Manage Your Workday Like Intervals, Not a Sprint
Treat your day like an interval workout–including cycles of productivity and rest—to get more done and feel better doing it

As a runner, you probably already know that you need to include rest days (no running) into your training so that your body’s natural recovery processes can work their magic (repairing muscles, cooling inflammation, re-balancing hormones and recharging your energy).

You already know that if you were to run every day, you’d simply burn out, get injured or too tired to run, a state generally called “overtraining.”

But did you know that your body and mind can suffer overtraining-like effects as a result of overworking too? According to a recent NPR study, 83% of Americans are stressed by their jobs. And most are unaware of the extreme toll that stress due to overworking is taking on their health.

Fatigue, body aches, lack of focus and irritability are some of the signs you’re not coping well with your stress.

Pushing through these symptoms isn’t getting you ahead at work; in fact, you risk serious long-term health consequences that will cost you—and your employer—dearly in terms of sick days and low performance.

Work With Your Natural Rhythms

The good news is that you can be more productive at work without exhausting yourself in the process. The solution lies in managing your workday like a workout comprised of active periods and rest periods.

In running, this type of workout is called interval training. It builds fitness and maintains a high quality effort over longer periods.

For example, while running non-stop for 26.2 miles can seem intimidating, breaking the distance into 12-minute intervals–running 10 minutes and walking briskly for 2 minutes–feels far easier. And if you’re new to marathons, it can also get you to the finish line sooner than attempting to run continuously, especially if you start off really fast and slow as the race goes on.

So how do you apply the interval technique to your work day?

It begins with noticing your natural ultradian rhythms that occur every 24 hours. These rhythms are comprised of 90 to 120 minutes of high energy, focus and creativity followed by a short period of relatively low energy and decreased motivation.

You may not notice these natural rhythms if you rely on caffeine, sugar and other stimulants to get you through the day, but I assure you, you have a built-in system of rest and recovery cycles that are beautifully designed to support your health, creativity and output.

Now, before you say, “sure that sounds nice, but I don’t have time to stop working every 90 minutes!” stop, take a breath and consider this:

A study conducted by Dr. Gloria Mark, professor Department of Informatics University of California, Irvine, found that when you push through your ultradian rhythms without taking a break, it’s harder to stay focused on one task. Skipping a break means you’re far more likely to waste time on things that aren’t creating any real value (a.k.a. distractions).

Fighting off distractions to stay on task takes energy, and that energy wanes as the day goes on. Add in the toll work-related stress takes on your body and mind, and the idea that you’re getting ahead by chaining yourself to a desk for nine hours straight is absurd.

Instead, organize your day to align with your ultradian rhythms—like an interval workout in running—and enjoy more productivity, sustained energy and fewer sugar and caffeine cravings.

Step 1. Divide Up the Day

Break up your day into 90- to 120- minute segments followed by a rest period of at least 5 to 15 minutes. Block this time off on your calendar if necessary. This is akin to the walking break at the end of a run interval.

This way, you don’t wait until you’re completely zapped to take a break; rather, you pause while you still feel good and recharge a little before starting the next work cycle.

Step 2. Set an Intention

Do you feel paralyzed on Monday mornings, gazing at an overflowing inbox, listening to the pings of new emails and IM’s, wondering how it’s all going to get done? Rather than simply diving in, take a moment to set an intention.

An intention is different from a goal. As in running, a work-related goal is a declaration of what you want to achieve (get done) in the future, whereas an intention is a declaration of the impact you want your work to have right now. Being clear on why you want to get all these things done (beyond making your boss happy) makes work more personally fulfilling and guides you through the priority-setting process.

Which project or task would benefit most from your very best work and attention? Then ascertain what’s urgent, but not as important. Do these tasks require less mental energy or creativity? Then ask yourself what’s not urgent, but is a long-term project that would have significant impact on the people you serve or your overall mission? It’s important to make time for this as well.

Step 3. Get Busy

Now that you’re clear on why you’re doing this work, which tasks are most important and which are most urgent, it’s time to get busy.

Schedule the important projects into each day’s 90- 120-minute productivity blocks. These are your workout intervals, or the time at which you’re focused, productive and getting stuff done. As much as possible, batch similar tasks together in order to massively reduce mental energy consumed every time you switch from one thing to another.

But it’s important to set an end point based not on when everything is done, but rather, when your ultradian cycle ends. Set a timer at the 90-minute mark if necessary to stop what you’re doing and recharge.

Step 4. Rest, Recover and Repeat

At the end of each work period, mentally and physically shift “gears” from doing mode to resting mode. These periods should last at least 5 minutes, but ideally, stretches as long as 20 minutes. Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands calls this period “internal recovery.”

In their 2014 research paper, the Dutch researchers explain internal recovery as “periods of relaxation that take place within the frames of the workday in the form of short scheduled or unscheduled breaks.”

The key to ensuring that these breaks are helpful is to change your environment, body posture that helps you disengage from the mental effort your work requires.

For example, stand if you’ve been sitting, stretch and move your body and engage a different part of your brain in either a relaxing activity, casual conversation or nothing at all.

Organizing your work energy around intervals of productivity and recovery helps you not only “pace” yourself but also helps preserve your sense of control over your personal well-being in a hectic work environment.