It's common these days to hear productivity experts advising that we work in 90-minutes intervals, a comfortable time to get a lot of work done before we tire. But J.D. Meier, a project manager with distributed teams and productivity blogger, thinks information and knowledge workers would be better off to aim for 20-minute bursts.
"A 20-minute chunk of time is a very useful slice of time and the productive possibilities are endless, if you can sustain your focus. The key is to know that sustained thinking takes energy, and it burns out. To address this, take breaks to recharge and renew. Five-minute breaks are a great way to stay focused," he writes on his blog.
It's part of his focus on focus.
A mentor alerted him to its importance when noting that the difference between people who accomplished a lot and those who didn't – leaving a trail of unfinished business – was focus.
Mr. Meier was also inspired when working with a team member with attention deficit disorder who wanted some coping mechanisms for focus, leading to a weekend during which Mr. Meier developed a detailed checklist for focus.
He looked at what gets in our way – what distracts us – to come up with counter-approaches.
"Often people lack techniques for focusing. It's a mind thing," he said in an interview.
These 20-minute bursts, therefore, should not be random.
He urges you every week to figure out the three most important wins you want for the week, and to do the same thing for each day, helping to zoom in on what should be tackled in your work periods.
"Priorities are the backbone of focus," he insists.
You need to see the end in mind, and have a mental picture of what you want to accomplish.
He feels that 90 minutes is too long to keep focused.
With 20 minutes, you can see the end and key yourself to where you hope to be when you are finished each slice of work.
Twenty minutes of focused work is a realistic amount of time for knowledge workers to expect to concentrate, before the next interruption to their day.
Mr. Meier also points out there is a tendency for knowledge workers to get lost in analysis, believing a bit more will help.
What is really needed is to turn that analysis into action.
So give yourself 20 minutes, and then decide whether when you return to work it would be more effective to undertake more analysis or, as he expects is more likely, take the information gathered and figure out in the next 20-minute session what to do with what you learned.
As you work, he recommends establishing a "dumping ground" to rid your mind of distracting ideas. Write them down, so they can be forgotten for the moment.
Even if they relate to the issue at hand, they could be distractions, which need to be put aside for a time.
For example, he types the distracting idea into an e-mail to himself, and sends all that arise during the day in a single message to himself.
Besides allowing you to focus immediately, he believes the dumping ground list helps to maintain your attention over a longer period, making it easy to pick up from where you left off.
He believes it's vital to focus on things you can control, while letting the rest go.
You can change a lot in situations if you focus on what is changeable by you and act on those pressure points.
"People get in trouble when they worry about what they can't control. We stew in our juices around that worry instead of taking a reasonable action on what we can control," he notes.
As well as needing a dumping ground for distractions, you need to shelve things you are not actively working on.
"Instead of juggling three to five balls well, we try to juggle eight or nine and drop them," he said.
When he starts a new project, for example, he creates a new folder on his computer for that initiative. It's front-and-centre, a ball he intends to juggle.
But when he realizes he is bobbling too many balls and can't work on the project, he shifts it out of sight in a folder called Shelved, so it's not in active view. It's a small trick, he feels it is vital to eliminate distractions.
On his blog, Mr. Meier offers a flurry of ideas to sort through. A key suggestion is to set time limits to your attention span. Focus intently for a period of time – maybe 30 seconds, maybe five minutes – to set a rhythm of intense focus during the day.
Also, pay attention to the amount of time you expend on aspects of your work, to ensure your efforts match the results.
"You need to spend the right effort and right time in the right way," he said.
"You shouldn't spend an hour on a $1 problem. Rightsize the time against the value you hope to produce."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter