If the numbers 52 and 17 don’t mean anything to you, then you’re probably not one of the most productive people, according to recent research by Social Media Company, Draugiem Group. Using their Desktime productivity tracking software, Latvian Draugiem Group have tracked and sampled the working habits of different employees, and come to the conclusion that the perfect pattern for productivity is to work for 52 minutes, before breaking for 17.
Short and Sweet
If this pattern sounds unfamiliar, then you may have fallen into the habit of working for long stretches without adequate breaks. Many workplaces retain a culture of long hours, and appear to honour those who arrive early and leave late, despite existing research (and many of our own experiences) showing that these employees are not necessarily the most productive, risking burn-out and damaging their health and personal lives in the process.
This long hours culture lingers, often despite the best efforts of some managers and Human Resources professionals, and has a profoundly detrimental effect on everything from overall morale to the ability to attract and retain the very best employees as some people fall by the wayside through choice or a clash between work and caring responsibilities.
The key to the benefits of this working pattern, it seems, is in working with complete focus for the 52 minute chunk, before taking a genuine break - not talking shop or eating in front of the computer - to recover before the next work period. This means keeping away from ’quick checks’ of Facebook or email inboxes when working on projects, and certainly no whiling away idle moments with cat videos.
Intuitively, the research makes perfect sense - 52 minutes sounds like a length of time that is manageable; long enough to see some real progress on the task in hand, but not so long that you find yourself staring glassy eyed into the middle distance. A 17 minute break is enough for employees to switch off, either going for a quick walk away from the desk, reading a book or even helping contribute to overall work-life balance with a quick break to attend to personal matters, popping out for shopping or placing an online grocery order, for example.
Freedom of choice
Getting the balance right for productivity seems to owe as much to the emotional impact of choice, as it does the exact patterns adopted. Research from the University of Toronto, for example, shows that giving employees freedom to choose how they spend their lunch breaks is important in maximising productivity, meaning that occasionally working through lunch when work tasks require it is perfectly fine, as long as it is done willingly, and not as a result of cultural expectations or pressure from management.
More progressive employers, therefore, encourage colleagues to take regular short breaks, get outside and get fresh air, eat in a more civilised manner than the snatched snack at a keyboard, and balance work with mentally and emotionally stimulating and satisfying pursuits. The resulting positive impact on morale and the emotional contract with employees means that the odd working lunch close to deadline day does not have a knock on negative impact to productivity.
As interesting as the research is, the key to applying it will be a shift - in some cases a radical change - in working culture. Whilst some employers, particularly in the tech sector, are busy re-writing the rules of work-life balance, there remain many more traditional businesses in which simple changes can make all the difference.
If you’re in the latter, consider talking to your team about establishing proper lunch and break routines, perhaps starting a group jogging club to stride out for half an hour at midday, or a book club to force a different tone over your tea break. Help yourself and others by agreeing measurable objectives for your day, week or month, which go beyond simply putting in the hours, and feel more at liberty to mix up your routine as long as the end goals are achieved.
The more teams work towards and celebrate variety, breaks and rest time as an essential productivity tool, the quicker we can all hit the 52/17 magic numbers.