively through five stages of sleep, from light to deep, and then out again.

      However I can’t find any proper verification for using it in daytime – the references I’ve seen talk in terms of sleep cycles.

    • rce

      Studying and trying to absorb all the information tends to be much more exhausting than most other things people do.

    • Andrew Chitwood

      I agree, I was told by the psychologist that diagnosed me with ADHD that i needed to work on different types of assignments every 25 min, for example, math for 25 min, then English for 25 min, then maybe science for 25, then a 15 min break.

  • Tara Dee West

    Awesome post! I’m really bad at staying focused on one task for more than an hour or so and I’d much happily work longer hours with more breaks in the day! I block my time out in chunks anyway, but usually they are kind of half-day chunks. Your post has inspired me to try planning them in a bit more detail so I have a focus for 90 minutes at a time and move onto a new task to see if this increases my productivity. Really interesting read – thanks!

  • I have been preaching this for years! Thanks for this article. I will share this.

    I could care less about hours! I care about results. That is all that matters to me.

  • Great advice! Due to living with chronic illness I’ve had to learn the lesson of respecting your ultradian rhytm from a young age. But it helps me concentrate and actually get more done than just pushing on. The only thing I’m really bad at is actually resting when I take a break from work – I tend to do more physical chores instead. That’s good for getting my blood flowing, but can be tiring in the long run. Thanks for this excellent reminder Leo!

  • don jones

    Interesting thoughts. It be helpful to also think pre-industrial revolution. What about work schedule when life was agrarian? Any perspective on that? Thanks.

  • Ana Barreira

    Interesting ideas. On smilar opinions, i recommend Camilla’s Kring e-book “Life Navigation, an invitation to orchestrate your own life”

  • This is an awesome post. Will keep referring back to this one.

  • KwinPeterson

    Great post — gonna plan next week in 90-minute sessions and see if that time is optimal for me, thanks.

    I tell everyone who will listen that turning off notifications will change your life — it’s hard but so worth it.

  • Natalie Levy

    Very interesting information thanks Leo. I am very interested in productivity as a freelance web designer. I have been using the Pomodoro technique, and it does help me focus for longer. Pomodoro uses 25minute sessions, but I believe it is too short. I will try 90 min sessions and see how that goes. And turning off distractions like notifications is very important 😀

  • Great post Leo. Here is something that I wrote a month back – Productivity hacks of a startup dad –

  • nice post

  • itsmreview

    Who thought switching off notifications would be such a beauty! Great tip thankyou.

  • Slkelly

    I’m going to give 90min sessions a go next week. Are we saying that 90mins on one task and then an actual rest period or is simply changing to the next 90min task just as beneficial?

  • Miriam

    must be in a different country then mine 🙂 if you have kids you can not do any sports and you have to add instead DRIVING around in order to pick up your kid or bring it somewhere…. or reorganize and re and re and re organize the child care because something unexpected happened…. not to talk of preparing a business trip… in germany you have to take aways 2 hrs of your sleeping time, others doesnt exist, expand taking care of your kid and expand working time…. thus work, kid, household.
    and i am not complaining because i think my life is perfect

  • James Meece

    Nice article, however the thought that Ford Motor Co. Developed this work schedule is rediculous. The labor movement is directly responsible for the 8 hour workday. You mentioned Robert Owen, a Scot who introduced a 10 hour day in Scotland in 1810, and then the 8 hour day in 1817.
    Later in 1866 the International Workingmens .Association Geneva Conference adopted the 8 hour day.
    In New Zealand and Australia it became standard in the 1840s an ’50s.
    In the USA the Philadelphia Carpenters struck for a 10 hour day. And in 1835 the coal heavers organized a general strike.
    At that time just like today companies had absolutely no concern whatsoever for the wellbeing of the workforce.
    The real source of the 8 hour workday is the unions which are under attack, by means of right to work laws as well as initiatives to remove overtime pay in the USA.

    • Rudolph Gartner

      I think this respondent is correct. The 8-hour workday was first implemented abroad; companies in the U.S. were draconian in their treatment of workers. It was the unions who agitated for the 8-hour workday here in the U.S. Henry Ford just was an enlightened capitalist owner who saw the wisdom and payoff in treating his workers better and more humanely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of our present capitalist owners who want to drag as back into the Dark Ages.

      • Steve Smith

        Disagree. The article is correct. Furthermore a lot of people do not realize Henry Ford was in front of the labor movement, and invited unions in. Workers at the time DID NOT WANT unions at Ford Motor Company

        • alan

          Steve Smith – Maybe you’d better try to put Wikipedia right on this then!

          • Steve Smith

            Allan “no name” – Maybe you should read complete articles and fact check. Ford Motor Company went 8 hr work day in 1914 – 23 years before the UAW was there.

        • billdacat

          “Battle of the Overpass” – Ford henchmen -beat- UAW organizers. Ford Motor Company was found guilty of violating the Wagner Act, and in early 1941 the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to stop interfering with the union’s attempts to organize.

    • Vic

      Actually the 8 hour work day was invented before the Industrial Revolution and the optimization of labor efficiency. Despite needing less labor to sustain a “wealthier” lifestyle due to the division of labor, corporations leveraged their bargaining power to maintain the 8 hour (or more) work day in order to maximize profits, and the laborers, already accustomed to working long hours in less efficient production, did not complain until they experienced severe abuse. Today we do not need to work as much as we do to sustain a healthy lifestyle, but we do because of our materialistic culture that dictates that we need to partake in visible consumption.

  • theirmind

    I don’t know if your favorite work should be eight hours is not enough, right?

  • Leo, great article… glad you didn’t trust your gut (though I usually trust mine)… some interesting research especially by Robert Owen. Here were my thoughts…

    The Rule of THREE to living…

    There are 24 hours in a day, split into three parts for our balanced living. The first part of our 8 hours meant for working, the second part of our 8 hours for personal/pleasure and the third part of our 8 hours for resting.

    Call it God’s design or nature’s law.

    We as humans have a natural path to follow. A long time ago, people used to wake up early in the morning, (before or at sunrise) go about their personal chores, start their work and when the time came for the sun to go down, they would rest.

    Fast forward today, and you have the ingenuity of electricity, telecommunication and computers to allow us to work at anytime… or all the time. Leaving us with an extremely unbalanced life.

    Coming from a very orthodox environment, where work is worship – I personally find it difficult to keep such a balanced life. However, that doesn’t stop me from trying. Do you think its really possible, practically, to balance your time in such a way… that you spend only 8 hours working (and I mean really working!) and leave the rest split
    between your personal matters and of course the proper amount of sleep?

    • glorrierose

      What if you have to put in 8 hours on a job that just pays the bills and then you need time to work on the work that is your passion? And you also need to take care of children?

      This is a very male-centered design that doesn’t include requirements for child care and it assumes that you make a living working at your passion.

      Also doesn’t include commute time to work, which hardly fits as “work, recreation, or rest.”

      Extremely unrealistic for most people but especially for those given primary responsibility for child care.

      If I had a job that both paid a living wage AND allowed me to pursue my passions I would be happy working 12 hours a day!

      • I have no idea what your personal circumstances are merely by your comment. But I’m sure you have the answer to your own questions… you have free will, choice to decide what you want.

        Instead of stereotyping genders, why not take the essence of what was said… just because you spend your time in commuting… doesn’t mean everyone else does… (for the record, I spend 10 minutes commuting… am I lucky? Not happy with what you have? Change it… does that mean moving to another country or continent … do that!)

        And what do you mean by “most people”? Have you seen the world enough to make this claim? At least I’ve personally seen mothers look after their children and their extended family, do a business on the side, AND have enough time for leisure… they probably didn’t spend their time reading this here on this blog, or bothering to reply… they merely found contentment in their care giving… be thankful for the children you have…

        P.S. I never mentioned anything about passion.. its already over-abused word.

        • Belle

          Hey Jose and glorrierose, this is a tricky one! When you’re working full time and keeping up with personal commitments but you also want to work on your passion in your spare time, it can pretty quickly seem like you’ve run out of hours in the day!

          Making a change when you’re not happy is a great step, but sometimes that’s more of a gradual process when circumstances don’t permit for an immediate change. It can be tough to balance everything if you’re going through a time of change, but working towards that ideal three-part day (8 hours work, 8 hours personal, 8 hours rest) is a great goal!

          Thanks for reading 🙂

      • Chitown1961

        Times are a changing glorrierose, men take care of children, cook, run errands, and housework. I know I have!

  • RIch

    Interesting. You might want to also include people who punctuate their day with obligations to their addictions – Cigarettes, coffee, sugar etc.

  • Fernando

    Good article. Another tip for things to do in your rest time: go for a walk, or ride your bike. It is even better if you can make it outdoors. Light physical exercises are a good way to keep not only your body but also your brain in shape.

  • Paco Martínez-Losa

    Great post. I will link this article for my School students. Thanks!!

  • Giacomo Viglietta

    Sorry, I don’t want to be arrognat,but I’m quite surprised! This article seems so obvious…however thanks for sharing…

    • Poo

      surely you meant *arrogant

      • Chitown1961

        : )

  • Natalie

    When I smoked at college I took 5 cigarette breaks in a day 10am-6pm (or 10am-9pm) towards the end of my course, with between 3 and 10 others. On two of them I also got a coffee/energy drink. I did graphic design, so we were always working on making stuff, rather than ‘studying’ in the traditional sense. These little breaks were like rewards, and also sociable, because we’d all talk excitedly about what we’re working on and what we hoped to do next — out in the open air — and so when you headed back inside to the studio you’d be a little bit pumped for the next thing you were going to do, after having reflected with your peers and planned for the next hour or two. This was extremely effective in creating a harmonised mental/’spiritual’ energy, as you call it, because you’d know what you wanted to do and why, and you felt rewarded from the 10-20 minute distraction.

    Fast forward to now. Three years later. I’ve stopped smoking.

    I’m reading this article during my 8-hour day. I don’t have a higher persuasion or spiritual reason for wanting to do things; I believe in nothing except making an enjoyable career, as I spend so much of my time building it. I will not have kids until at least the age of 35, if at all, because it will interfere with my working life.

    When I go back to my work, I will not be refreshed like I was at university, because I have still spent this break thinking and reading and having an opinion. I much preferred the going out and talking about it breaks.

    Entertain the idea of the 3 day week, but you have to work until you’re 80 instead. Not only will you stay focused and needed into old age, because after retirement is when people age so quickly and realise they have all this time on their hands but not their youth to enjoy it; but when you are in your 20s you will have the time to go out and live. This means life will remain at a constant level of richness, with the brain stimulated enough in youth to carry forward less stress levels into a healthy old age.

    • barbara


  • Arunn Bhagavathula

    You mentioned 8 hour work day was introduced by Ford. But according to this Wiki page it was Tata Steel which introduced it in their 1st Jamshedpur unit in India in 1912, 2 years before Ford! Please see the red marked para in this link

    • Chitown1961

      It would be nice to see the article updated to reflect this fact.

  • Totally enjoyed this! This will be referenced in the days to come on my website.

  • benjiman86

    Nice article! Reminded me on Parkinson’s Law: “The amount of time which one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task.”

  • A real worker

    Your an idiot. Sorry but you are. Your a journalist, what your saying about taking a bunch of 20 minute breaks is not gonna apply to most real workers just people like you that sit on your ass for a living AND are self employed or very independent in their work (like a journalist) you make me sick work a real job and tell your boss your taking 4 or 5 20 minute breaks. 80 to 100 minutes a day not working, your employer is not going to let it happen. That’s what an average of an hour and a half a day?

    • alan

      Sorry, worker, maybe it’s your Boss who is the idiot. When I was doing joinery we used to have regular (2) tea breaks and stop for lunch.. I used to bump out MORE on that routine than when i was self employed working flat out. Its about working and thinking as a team, not just working flat out as an individual.

    • Chitown1961

      Just thinking out loud here but I get and hour for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks. That is an hour and a half so if an employer can see benefit in extending 20 minute breaks instead of the hour lunch they will do this. It is not really that far fetched, there are already many real jobs that are offering some sort of flex time.

  • Molly Freibott

    Excellent article! Such helpful information- I will be seriously considering how I work and what ‘norms’ and ‘expectations’ I have brought into my Creative Business. So glad I found you!

  • Rudolph Gartner

    This data and insights do make sense, at least to a certain degree. I’m not convinced that we need to strictly adhere to a 90-minute work on, followed by a 20-minute work off cycle all the time. There are always going to be times when one will need to stretch that 90 to a 120-minute cycle into a longer work cycle. Situations demand this. Here is one rather “out there” example: In the course of a medieval field battle in which the opposing sides battled each other in hand-to-hand combat, often for long hours, it is hard to imagine that the soldiers would, or could, take breaks in between periods of intense physical combat. But on the other hand, we don’t know how those men managed their off and on times on the battlefield other than having documentary sources saying that many battles lasted for hours and hours. It could very well have been that the soldiers were able to find periods of rest in between cycles of heavy fighting. Whether those periods were of a 20-minute duration is another question.

  • James McPherson

    Great essay. I really like the “efficiency” of the writing. I’ve been working on an essay about leisure, referencing Josef Pieper’s idea that Leisure is the basis of Culture. It has been fascinating to read about workers in the Middle Ages being able to work 180 days a year -the rest was “leisure”. Seems like human-centered cycles etc. were built in to a calendar of feast days, festivals, etc. But it was a highly productive time in terms of agriculture, craftsmanship, artistry and tech. development which all gave birth to modernity… $.02 and thinking out loud

  • pbr90

    Technically, employers are way overpaid by measuring the number of hours received for low wge from overseas, and for not accounting for the benefit of increased efficiency they have yet to account for in domestic industry that makes American employees more productive in a shorter amount of time.

    The employee is being heavily shortchanged by industry expecting the continuation of a 40 hour work week that isn’t keeping up with the trend of work productivity and how long it takes to create that unit of value for an employer.

    Industrial management is still thinking in obsolete industrial America mentality.
    It needs to be rethought to reconcile with modern technology and the benefits it affords. Accounting for technological innovation and automation is a big deal which should make employee lives better, and easier, not harder, or more expensive.

    • Eva Rinaldi

      I work hourly wage jobs, and let me tell you, getting a 40 hour work week at that level is very difficult, and when you do, you get people trying every stupid dirty trick they can think of to force you to do more. Unfortunately most of said tricks are distracting or work for a select few and not everyone since people’s brains work differently.

      I read an article which suggests that we need to reinstate overtime for salaried employees who work more than 40 hours a week and possibly create limits on how few hours a week necessitates having another body in employ- When I used to work retail, sometimes I’d be scheduled for 1 30 hour week, one eight hour week, then one month of eight hour weeks, then a 20, etc.

      I think it would be helpful, though, if we did move to a more results based payment method so people would stop freaking out about the time spent working. I’ve met people who work best when they go for about 4 hours on a project, I’ve met people who work best with frequent breaks, etc. It would be nice if management had more incentive to be concerned with “Is it done properly by the deadline?” and less with “Are you wasting ten minutes here and there having a snack and talking to a coworker?”

  • Cosmin Danila

    Slavery was never really abolished, it was only abolished on paper. That’s why we still have the 8-12 hours workday, after a century and a half from its instauration. We could blame the system for it, the private central banks to be more specific.

    • Cosmin Danila

      And then we could blame the other slavery programs, which are mainly judaism, christianity and islam.

  • Olanrewaju Sideeq

    Right on the head. Great article. Convincing i must say too

  • name 1

    The information that Ford introduced 8 hour work shift is wrong. In 1912, Tata Steel, became the first company in the world to limit the number of working hours for factory workers to eight

  • billegge

    If you reduce your workday to only 4 hours then you have to be really productive.

  • joe c

    Its a good writeup. However im partial on how “work” is our daily life. Considering it wasnt the lords plan why are we doing this? How did we get to finacial ideal? Stress was also not his plan. That being said my spiritual set is just to work to have to support the family in this bs world lol. I like to make people think about and question what mainstream society makes you think is “right”.

  • Chitown1961

    Thanks for the insight, I have recently started my own business and have found at times the day and some times night just passes by. I also need to start to exercise, and wanted to take up meditation. I think this is my answer or at least a method for me to move towards a more productive and healthier me.

  • anon

    Why should I work in a shitty, meaningless job 8 hours a day 5 days a week to make someone else rich? Capitalism sucks and we don’t all have the ability/skills/chance to set up our own business or work in the public/non profit sectors (which are often just as exploitative anyway).Too many people are stuck at the bottom of the pyramid with no way out, even though they are educated and capable. Too many people are trapped in unemployment, doomed to poverty and social exclusion. The system is wrong.

    • Tony

      Such a victim attitude. Don’t complain about the system if you are not going to suggest alternatives. Attitude of mind is the source of creativity. Creativity is the source of new ideas. New ideas are what spur things forward. New businesses are formed because of new ideas. New businesses give people jobs. Education has NOTHING to do with it. There are so many examples of people with great education that cannot get the job they want, or any job at all. Conversely, there are so many examples of people that have a positive attitude to life; one where they want to actively contribute, rather than be contributed to.
      Wake up and be creative.

  • Lance Hayne

    Funny, I thought the most important takeaway from this article was that productivity is impacted by the duration you spend on the task, the amount of distractions you allow, and the importance of rest rather than the origins of 8 hour work day. I value the notion that you need to focus your attention on single tasks and avoid the temptation to multi-task, manage the duration spent on tasks and consider the time spent resting to be as just important (and productive) as the time spent working.

  • Jennifer Trimmier

    As a small business owner and 1-woman “shop” I’ve searched and searched on ways to become more disciplined, productive, and efficient in my home office. Sometimes it seems that I used to get more done working an 8-9 hour work day and running my business in the evenings and on weekends! Even though I had less time to focus on my business, the time was sensitive so I had no choice but to be focused and on-point. Since leaving my “day job” and going full force into my side job, I’ve found self-imposed deadlines and rewards work well for me. I’ve heard of zero notificaitons before this article and it scares me, but I think I’ll implement soon! And I can’t wait to try 90 minute windows – I can definitley feel a sense of diminishing returns as the clock ticks on a tast..I think this will help me a lot. Thanks for posting.

  • V

    I have no idea if the origin is correct but I am certain it is a brilliant sound and solid scientific reminder of how to balance between brain activities and rest. It’s stupid to feel guilty at rest.

    • V

      Also, I hope to bring revolution to my 8-hour work routine.

  • satyam

    thi srule was made 200 years back when there were no computers. Today work hours should be reduced to six hours or five hours because those who have children need more time for family and for both working partners it is a must. But India being very traditional country can never do it.

    • Rajarshi Som

      In India, there is absolutely no difference between employment and slavery. The vast majority of Indian employees work 6 or 7 days a week, and certainly more than 8 hours a day.
      Indian industrialists are not intelligent enough to realise that output doesn’t linearly increase with increasing effort.

  • So it’s been 9 months, have you stayed with this program and is it pretty much ingrained in your brain at this point? Did you find that you had to make adjustments in some areas, and if so, what? I’m just curious because I work in an open office where everyone answers the phones, signs for packages, and even helps the stray customer every once in a while. I end up answering the phone more than not and have had entire, planned days upended by answering a very time-consuming, in-depth customer call that has required literally hours of my time that I hadn’t planned on. I’d love to know how it ended up working out for you and if any of the other staff has implemented the same strategies. Thanks in advance!

  • Ema

    The gut is the real compass and never fails!

  • Agnes Dadura

    I’ve just bought Tomas Schwartz’s book, and this was good warm-up for it! I wish more companies would question the old work hours rules and experiment with other options. It’s slowly starting (heard that Norway’s government offices are starting implementing 6 hours work days?).

  • Siddharth

    This post is really helpful. I will surely implement these 90 min windows in my day and see how it helps. Also, the part about switching off all the digital devices while you are working is very true. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Mike Sanderson

    Distractions are the problem – people asking if you are busy, emails, stupid people who send a global reply to an email sent globally, telephone calls, and my pet time-waster, meetings where nobody listens to anyone else and everyone talks at once. Does this happen everywhere or just in Chile?

  • Monica

    Thank you! 🙂

  • Jilly Thompson

    surely the sectioning off of the 8 hour day was to make a 3 shift pattern work. The employers wanted 24 hr production. 12 hr shifts were impractical due to tiredness etc, especially in mines where light and “daytime” was not an issue. 3 x 3 hour “shift” pattern of 8/8/8 worked!
    But can you imagine if our planet had a longer day? It all relies on how the earth revolves. If it was slower (ie half speed – 48 hours would humans have evolved to 24+ hours of light?)

  • swninetails

    The best balance I ever had to my life was 4-10hr days, it allowed enough time at work to complete tasks, it gave me one day a week to get stuff done when things were open, one day a week to handle household upkeep and still one day to enjoy my life. I was even a single parent with two children, I miss this schedule.

    • Four 10-hour days sounds great! Thanks for the comment!

  • Laurence

    when I was in jewelry school, which consists of manual labor only and very little academic stuff, I worked 4 hours a day. We had 6 hour days 5 times a week but I would always come in 2 hours late or leave 2 hours early. This worked perfectly for me for a whole year, I was faster and more productive than anyone else in my class and even had extra time to work on personal projects. Everything was going great until the school principal decided that I missed too often and kicked me out of school despite great results….

  • Mike

    You didn’t answer the question of why we should rethink the 8 hour workday, nor propose an alternative.

  • Kleinash

    Hi.. So I have been implementing this over the last week and its worked immensely.. One thing that has helped is having a triage list, so in my 90 min sprint I go to the top of my list and complete that task – which was an issue to start because I wasn’t sure of what to work on and whether it would fill 90 mins, or required more, now I just continue till the task hits a wall or it completes and I move to the next .. One question I have is – where do you fit in the little admin things that you need to do? is it in the 90mins or the 20min break?