90 Minutes or Less – Ideal Focus Sessions

tl;dr – Being in deep focus or high-energy work drains your body. You then need time to rest, recharge and reset before you can get back into that focused state. Leverage shorter work sessions to get your best work done — around 90 minutes. When you start to feel yourself ramp down, give yourself a break, shift to tasks that don’t require as much heavy thinking, and maybe even get yourself a snack.

As procrastinators, we tend to assume we can start working and not stop until something is done. The idea of things like all-nighters and war rooms continue to make this approach feel like a viable one. It’s not.

Interestingly enough, this isn’t just an ADHD thing. People with ADHD have a harder time getting to a state of focused and engaged work but every human is going to hit a wall when it comes to how long they can mentally sprint. Turns out that the limit is around 90 minutes.

Why 90 minutes?

Your brain is the largest consumer of energy in your body. It doesn’t matter how big your muscles are or how fast your metabolism runs, your brain burns through glucose like I burn through cookies.

In addition to burning up a large chunk of your body’s fuel, it also depletes key electrolytes sodium and potassium which are essential to maintaining key rhythms your body relies on.

You’ve likely heard of the circadian rhythm tied to sleep. I learned recently that there is something called a ultradian rhythm that is tied to focus. Turns out this cycle works in roughly 90 minute spurts and requires rest to reset.

When this cycle starts to wind down, you’ll feel your energy and focus fade. If you try to fight through it, you’ll end up with increased anxiety and decreased performance. This materializes as things like:

  • communicating in incomplete thoughts
  • writing in fragmented or disconnected ways
  • slipping out of any established processes you and your team rely on
  • jumping into things that aren’t really yours to own or jump into
  • loss of ability to think objectively about what should or shouldn’t be done

Recommendations for resetting

Here’s a list of things that work well in different scenarios.

  • Go outside – Take a short walk in the sun and get your eyes off of screens for a bit. Experience something totally different from screens, chats, emails, notifications, etc. I like to visit with my family, play with my pets, or do a little work around our property.

  • Workout – Most research points to mornings being the best time for workouts but that isn’t always easy to do. I like to start light with emails and responses to messages before picking the first big thing I want to tackle. Once I start on that, I work until it’s done or I feel my focus slipping and then I’ll get to a stopping point. I’ll check messages one more time, check my to-do list, and then walk away and get that workout/lunch break.

  • Switch to easier tasks – if it’s a day where I have a lot to do, and I don’t feel like I can step away, (regardless of whether it’s a reality or just my perception) I’ll pick some easy things to do like reading some updates from other teams, reviewing progress on projects/tasks, testing new work before it goes out, or reviewing and providing input on designs or ideas. I actively avoid anything that requires me to do research or analysis during this period of time and if it takes me more than a minute or two to process and respond, I table it for later. If you don’t have work tasks that fit the list but are still feeling anxious, try getting chores like folding laundry or putting away dishes done.

  • Creative time – Read. Draw. Play music. Build something. Give yourself permission to do something fun that is purely for you.

I’ll probably write more things and you might just want to read those too.

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