A Personal Experiment in Workplace Productivity

By Bailey Foster

Ever feel like you have days (or even weeks) at a time when it seems impossible to tackle everything on your to-do list? When time feels like the enemy and no number of espresso shots can help you power through and beat the clock?

I have a hunch I’m not alone in this workplace conundrum. Based on the 186 million Google search results on “how to be more productive at work,” it appears we all battle bouts of lackluster productivity. And in my work for a creative marketing agency dedicated to compelling brand stories, finding sparks of creativity is hugely dependent on just how productive we can be.

So what is the best way to combat the inimitable foes of waning efficiency and wasted time?

My latest attempt to answer this age-old question started with an article: “There’s an optimal way to structure your day—and it’s not the 8-hour workday.” Written by Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and President of TalentSmart, this article explores the roots of the eight-hour workday and why this (supposedly) antiquated approach isn’t effective in our workplaces today. Bradberry references a study by the Draugiem Group to argue that peak productivity is best reached when we work for an hour, then take a 15-minute break. (FYI: There are a few rules attached to this model. For example, no social media, YouTube browsing, or email checking allowed during these breaks.)

Sounds pretty solid, right? I thought so. In fact, after reading through Bradberry’s assertions, I decided this hour-on, 15-minutes-off model presented the perfect experiment for a productivity-seeking copywriter like me. And since I’m in the office three days a week, I committed to three full days (or one workweek) of strict adherence to this structure.

Check out my field notes (aka random journal entries) and findings to see the results. And maybe discover your own antidotes for poor productivity along the way.

Field Notes

Day 1

Break 1: What?! It’s time for a break already? I haven’t got enough done yet. Okay… coffee. Good. Drinking my coffee. What should I do now? This feels weird. How many more minutes ‘til I can get back to work? Alright… going for a walk. Ah, the sun is shining. The sky is bright. The birds are singing. I’m feeling alright! Note to self: Too many “Pete the Cat” books with the girls.

Break 2: I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything yet today. This “work one hour, break for 15 minutes” model is hard on days with lots of meetings.

Break 3: I will admit, eating lunch AWAY from my desk is quite relaxing.

Break(ish) 4: Talked social media with Ben.

Day 2

Break 1: Whoops! Worked longer than I was supposed to because of a couple impromptu meetings. I’m starting to think this model doesn’t fit #AgencyLife all that well. Like right now, I’m so tempted to blow off my 15-minute break and just get cranking on work. I don’t feel like my mind needs a break. I’m ready to get stuff done. But I will persevere in the name of (pseudo)science. Now… coffee.

Break 2: Long lunch and chats. Reminder: The job is about relationships, too.

Break 3: Cheetos and tea. Snack of champions. I’ll have to plan healthier bites if I’m using my breaks to sneak snacks. 

Break 4: Didn’t quite make a fourth break happen today due to random meetings and conversations that came up.

Day 3

Break 1: Coffee, snack… the usual. Maybe I’m in denial, but I really don’t feel like I need breaks this frequently. It makes my day (and my mind) feel too disjointed since I can’t spend long lengths of time concentrating on any one thing. I wonder which lines of work or professions would find this most helpful. Or maybe it has more to do with personality? 

Break 2: Walked to Great Harvest for lunch. It is nice having a reason that forces me to break away, take a walk, and make sure I eat a healthy lunch.

Break 3: Unexpected visit from an old friend at the office! I guess break time is coming early.

Break 4: Again, didn’t manage a fourth break because of unexpected meetings and visits. Lesson learned: You can’t plan everything.

What Worked

The best part of structuring my workday according to the one-hour-on, 15-minutes-off model is that it helped me:

  • Find healthy ways to reset my brain – walks outside, journaling, and chatting with coworkers

  • Prioritize relationships – taking the time to value people (both coworkers and clients) and be more flexible with my schedule

  • Identify distractions – realizing how little things like text messages, other peoples’ conversations around the office, social media, etc. can interfere with my efficiency (even during breaks) and finding better ways of blocking out those distractions

What Didn’t Work

While I did learn several important lessons from this experiment, parts of it also impeded my productivity rather than helping it.

  • There were too many breaks ­­– I only work three (eight-hour) days a week. So, when I’m in the office, my mind feels ready to work and I don’t encounter frequent brain fatigue. I also work in a highly collaborative environment with plenty of spur-of-the-moment conversations and meetings. These regular breaks from the grind reduce my need (or desire) to pause my work so often throughout the day.

  • The routine was too rigid – I found that having to schedule my work sessions and breaks to rigid time constraints wasn’t realistic for how many of my workdays end up looking in a given week. It didn’t allow me to be as flexible as I would’ve liked, and my breaks often came when I was just getting into a groove with my work. This made me realize that I need more room for my creativity to breathe. If I’m working according to a regimented schedule, that’s not always possible. When I’m feeling inspired, I want and need to be able to work for as long as the creative thoughts keep coming.

Final Conclusions

All in all, this experiment taught me a lot about how I can improve my productivity at work. But for me personally, I found that being my most efficient self doesn’t mean following the one-hour-on, 15-minutes-off philosophy. It means working hard and honing my focus for most of my day, then breaking away for a walk, a coffee, or a conversation when my mind is less than inspired. It’s means being mindful of my workflow and recognizing when I’d benefit more from a quick snack and less from powering onward. It means finding the best tactics (and tunes) to ward off distractions and reframe my focus.

That said, this workplace pattern can and does work wonders for plenty of people. Maybe you work long hours, find your brain bogged down by analytical tasks, or fruitlessly work through lunch every day. If so, give this productivity experiment a try. You might just uncover your own unique answers to the often-sought Google question – and become more productive as a result.

"...being my most efficient self doesn't mean following the one-hour-on, 15-minutes-off philosophy. It means working hard and honing my focus for most of my day, then breaking away for a walk, a coffee, or a conversation when my mind is less than inspired."