Guest Blog: 52-17, a New Way to Be Productive

Editor's Note: this post has been re-blogged with the author's permission. It was originally posted on the author's blog September 18, 2014.
By Sonya Collins, Atlanta-based independent journalist covering health care, medicine, & biomedical research. Find out more about Sonya.

Yesterday, I read an article that said the most productive workers take breaks often. To be precise, they take a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes worked. I’m a work-from-home freelancer, and I always have at least a half-a-dozen assignments on my plate, and a list of at least that many tasks I must complete for each of them. Without the rhythms of an office, co-workers, and meetings to structure my days, I’m always on the lookout for the latest evidence on how to be more productive.

For health purposes, not so much for productivity, I had tried to adopt the habit of standing up for five minutes every 60-90 minutes. I used StandApp on my iPhone, which sounds an alarm every 60 minutes (or 90 if you choose), then shows you a five-minute exercise video to do during your break. It’s pretty funny because the man and woman who do the exercises are standing in a poorly lit, cramped cubicle in business clothes, and they use their desk or shelf for support during certain exercises. But I got pretty bored, pretty quickly with this routine. I think it was because the breaks were so short that they seemed almost pointless. They didn’t give me time to do anything useful, like cook lunch or clean my bathroom. And at the same time, they seemed to come around too often. I felt like I couldn’t get anything done before the alarm went off. Eventually, I found myself going through one set of the exercises and then leaning over my desk working for the rest of the break till the phone told me I could sit back down again. If the stand-up alarm went off when I was in the middle of something, I wouldn’t press play on the exercise video, and the app would stop running and that would be the end of my healthy desk habits for the day. Finally I quit using the app.

Even though those hourly breaks seemed to roll around way too fast, I was intrigued by the 52-17 method. So I tried it. I set the timer on my phone for 52 minutes, and what happened was almost revolutionary. Unlike 60 minutes, 52 minutes doesn’t fool you into thinking it’s a long time. Sixty minutes isn’t a long time, but pretends it is. But 52 minutes is pretty clear about who he is. He’s going to be over before you know it, so you better get to work. As I saw that 52:00 turn into 51:50 on my phone’s screen, I began to work with an urgency and focus I had not felt in quite some time. During my 52-minute sessions over the course of the day, I almost never felt tempted to check Facebook or my personal email or play solitaire – activities I engage in regularly throughout the day, usually without even realizing that I’ve stopped working and started these activities. And the very few times that I did feel tempted, I remembered, “You’ve only got 47 minutes to work on this before you have to stop, so you better not waste those minutes on Facebook.” And then I didn’t. As a result, I worked non-stop for 52 minutes. While I may not have been at my desk for as many hours yesterday as I would have been without the breaks, I was without a doubt focused and on-task for far more hours than usual.

During the first 52-minute work session, when I saw myself resisting distraction with such ease for the first time, it occurred to me that I’d probably end up spending each of my 17-minute breaks on Facebook or playing solitaire. But when that first break came along, it seemed tragic to waste such a substantial amount of time on Facebook. I could have easily squandered a five-minute break on Facebook, but not 17. In those 17 minutes, I hung up the clothes that were piled in various places around my bedroom and I still had time to spare. So I started folding towels. Again, with an urgency I would not have felt had my time been unlimited. Normally, if I have a to-do list that includes folding or putting away laundry and an open expanse of time in which to do it, you can be sure that I will watch three hours of something on Netflix between folding towel number three and towel number four.  But now it was a race, and I wanted to win!

The subsequent work and break sessions were no different. I edited blog submissions that had been sitting in my inbox for ages. I finished an article that I had – just the day before – had no idea how to start. And during breaks, I was changing sheets, vacuuming rugs, scrubbing pans and sorting recycling. I was on foot and moving the whole time, and I didn’t need any help from the guy in the dark cubicle doing heel raises by his desk.

On a typical day, I get to my desk at about 8:00 am, and no matter where I stand on my work, I can’t bear to stay at my desk much past about 5:30. Even if there are things I should really do. Only a pending 9am deadline could keep me at my desk. If it’s just an extra-long to-do list, I’d rather come back to my desk earlier tomorrow than stay later tonight. Even if I know that means I’ll have anxiety about my to-do list for the rest of the night.

Yesterday, however, I still had so much endurance left after 5 pm that I was able to work the extra few hours I needed (at this point, however, I suspended the hourly 17-minute breaks) to finish the story that was due by close of business today. I was able to knock off work without anything hanging over my head, I hadn’t pissed away my time on Facebook, and my house was clean!
And I came back to my desk this morning feeling a little lighter when I set the time for 52 minutes again.