Activity Breaks

In my last post, I talked about Deep Work, and the concept of having a structure that supports it. Part of this was the idea that you needed to block out hours or even days to make room for Deep Work in your schedule.

This sounds great, but runs into a pitfall: working deeply is exhausting and requires one to take breaks. How do you take breaks in the context of a larger, hours- (or days-) long focused work block?

There’s a concept called “ultradian cycles” which is basically human body/brain cycles that take less than a day. (Circadian rhythms are the corresponding body/brain cycles represent the entire 24 hour cycle.) In general, this concept indicates that we have about 90 minutes to focus, then we need a break.

We know from our discussion yesterday that task-switching or interruption can leave a mental “residue” that can take nearly half an hour to disperse. So the crucial question is: how do we take short breaks without distracting ourselves?

Cal Newport starts the discussion in an article here. His advice is basically the following:

  1. Avoid email/social media
  2. Avoid “distraction rituals” like a certain cycle of websites or blogs that you always visit. (Some researchers call this cycle the “Ludic Loop“)
  3. Avoid other professional tasks
  4. Avoid complex, stressful tasks or tasks that require their own deep-work block
  5. Avoid breaks that are more than 15 minutes in duration

So how do I take Newport’s ideas and put them into practice?

First, I select a piece of music or album to drown out external sounds and act as a cue to start working (see my Tesla Technique article for more on cues). I use music that doesn’t have words or is in a foreign language. I’ve been using this technique for years, but I’m not the only one: Tim Ferriss discusses this strategy in Tools of Titans on page 507 – “The Soundtrack of Excellence”.

One frequent pattern [among high performers] is listening to a single track or album on repeat, which can act as an external mantra for aiding focus and present-state awareness.

I also use the “Pomodoro Technique“,  I start by cuing up the music, then do 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break — specifically an “activity break“. If you reference my High Frequency Training article, I do one superset of HFT, grab coffee, use the bathroom, and then return to work.

Canonically, the Pomodoro technique calls for four 25 work/5 minute break cycles followed by a longer 15-30 min break (a total of two and a half hours). Based on the ultradian research, I believe that 90 minutes of work (three 25/5 cycles) followed by a longer break (about half an hour) makes a bit more sense — a total of only two hours.  The longer break should include relaxing your focus and dealing with something different (eating, chatting, light reading, etc.)

I’ve talked about the idea that human body has evolved to move around (preferably in nature) in my dog walking article. Sitting down constantly leads to a certain level of mental stagnation, loss of flexibility, lower levels of calorie burn, and so on. The American Heart Association has even compared excessive sitting to smoking. The HFT intersects nicely as an activity break to reduce some of the negative health effects of the sitting as well as add to my exercise total for the day, giving me a break from work as well as keeping my body energized. You may not be able to use this exact method, but even getting up to walk around a bit and stretch could work.

I believe that three total cycles of this “ultradian pomodoro” deep work (approx. six hours with four and a half being dedicated to actual deep work) is about the maximum that anyone can reasonably achieve per day, based on the way that multiple high performers set up their studies.  Musicians (“results suggest that there is often little benefit from practicing more than 4 hours per day”) and chess players (Anatoly Karpov, former world chess champion, thought there was no benefit to more than 3 hours of study per day) as well as writers (Stephen King describes writing in the mornings only) limit their Deep Work to about four hours.  Karpov would spend the rest of his time exercising or studying foreign languages. King uses the evening to edit, read, watch baseball games, and so on.

Deep Work is valuable, but it isn’t “free”. You will have to work to build it into your life, but the benefits can be immense.

More Resources:

Vox Podcast Interview with Cal Newport

Note to Self Infomagical Bootcamp



Music selections: to repeat any youtube video or list

Now We are Free from Gladiator Soundtrack

On The Nature of Daylight from Arrival Soundtrack

More Suggestions in Tools of Titans.


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