Life Hack - The 30/30 Minute Work Cycle Feels Like Magic

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A year ago, I switched to the Colemak keyboard layout. I’ve since had zero pain in my hands when typing for many hours straight, I’ve been able to type faster, and I make fewer mistakes while typing.

A few months ago, I decided to try the biphasic sleep cycle. It worked as advertised, allowing me to get better sleep and need less of it. I used to sleep for 9 - 10 hours each day, and now I need just 6 - 7.5 to stay just as sprightly, if not more.

A few weeks ago, after these successful life hacks, my friend told me about the eccentric work cycle that he follows.

You might think it’s crazy and stupid, but it works for me,” he said. “I sit at my desk and work for 30 minutes without distraction, completely absorbed in my work. Then, after the 30 minutes are up, I drop whatever I’m doing and go do something fun for 30 minutes. During this relaxation time, I don’t think about work at all - I play games, write, whatever, but no work. After 30 minutes, I go back to my desk, rinse and repeat.”

Immediately, I thought,

That won’t work for me.’
‘Switching context that often would be too distracting.’
‘When I’m in my groove, I can’t drop it and come back to it easily.’
‘It sounds like it would take twice as long to get anything done!’

Hmmm. Screw it. I’ll give it a shot.’

You can probably tell by now where this story is going.

Abracadabra

It works.

  • While working on a software project, I would get stuck on a bug and spend hours trying to figure out what went wrong, addicted to the quest and unable to stop, even when I run out of ideas on what else to try.

    Now, I stop at the 30 minute mark and relax for half an hour, and when I come back to my computer, my calm mind has a divine inspiration in the first 5 minutes and I blow the bug to smithereens, saving countless hours of exasperation.

  • I would dread each essay assigned in my humanities class. I would have to spend 2 hours planning my essay, 3 hours staring at Microsoft Word and then another 4 hours painstakingly writing the essay for school (a total of 9+ precious hours down the drain). Most of these hours would be spent in frustration, hating life and the college humanities requirement, and refreshing Gmail and iGoogle every 5 minutes, putting off the time I would have to buckle down and write.

    The other day, I spent a total of 3.5 hours (1 hour planning and 30 minutes on each paragraph) and finished my latest essay, no sweat.

    Oh, and while writing the essay, I also ended up finishing the Halo Reach campaign.

  • I used to cordon off entire days to study for my midterms, and spend most of them procrastinating and wasting time.

    Now, I know that given 8 hours, I’ll have complete focus for 4 of them, and that’s all the total concentrated studying I need for the midterm. Planning is easier, and so is the studying process.

  • And the best part is, I don’t stress about work as much. I know exactly how much I can get done given a set amount of time. Time is now my bitch, not the other way around.

Revealing the trick

So why does it work?

  • The work you do is more focused.

    Instead of constantly checking your email or RSS feed while you work, distracting yourself and having to switch context every few minutes, you get 30 minutes of solid, focused work. And it’s not too hard to stay focused since the promise of a 30 minute break is just around the corner.

  • There is less time to work in each interval, so there is more incentive to focus and work hard in the little time you have.

    Normally, I find it hard to focus if I feel like I have a whole day to get something done, or something isn’t due for a while. The 30 minute restriction makes it feel like you only have half an hour to get something done, so it provides a psychological incentive to work harder and finish “in time”.

  • It’s less stressful, since relaxation occurs regularly.

    Spending a ton of hours trying to work still feels like a ton of hours of work, even if you end up getting nothing done. With the 30/30 cycle, you’re only working half the time, and the relaxation time actually feels like relaxation without the stress of work. This makes many continuous hours of work much more bearable and productive.

  • When stuck on a problem, taking the 30 minute break works wonders.

    Anyone who has fixed a difficult bug (or even been stuck on a difficult level of a video game) can attest to this. Clearing your mind allows inspiration to sneak its way in when you come back to your desk. Taking a break regularly is a useful habit to adopt even outside of the 30/30 cycle.

  • It’s fun!

    Work doesn’t even feel like work anymore. It feels more like a game, with checkpoints every 30 minutes and a regular prize to look forward to.

The proverbial catch

I’ve only been doing this for a few weeks, so I have yet to see if it’s a sustainable model. But it’s been working great so far, so I’m very optimistic.

It also takes a certain level of discipline when I’m in the 30 minute work interval, which I’m able to achieve now, because of the novelty of a new approach. But it shouldn’t be too hard to maintain, since the intervals are so short and there is always a reward to look forward to.

Go forth and prosper, my children

If you’re interested in trying the 30/30 work cycle, please let me know in the comments, and make sure you update your comments later with how it goes! I’d love to hear about it.

Oh, and if you think 30 minutes might be too short, feel free to experiment. One size most definitely does not fit all, and you might benefit more from a 60/30 min cycle, or whatever. After all, if I don’t have enough time, or if I’m working on something inherently fun, I end up using a 60/30 cycle. Basically, the point is to set aside regular intervals of relaxation and fun to keep your mind fresh and alert throughout. How you go about doing it is totally up to you.

Okay, my thirty minutes are up. I’m off to start the Black Ops campaign. Good luck and godspeed.


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  • Cigarette smokers know this. The cigarette break is the time away from task, coupled with the relaxing effect of nicotine.
  • Overall the smokers are less productive though.

    ... because they die sooner :frownyface:
  • Yes. People work until the day they die. That's how efficiency is measured. Damn smokers die too soon.
  • I have worked for IBM for a couple of years and I pretty much used this 30/30 cycle. I used to focus to get things done and then I would go to the smoke lounge, have some coffee, a snack, or even just go talk to the other "procrastinators" downstairs. All of my performance evaluations were always good/excellent. The only catch here is to really be able to FOCUS for the 30 (or 60) minutes that you are supposed to be working, which is not easy for everyone.
  • Cigarette smokers are caught in a loop due to their addiction. It's hardly a choice. You work until the need for a fix gets too strong, then have to administer the drug. it's not pretty.
  • I just finished a little web app that will time 30/30 minutes for you. It plays a sound when it's time to change from work to play and back.

    Check it out:

    http://www.magicworkcycle.com/
  • Pavlov would approve.
  • Eric, let me know if you'd like some help with an interface for your app. I'm actually working on a similar app for tracking freelance hours.
  • A brilliant app Eric. I would request you add a 15 min play time. I doubt I would play for just 2 mins and 30 mins might be too long for some people. 15 mins seems like a nice compromise.

    Maybe next version will let you set your own work and play time.
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  • OMG I TYPE IN ALL CAPS AND SPANISH SO NOT ONLY IS IT IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND WHAT SAYING, IM YELLING. *DING* 30 minutes!
  • Spanish is my native tongue and I couldn't finish reading what this clown wrote...
  • Don't worry about missing out on anything...it's just a gibberish rant about America and the lands of jesus and phantom companies robbing us with fees and taxes and bureaucracy. It doesn't make a lot of sense.
  • MIS OJOSSSSS
    QUE TE DEN, GILIPOLLAS!
  • Interesting concept, though i don't think you can easily apply it to people that have a 9-5 job ;)
  • Chetan, not only a great concept, but a very well-written post. You got talent! A very "Tim Ferriss"-like concept and post.

    I'm gonna experiment with 30/30 and will let you know how it goes.
  • Thank you for your kind words! Good luck!
  • HArdpartyHp 4 hours ago
    I am going to try this method
    Reddit says Hello!
  • Reddit? What is red... Ooohh you mean Digg? :)

    Hello there fellow digger!

  • Don't you mean carrots ? HAHAHAHA
  • Don't you mean hahahaha? WAFFLES
  • Carrots? Don't you mean CARROTS?! HAHAHAHAHA.
  • HAHAHAHA? Don't you mean CARROTS?! WAFFLWAFFLEWAFFLE.
  • WAFFLWAFFLEWAFFLE? Don't you mean HAHAHAHA?! CARROTS.
  • Great advertising for Reddit.
  • Sam Kerr 5 hours ago
    This sounds like an awful idea, especially when you are working at a job. Try telling your employer, "I want to be paid for 8 hours a day, but I'm going to play Halo for 4 of those." Either that or have 16 hour work days to get 8 hours of work.
  • You should track how much time you actually spend working during a typical day at the office. Due to interruptions, bathroom breaks, lunch, dealing with personal issues (phone calls from the wife/kids/friends), scheduling appointments, surfing the web, etc. I think you'll find you only get about 4-5 hours of real work done. The rest is overhead. If you're wasting that overhead and not using it to make your work time more focused than you're doing your employer a disservice. I admit they probably won't want to see you playing video games on their time, but if more work environments were Results Oriented (ROWE), I think we'd all benefit.
  • GlennLEU 15 hours ago
    Good article, interesting idea, I don't know if it works well for us programmers. You need a half-hour to hour to even start to do anything complex.

    The ideal work situation for programmers is work when the mood strikes you at any hour that works for you, and take the rest of the day off.

    :)
  • I can attest that it does work very well for programmers, indeed. A very common advice given to neophyte writers is to adapt to writing out of habit, as opposed to inspiration. A programmer that does the same learns to finally master the age-old adage: "80% of the work takes only 20% of the time." I find that balancing work and play really lets me drill through that last, adamantine 20% bit by bit to finally get something big done, and feel really good about myself as I work through it, and even more so at the end.
  • This here is the man who introduced me to the cycle. Thank you, Eric.
  • This is like the Pomodoro technique. Actually it is almost exactly the pomodoro technique, just with different work/rest parameters. Pomodoro goes 25 mins on, 5 mins rest.
  • Sounds like the Marlboro technique :)
  • nope, actually called Pomodoro http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/
  • Duejohn.... You totally missed the joke. "Sounds like the Marlboro technique" was basically saying "work for 25 mins, smoke for 5"
  • I have got to try this out ... just might be the trick for me. Thanks for the article!
  • While I 'd love to try this 30/30, my next test is Real Analysis on this coming Friday and thus I'm not sure if I should experiment my studying approach for that course....
  • First off, I give you a billion props for switching to Colemak. I love it. Secondly, a friend of mine was way into this. He claimed that 70/20 was optimal for him. He went as far as to track his productivity (measured by lines of code, which is inaccurate measure but what ever). He adjusted his cycle and found 70/20 to be optimal. I haven't tested it but I do 70/20.
  • I've been doing the same since I was in middle school, my perfect pattern would be 40/20, thanks for the tips, hope they can help others.
  • wootpecker 38 minutes ago
    what about if u get used to this concept ( 30 / 30 )
    are u still able to work for like 2 hours straight on?

    i mean for instance, a test or sth like that.
    if u always stop working/ focusing after 30 min that can be difficult i guess
  • I think a crucial part of the 30/30 cycle is having a very clear idea of what needs to get done. During my day I end up having a lot of small tasks and time is wasted as I try to remember what the next thing is to do. ENTER THE TO DO LIST!
  • i might give this a go - just need to bring my PS3 to work
  • bruno077 1 hour ago
    So you need 16 hours to complete your work-day?
  • If you read the other comments I think it's pretty clear that he's still working an 8 hour day. You have to realize that during the 4 hours of "work", it has to be NOTHING but work. No distractions. 100% focus. I'd be surprised if a typical 8 hour work day has even 4 of those kinds of hours.
  • You're right. Too bad you need to either be freelance or have a very open minded employer for this to work. I don't believe your boss would like you to play Call of Duty or Halo during half of your paid workday.
  • Yep, which is unfortunate.
  • Zerofun21 1 hour ago
    Where can i find more new things to try like this and the sleeping pattern, any sites i should add to my daily internet routine.. i love to try new things.
  • Steve Pavlina's blog has a lot of this stuff. You may not believe in everything he writes, but there's a lot of useful information there. His website's forums are a great resource as well.
  • I have to agree the 30/30 does work! Although, I find myself sometimes passing the 30 mins mark once I am in the zone while coding.

    http://whatthefuckhasgopdonesofar.com
  • I totally agree! I am in the process of finishing up an assignment and I usually work for half an hour give or take 10-15 minutes and usually go and wonder off to do something else after half an hour of work. I too was in the same boat as yourself. I would pound my head against a wall for hours on end... painfully I might add. Than I would get up play a game/get something to eat or drink/ go for a short walk/ anything sit back down and BAM problem solved in 5 minutes or less.

    Now whenever I am working on a project I plan for periodic breaks while working to clear my mind and help myself to approach the problem from a different angle or just relieve a little stress.

    I am now going to go and look into a couple of these other life hacks that mentioned...
  • I'd love to try this. Too bad I have an actual work schedule that I'm required to adhere to.
  • Thanks for this one. I used to do something similar previously, but I lost the flow of it at some point. Just the inspiration I needed to get back into it.

    One tip for anyone out there: Making freaking sure to turn off EVERYTHING in those 30 minutes. Facebook. Gmail. MSN. Phone on silent. Close your office door. It's just 30 minutes until you can get back to people. There's even science behind this:

    Rather smoke a joint than check email when working? Do it: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4471607.stm
    Small interruptions disturb work for a long time after occurence: http://www.byte-vision.com/ProductivityArticle.aspx

    If you have trouble fighting the urge to check news and Facebook while working, RescueTime Pro has some help (http://www.rescuetime.com/).

    Also, some people might find it weird to drop working after 30 minutes when it takes you 10-15 minutes to find a good flow. But those 15-20 minutes you have left are worth incredible amounts of time and value.
  • I've been doing a 45/15 schedule on-and-off since I was writing my thesis a couple years ago. It worked great in Grad school when I could get up and walk around during my 15 minute break. I actually shut down my email and chat client for the work 45.

    Now at work I sometimes try to follow 45/15 schedule (especially when I am struggling to concentrate) and use the 15 minutes to do email triage, get coffee, run errands etc. I'm wary of shutting down the email client, but even with email distraction this method still works for me.
  • JohnDoe 4 hours ago
    Wow I never know this method has a name
    I have now been using what you can call the "60/60" method, exactly what you described above but in 60 minutes interval, its works pretty good

    Until you get distracted.
    Almost 80% of the time during the "break" I will prone to be lazy and minutes will turn to hours and finally just gave up on going back to work.

    But if you can stay focus, good on ya.
  • Perhaps your intervals are too long? 60 minutes might be too long to stray from your work.

    I'd like to try this, btw! Distractions are my bane as a web dev.
  • Jay Alino 4 hours ago
    Just to add, the 30/30 works because humans have an average of 30 minutes of pure concentration. Anything beyond 30 minutes and their concentration wanes.
  • Not true with coffee
  • Srirang Netake 4 hours ago
    Thanks for the nice post.I am sure as hell going to try this out because of the simple fact that my attention span is not more than 30 minutes :) I might as well try to increase that gradually.
  • it doesn't apply to my crazy scheduled. what about those who meet costumers or have urgent meetings, or get interrupted in the middle of their 30 minutes by a stupid person? you are assuming that there are no distraction whatsoever. unrealistic approach
  • Nowhere in this post is it stated that this technique would work for every single working adult. Obviously the 30/30 cycle is not going to work for a surgeon perform gastric bypass surgery. Why is it needed to state such obvious things.
  • I've been doing a similar routine, it's 40-20. I use a multi-timer from "Apimac", and
    for me this works really good. Taking breaks is really the key to making things happen.
  • Bruno Marto 8 hours ago
    Is there any tool that controls the time? Sometimes it's difficult to control when you're concentrated at work or concentrated on play..
    And checking the clock constantly seems to be a little stressfull..

    What are your method?
  • This one is nice, has a timer as well as a maintainable task list. It is written in Adobe Air, so it will run on any platform that support Air.

    http://code.google.com/p/pomodairo/
  • You could use any ordinary chess clock. Set it for 30 minutes / move, and count down the last 10 seconds.
  • If you are on a Mac then this is pretty good:

    http://www.apple.com/downloads/macosx/development_tools/pomodoro.html
  • I've been in the habit of alternating between work and rest for some time now, but never really thought about keeping track of time. What ends up happening is that, after too much work, I revert back to marathon coder mode. And then it's just a matter of time before starting to check twitter and all my delicious feeds.

    Going to try to set a schedule like this and see how it works. Thanks for the tip.
  • Yeehaa, Marathon Coding :D Here at work we're not even allowed to have fun while working. Reminds me of some animated short I had seen a while ago. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V36LpPkwJ7I

    Attached files

  • When studing a cycle of 45/15 works best for me.
    In my point of view 45min is just enough to keep being concentrated before mind power turns down.
    15min break is not as much "spare" time as 30min, but it gives me the moment I need to refresh my mind, taking a coffe or a cigarette break. When going back to my desk, I can totally focus on my work.
    I'd like to do the same at work, but I know my boss would kill me if I'll take a break each 45min..
  • Honza N. 9 hours ago
    Might certainly work for people, who can't focus on one thing for more than 30 minutes (even my 7-years old daughter can do longer). For coders: read PG's essay Holding A Program in one's head (http://www.paulgraham.com/head.html).

    HN
  • For the love of god how do you tune out the noise? We're surrounded in digital noise. http://bit.ly/b99SwS
  • Discipline :) Also, the incentive of getting back to that noise in 30 minutes helps.
  • Hah. Perfect answer. Thank you.
  • I've been doing a version of this for sometime, but I find that a 60/30 works much better. I just couldn't get into the groove and stay there long enough in 30 minutes. I found myself working 40/45/50 minutes stretches that seems more natural for me. I could always re-organize my work to shorter chunks, but for some reason this just works better. I think experimenting and figuring out your flow is a good approach.
  • Gonna experiment with it. Just don't want to become one of those 'can't focus on one thing for long' creatures.
  • Colemak keyboard layout - how long did it take to adapt to the different layout?
  • One trick that can speed up the process is to use say your left thumb for the space bar when using qwerty and then the right thumb in colemak. This way also you can continue to perform well in both layouts without any confusion. (dvorak user here, but the idea came from a friend who switched to colemak).
  • It took about 2 weeks to memorize the layout, and about 4 months to get back to my original QWERTY speed. After a year, I'm now even faster than my original QWERTY speed, which had flatlined for years.

    I'm thinking of writing another post about my Colemak experiences soon. Stay tuned!
  • I have used the 10/2/5 method before. Ten minutes of work, then a two minute break, five times makes an hour. It's great and really helps me get through things I don't feel like doing. I'll try 30/30 today at work.

    This is just the inspiration I need! Thanks.
  • Problem with the 10/2/5 method is that there is hardly anything you can squeeze in during that 2 minute window and then you're back to the grind. The 2 minute incentive is not too enticing. Hehe
  • For the 10/2/5 "method" see this: http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/08/kick-procrastinations-ass-run-a-dash.

    I don't subscribe to any specific "method" for dashing/timeboxing: I think every single "slicing" is too much dependent on the context. But I find the timeboxing concept valuable and worthy of experimentation.

    Maybe starting out a little of discipline is mandatory, but probably after some time you gain the skill to adjust your dashes on the fly based on the the circumstances.
  • "Oh, and while writing the essay, I also ended up finishing the Halo Reach campaign."
    - lol I must try this. too bad I can't fire up video games at work.
  • I'm hungry 16 hours ago
    Whoa I've been doing 30/15 unconsciously! Although an undesirable side-effect is that when I switch between projects I tend to take longer breaks (like 1 hour, hehe)

Reactions

  • Alford35 13 minutes ago
      From  reddit   via BackType
    Agreed - to me this just smacks of the ADHD society where no-one has a decent work ethic and wants everything handed to them on a plate. /rant
  • joeyh 16 minutes ago
      From  hacker news   via BackType
    I'm there, solar powered cabin, wood stove. Works great, my concentration is much better here.I couldn't hold to a strict time-based rule though. I prefer not to interrupt flow when I'm in flow. Anytime I get stuck I go chop wood or haul water, or at night, look at the stars.
  • Metaphysicalist 16 minutes ago
      From  twitter   via BackType
    Life Hack - The 30/30 Minute Work Cycle Feels Like Magic | Chetan Surpur: http://bit.ly/dvTd8b #Delicious #Hotlist
  • jamesjyu 17 minutes ago
      From  hacker news   via BackType
    Wow! That is awesome that you get a coach. I get coaching every once in a while.. but definitely not at work :)Where do you work? If you're in the bay area, i'd love to drop by sometime for a game.
  • linznola 18 minutes ago
      From  twitter   via BackType
    Life Hack - The 30/30 Minute Work Cycle Feels Like Magic | Chetan Surpur http://t.co/7zq6tdQ via @chetan51
  • ddevil63 20 minutes ago
      From  reddit   via BackType
    I didn't read your link but I think it's safe to say that polyphasic sleep definitely works for some people.
  • AlexCWhite 21 minutes ago
      From  twitter   via BackType
    The 30/30 Work Cycle - http://bit.ly/ddtZF3 - #GetShitDone #WorkSmarter
  • infinite 21 minutes ago
      From  reddit   via BackType
    Behavioral science is really interesting, and from my understanding of it, people are positively motivated by two factors: (1) probability of the reward happening and (2) how soon that reward happens. By rewarding yourself every 30 minutes you are fulfilling both conditions well.
  • RobLL 21 minutes ago
      From  twitter   via BackType
    Life Hack - The 30/30 Minute Work Cycle Feels Like Magic | Chetan Surpur http://bit.ly/cBt8eA
  • jpt_io 22 minutes ago
      From  reddit   via BackType
    What if you are using advanced project management techniques to map out 256-512 variations of a five-year roadmap, then filter & combine those variations with genetic algorithms to generate one statistically probable "Blueprint" to help you better prioritize your schedule?