For the past month, I’ve been tinkering with ways to enhance my overall productivity, trying to squeeze out more work without being exhausted by day’s end. Burnout was a constant companion, and I wanted to be rid of it for good. Among the life hacks I discovered was the 90/20 rule: work for 90 minutes, rest for 20. Based on studies into the human ultradian rhythm, 90 minutes is the optimum length of time a human can concentrate intensely on a task before needing a break. The idea sounded good to me, save for one minor detail.
I know for a fact I’m able to sustain greater periods of intense concentration when writing. Call it inspiration, grace or a state of flow, but when I’m burning hot and the fingers are flying over the keys, stopping is not an option. I can’t just stand up and walk away in the middle of a scene that flows. Flow, I’ve found, is a delicate thing, and once the brain leaves that elevated state of consciousness it becomes extremely difficult to go back to. Maybe this is just a personal quirk, but all I know is that I can’t limit myself to merely 90 minutes of work. Not when the words are overflowing, when the conscious mind takes a step back and my hands do their best to deliver a scene, a character, an action, a concept from the fuzzy mists of unlimited uncreated potential into the page. I do my best work simply by sitting down and ignoring the clock and writing and writing and writing until I’m done.
But when the work is done, it leaves me spent. Writing is bleeding your soul all over the page, and there’s only so much you can give at a time. You need time to rest, to regenerate, to gather up what is left and allow your body to replenish its energy stores. 20 minutes isn’t enough, not for me. 30 is a more realistic minimum rest period. As a bonus, it makes life easier to schedule.
Flow doesn’t come every day, though. It’s the exception, not the norm. More often than not it’s just sitting at the desk, banging out words, trying to string ideas together. It’s the mental equivalent of laying down bricks to build a wall. I may not like the work, but I still have to get the work done. Especially when I’m on contract with a deadline to meet. Days like that, the 90 minute limit comes into play. It’s the chronological version of a piston in a pressure cooker, sealing off time and concentrating one’s willpower on the task at hand. It’s also a promise that the brain only needs to slog out the next 90 minutes before it can go do something else, making it easier to focus exclusively on the task at hand.
90 on, 30 off looks good, but throw in working with a flow state and the neat boundaries of time break down. That;s when 8/10 comes in.
Hara hachi bu is an Okinawan concept, meaning eating until you are 80 percent full. The Okinawans believed that filling up the other 20 percent merely nourished the doctor. This combination of caloric restriction and excellent dietary choices have contributed to the long lifespans the Okinawans are famous for. Yet hara hachi bu isn’t just an eating plan. It’s a life plan too. Work up to 80% of your capacity, leaving some energy in the tank. That prevents you from burning out, so you can come back to work refreshed.
And, if you’re under a tight deadline or if you enter a state of flow, you have sufficient reserves to see you through.
For eighty percent of my scheduled working time, I adhered to the 90 on, 30 off schedule. For the other twenty percent, I burned through scenes, paragraphs and sections until the state of flow finally stopped. I was working an average of six hours a day, leaving weekends free.
The result: a short story, a novella, two blog posts, a series of research notes and concepts, and eleven contracted articles. Enough for a short novel, just over 50000 words. That works out to roughly 2500 words a day. I also spent less time going back to make minor edits and correcting mistakes, freeing up brainpower and energy for more important work. My previous writing goal was 2000 words a day, no matter how long it took. With a productivity increase of 25%, plus less time lost to recovery and fatigue, these rules seem to be a keeper.
I can’t say for certain if this will work for everyone. I know full-time writers who live and breathe the written word, churning out 4 to 8000 words a day and regularly producing bestsellers. I know other writers who are happy spending their workday writing however much they can write, or shooting for a couple thousand or hundred words a day. They have their goals and their methods, as far as they’ve let on, seem to work for them. For me, 90/30 8/10 seems to work best.
Concentrate when working, take time out to rest, leave energy in the tank, and occasionally go all-out. I think these principles are universal, or at least apply to a broad spectrum of activities. The trick is figuring out the right proportions. And that means experimenting, quantifying and honestly examining the results. If you’re a writer looking to increase output, a worker interested in doing more, or just someone interested in productivity, maybe 90/30 8/10 may work for you. Or maybe not. The devil may be in the details, but the details don’t matter so long as they work for you. It’s your work, nobody else’s, and that’s the only goal that matters.