There are certain numbers, like pi and the golden ratio, that seem to have a nearly magical power to describe the shape of our physical world. All the way back in 2014, I covered a study that seemed to reveal a pair of unexpected numbers that captured the rhythm of our workdays -- 52 and 17.
Don't get too excited. This wasn't Archimedes, but instead data from a time-use app, DeskTime. Mathematics were not revolutionized by these results, but they did highlight a simple but underappreciated fact about office life and productivity. The people who get the most done are also those who take regular breaks.
Get more done by taking more breaks
The 2014 study found that the most productive employees using the app tended to work heads down for around 52 minutes before taking a 17-minute break. Then the cycle would repeat itself. By noticing and working with their body's natural ebb and flow of energy, rather than trying to fight against it, these superworkers were able to get the most done.
"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," Julia Gifford, the researcher behind the study, commented at the time.
All of which was a healthy reminder of the value of rest some seven years ago, but then the pandemic hit. Did the rise of remote work change these magic numbers at all? Were we more or less likely to follow the magic 52-17 pattern? Gifford recently dug into DeskTime's data again to find out.
Then along came the pandemic ...
The pandemic changed almost everything about the way we work and live, so perhaps it's not a huge shock that Gifford found big changes in the structure of our workdays. Over time, the ratio of work to rest has slowly been ticking up, with a big acceleration in this change after the pandemic hit. Recently it has reached 112 minutes heads down, followed by 26 minutes of rest. In short, we're working longer periods but resting longer between these big chunks of work.
What's going on? One big culprit for the lengthened work periods appears to be Zoom. People stuck on endless video calls aren't able to step away to recharge. No wonder we've been inundated with articles about how exhausting Zoom has been this year.
Our periods of concentrated work have gotten much longer but so too have our breaks. Can these longer periods of recharging make up for the increased mental strain of nearly two-hour Zoom sessions? Unfortunately, probably not. The data shows that one reason breaks have gotten longer isn't our need to step away longer, but instead the intrusion of household tasks.
"When working from home, work and home life responsibilities merge together, and breaks become longer. People used to use breaks to make a coffee, stretch their legs, or relieve themselves. Now, they use breaks to put in a load of laundry, help children with schoolwork, make their family lunch, and more. As a result, these breaks are no longer a treat, but rather even more work," commented organizational psychologist Katrina Osleja, an outside expert who reviewed the results.
So what's the takeaway here? For bosses, it's yet another reminder that you can't simply cut and paste how you once worked in person into a world of remote work. Vigilance that your team is working in a sustainable way is required. That goes for individuals, too. Gifford believes our drift away from frequent breaks isn't a healthy development, and suggests workers should do their best to push themselves back closer to the old 52-17 pattern.
"It provides for more movement and more rest throughout the day, which is critical to long-term productivity and mental and physical health," she told Inc.com. "One tip that I find might be helpful would be that if you're taking online meetings, then do them while walking. That way you get to stretch your legs, relax your eyes, maybe even soak in some vitamin D."