How to Use Intervals to Improve Your Productivity

Chart showing intervals of increase. How to Use Intervals to Improve Your Productivity
Image by toodlingstudio from Pixabay

Where I live, there has been a lot of rain recently. Water flooding my basement during heavy storms is an ongoing possibility, so when intense rain is predicted, I am always on high alert. A couple of weeks ago, we had a large storm move through, projected to drop around 3 inches of rain. With such a high anticipated rainfall, I expected flooding, and kept dashing down to check the basement. I’m happy to say that, in spite of the large amount of rain, we didn’t flood. Why not? I think we were spared because this storm came through in intervals: very intense rain for a bit, and then a pause in rainfall, before another band came along. These brief periods between intense rain provided a chance for my yard to recover before another band came through. Watching this rain got me thinking about intervals and how the breaking up of an event, effort, or activity into intervals can positively impact end results. Have you ever wondered how to use intervals to improve your productivity?

Intervals Defined

Let me begin by explaining that an interval is a period of time. When we talk about working in intervals we mean working hard for a predetermined number of minutes, interspersed with periods of rest. This isn’t a new concept. Interval training has long been utilized in the physical training realm. For example, instead of running at a steady pace for 30 minutes, you run hard (or steep) for a couple of minutes, and then take it down a notch for another short period of time. Typically, individuals repeat this process, varying the type and duration of intensity. The advantage of interval training is that we can push ourselves to a high level of performance when we know that we only need to sustain the effort for a short period of time. These “high effort” intervals can lead to impressive outcomes in a way that a lower-level, sustained effort cannot.

Why Intervals Matter to Productivity

When it comes to productivity, we are talking about intervals of focused concentration. Productivity intervals are periods during which we commit to:

  1. Resist distractions
  2. Stay on task

In the digital age, staying focused is very challenging. No longer can we tune out interruptions by simply “closing the door.” The devices on which many of us work also distract us with alerts, alarms, texts, calls, etc. Even if we do not work on a computer, most of us are somewhat tethered to our cell phones, “on call” for kids, spouses, repair people, doctors, and more. At a recent dinner gathering some of us pulled out our phones to check how many hours we were spending on them each day. [Note: If you haven’t done this, I suggest you do this right now. It can be enlightening.] The average American spends 4 hours 37 minutes on their cell phone each day. I cringe when I see this number. I wonder what I used to do with those four hours? About 40% of us want to cut down, and 36% of us don’t think we can.

Unfortunately, all these distractions keep us busy and feeling frazzled while simultaneously destroying our productivity. Investor Warren Buffet is known for saying, “Busy is the new stupid. One of the biggest fallacies that exists today is the belief that motion equals progress.” We can spend a lot of motion (i.e. energy and time) on unimportant things, or responding to other people’s needs and desires, while never focusing on what we want and/or need to accomplish.

This is where intervals can really be a game changer! Working in focused intervals allows us to maximize our output even while operating within an environment that is full of distractions. By dangling the carrot of an upcoming “break,” intervals help us push to sustain our concentration.

This is not a new concept. The famed Pomodoro Method, for example, encourages people to set a timer for 20-25 minutes during which they are to stay on task. When the timer goes off, they are instructed to take a four-minute break, during which they can do whatever they want (e.g., get up and walk around, go get a cup of coffee, check messages, etc.). When the four minutes are up, set the timer for another work period, and start all over again. After four rounds, take a longer break. Much like a break in the rain, the rest period gives our brains a moment to recover before the next work session begins. It can also give our bodies a chance to move, which can be particularly helpful to those who have a hard time sitting still.

Designing Powerful Intervals

Have I piqued your interest in using intervals to improve your productivity? I hope so! If you would like to start incorporating intervals, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Intervals require intention.

As with all planning, you need to decide in advance to approach your tasks in this manner. Working in intervals won’t happen by accident. New habits take a lot of intentionality, especially in the beginning. Spend some time figuring out what you will try and deciding what tools you will use to help you stay on track. For instance, you might:

  • Decide to work on certain tasks on specific days of the week.
  • Commit to spending at least 30 minutes each day on “deskwork,” (i.e., paying bills, filling out forms, reading important paperwork, returning emails, scheduling, communication, etc.).
  • Make a plan for how you will minimize distractions during your “focus intervals” (e.g., removing alerts from your devices, turning off the sound on your phone, using a separate computer and/or browser for work, etc.).
Intervals should be well defined.

There are lots of options, and the best are whichever you find most helpful. Initially, you may have some trial and error, but when you find an approach which seems to work, stick with it. The predictability of when/how/where you will work, and also when/how/where you will “rest” is the secret sauce of this approach. More specifically, how long will you challenge yourself to focus, and how long will each break last?

Intervals should maximize both focus and renewal.

Have you ever gone on vacation but ended up working the entire time? If so, you know that you don’t feel rested and refreshed when the vacation is over. In order to take advantage of the ebb and flow of energy that intervals offer, you need to be sure to act appropriately in each phase. In other words, “no cheating.”

Intervals can be creative.

There are many ways we can manage your focus and energy. For instance, you may be able to stay productive for longer periods if you alternate between physical tasks (e.g., folding laundry or walking the dog) and mental tasks (e.g., writing a document or reading through paperwork).

Another way to approach intervals is by changing up your physical surroundings. For instance, a student may do math homework at the kitchen table, then move to a chair in the living room to do reading, and then move to the dining room table to write. Simply moving to a new space gives him fresh energy for the next task.

Further still, you may acknowledge that you are most alert in the mornings, so you will do your hardest tasks before 11am, and switch to only “mindless” tasks by 4pm.

Maybe all you can manage is a “once a week” complete break. I know a family in which the husband takes control of the kids every Saturday morning. Just knowing that she will have time to herself helps Mom stay strong and do what is necessary the rest of the week.

Intervals should be customized.

All of us are different. Some of us can stay focused on a task for an hour, while others may prefer shorter work periods. Similarly, the way we “rest” may look different. Figure out what truly refreshes you.

Small interval breaks may look like…

  • Checking social media
  • Walking around
  • Getting outside for a breath of fresh air
  • Pouring a fresh cup of coffee
  • Stretching
  • Having a conversation
  • Praying

When you need a bigger break, perhaps a couple of times during the week, during the weekend, or on a vacation, consider planning activities that will be a true change from your normal work, such as…

  • Sitting on the beach (my first choice)
  • Playing a sport (my husband’s preference)
  • Reading (my daughter’s go-to)
  • Attending activities and events (my other daughter’s go-to)
  • Gardening (my father’s summer “break”)
  • Hanging out with family (my mother’s favorite thing)

Whatever you choose, remember that it is important to find way to let your brain truly relax. Periods of relaxation are when we tend to be most creative, and often when we recall important things we need to do.  Intervals help us to “close some tabs” in our brains and minimize the worries and thoughts that draw down our energy. Just like our muscles, our brains need some time to stop working and recover.

*     *     *

Working in intervals, and knowing that a break is coming, can be powerfully sustaining. As you plan your time, think about how moving between periods of intense focus and mental rest might improve your productivity.

Have you ever consciously applied this idea?

Seana's signature

22 thoughts on “How to Use Intervals to Improve Your Productivity”

  1. I love the way you used your experience from the recent rain and flooding to create a piece about intervals and productivity! I am always fascinated by where inspiration comes from.

    While I frequently engage in what you’ve described, I never named it. I am able to focus intensely for periods, but the only way I can successfully do that is to set auditory alarms. It’s a flexible process, depending on my available time and what I’m trying to accomplish.

    I love to hyperfocus without distractions. However, the challenge is I can get so absorbed in my work that I lose track of time. By setting an alarm, I can predetermine how much time I will devote to a focused work session. It lets me dive in completely. When the buzzer sounds, I stop what I’m doing, check in with what’s going on, and decide whether it’s time to shift gears (take a break, move my body, get ready for a client call, etc.) or if I have the time and energy to do another “interval.”

    Like you, I find it essential to have focused work sprints and then take a break.

    1. My husband can do that hyperfocus thing. I never quite get there… I’m too aware of everything going on in the room. Every now and then, once I start, I’ll do a deep dive, but an hour is a long time of focus on a seated project for me. That said, I can organize all day long, which is why I’m so thankful to be in this profession!

  2. Great insights, Seana, and I’m glad your basement didn’t flood! Very recently I moved across the country. I realize now that I was using this interval method to keep myself on task and going. I would pack or unpack for a couple of hours then take a break to scroll social media, take a walk, or hang out with my cats. It was the recharge that I needed to keep going and not get too burnt out on the task at hand..

  3. I love how you engaged your personal experience with intervals.
    To keep your mind at ease, you can now purchase a small device and leave it by high risk flood areas, like the basement door or under a toilet seat, and it will alert you in case of any water leak. Very helpful and will keep your mind at ease.
    The most important thing is to schedule the time you’ll work on your decluttering or cleaning and of course we need intervals, otherwise big tasks could be overwhelming and you might tend to quit and you don’t want to do that.
    I have a client that’s always mentioning on the phone, when people call her, that she’s working with her organizer and that time is money. It is money, but I don’t want the client to feel overwhelmed and quit. I always ask them if they need a break, even for a cold sip of water, or check email.
    Thanks for sharing I love all your suggestions.
    Janet Schiesl recently posted…Diversity Among ClientsMy Profile

    1. I’m gonna get a moisture sensor. I have one in my laundry room but never thought to put one down there. That is a wonderful idea!!

      Isn’t it great that clients now take phone calls and tell others that they are working with their organizer? I love that. Gone are the days when they wanted it to be a hidden secret. 🙂

  4. We have also experienced how the break in rain can be less disastrous than a day or two of continual hard rain. I love how you bring this around to productivity. My day is governed by alarms on my phone. I have certain tasks that must be done at certain times during the day, and I work around that set schedule. This means I do get up and away from my desk and it does help to clear the mind and give it a reset.

    1. Alarms are so helpful because they can signal time for a break or time to get busy. I think it is nice to set up different sounds for the various kinds of alerts we need.

      When my daughter had her tonsils out (in her 20s, which was awful), we had alerts for medication. The entire experience was somewhat traumatic, so I never want to hear that specific alarm again LOL!

  5. I have been practicing this technique for several years with great success. I do my most strenuous brain work in the morning. My intentional breaks usually revolve around taking Buddy (my dog) out to either throw the ball – if it is a short break, or for a walk – if it is a longer break.

    I do more routine tasks in the afternoon and early evening.

    I find tuning out distractions is easier for me in the morning than in the afternoon.
    Thank you for the great explanation of the way in which intervals work. I hope people reading this great post will give it a try.

    1. Lucky Buddy having such a great Mom!

      I am definitely a “brain tasks in the morning” type of gal. I like to start strong, eating the frog so to speak, and then have the day get easier as it progresses. I also tend to get sleepy after lunch, and I find having a client in that time slot works well for me. It gets me up on my feet and being productive at a time I might otherwise do something less productive.

  6. I found this very enlightening! I was reluctant to check how much time I spend on my phone, but found it was an average of 59 minutes per day over the past week. That seems to be a lot less than some others, but I spend much more than that on my tablet – the difference being that tablet time is less likely to be a case of being distracted, but of sitting down to do something specific, even if it’s Happy Color.

    Device use aside, I can ALWAYS use a reminder that I need to take more breaks away from my desk, so thank you for that.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Have you fallen out of love with your website?My Profile

    1. My husband’s watch talks to him and tells him when he needs to get up and walk around. It tells him that he is “de-training,” which we all think is quite funny!

  7. I love all these ideas of working in intervals including length of time, types of tasks, and varying locations.

    I can only focus in short spurts so intervals work great for me. In fact, I had trouble blogging until I decided to write every morning for 15 minutes instead of my previous strategy of sitting and trying to write for 2 hours.

    I also love how you mention switching physical tasks with mental tasks. If I sit for too long I get fidgety so this also works for me. I know many people that use the strategy of switching spaces, which you also mention in this blog.

    For me, the trick is to remember to employ these strategies and to notice when my present strategy isn’t working.

    1. I love your idea of writing for 15 minutes every day instead of in one big chunk. That sounds much less intimidating. Feeling like I’m about to be required to sit still for a long period of time isn’t very appealing. I physically feel like I need to get up and move around. That’s why I love my job so much – on my feet for at least 3 hours.

  8. Intervals have been well established in physical training. It’s a great strategy to implement with new routines and new goals. Giving opportunity to determine what the interval duration is and type of breaks gives agency.

    1. I know I’m reaching my limit of sitting/focus work when I get super fidgety. I just need to get up and move. I can still be productive, but I need a different kind of work for awhile.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.