← Chetan Surpur

Life Hack: The 30/30 Minute Work Cycle Feels Like Magic

A year ago, I switched to the Colemak keyboard layout. I’ve since had zero pain in my hands when typing for many hours straight, I’ve been able to type faster, and I make fewer mistakes while typing.

A few months ago, I decided to try the biphasic sleep cycle. It worked as advertised, allowing me to get better sleep and need less of it. I used to sleep for 9 - 10 hours each day, and now I need just 6 - 7.5 to stay just as sprightly, if not more.

A few weeks ago, after these successful life hacks, my friend told me about the eccentric work cycle that he follows.

“You might think it’s crazy and stupid, but it works for me,” he said. “I sit at my desk and work for 30 minutes without distraction, completely absorbed in my work. Then, after the 30 minutes are up, I drop whatever I’m doing and go do something fun for 30 minutes. During this relaxation time, I don’t think about work at all - I play games, write, whatever, but no work. After 30 minutes, I go back to my desk, rinse and repeat.”

Immediately, I thought,

‘That won’t work for me.’ ‘Switching context that often would be too distracting.’ ‘When I’m in my groove, I can’t drop it and come back to it easily.’ ‘It sounds like it would take twice as long to get anything done!’

‘Hmmm. Screw it. I’ll give it a shot.’

You can probably tell by now where this story is going.


It works.

  • While working on a software project, I would get stuck on a bug and spend hours trying to figure out what went wrong, addicted to the quest and unable to stop, even when I run out of ideas on what else to try.

    Now, I stop at the 30 minute mark and relax for half an hour, and when I come back to my computer, my calm mind has a divine inspiration in the first 5 minutes and I blow the bug to smithereens, saving countless hours of exasperation.

  • I would dread each essay assigned in my humanities class. I would have to spend 2 hours planning my essay, 3 hours staring at Microsoft Word and then another 4 hours painstakingly writing the essay for school (a total of 9+ precious hours down the drain). Most of these hours would be spent in frustration, hating life and the college humanities requirement, and refreshing Gmail and iGoogle every 5 minutes, putting off the time I would have to buckle down and write.

    The other day, I spent a total of 3.5 hours (1 hour planning and 30 minutes on each paragraph) and finished my latest essay, no sweat.

    Oh, and while writing the essay, I also ended up finishing the Halo Reach campaign.

  • I used to cordon off entire days to study for my midterms, and spend most of them procrastinating and wasting time.

    Now, I know that given 8 hours, I’ll have complete focus for 4 of them, and that’s all the total concentrated studying I need for the midterm. Planning is easier, and so is the studying process.

  • And the best part is, I don’t stress about work as much. I know exactly how much I can get done given a set amount of time. Time is now my bitch, not the other way around.

Revealing the trick

So why does it work?

  • The work you do is more focused.

    Instead of constantly checking your email or RSS feed while you work, distracting yourself and having to switch context every few minutes, you get 30 minutes of solid, focused work. And it’s not too hard to stay focused since the promise of a 30 minute break is just around the corner.

  • There is less time to work in each interval, so there is more incentive to focus and work hard in the little time you have.

    Normally, I find it hard to focus if I feel like I have a whole day to get something done, or something isn’t due for a while. The 30 minute restriction makes it feel like you only have half an hour to get something done, so it provides a psychological incentive to work harder and finish “in time”.

  • It’s less stressful, since relaxation occurs regularly.

    Spending a ton of hours trying to work still feels like a ton of hours of work, even if you end up getting nothing done. With the 30/30 cycle, you’re only working half the time, and the relaxation time actually feels like relaxation without the stress of work. This makes many continuous hours of work much more bearable and productive.

  • When stuck on a problem, taking the 30 minute break works wonders.

    Anyone who has fixed a difficult bug (or even been stuck on a difficult level of a video game) can attest to this. Clearing your mind allows inspiration to sneak its way in when you come back to your desk. Taking a break regularly is a useful habit to adopt even outside of the 30/30 cycle.

  • It’s fun!

    Work doesn’t even feel like work anymore. It feels more like a game, with checkpoints every 30 minutes and a regular prize to look forward to.

The proverbial catch

I’ve only been doing this for a few weeks, so I have yet to see if it’s a sustainable model. But it’s been working great so far, so I’m very optimistic.

It also takes a certain level of discipline when I’m in the 30 minute work interval, which I’m able to achieve now, because of the novelty of a new approach. But it shouldn’t be too hard to maintain, since the intervals are so short and there is always a reward to look forward to.

Go forth and prosper, my children

If you’re interested in trying the 30/30 work cycle, please let me know in the comments, and make sure you update your comments later with how it goes! I’d love to hear about it.

Oh, and if you think 30 minutes might be too short, feel free to experiment. One size most definitely does not fit all, and you might benefit more from a 60/30 min cycle, or whatever. After all, if I don’t have enough time, or if I’m working on something inherently fun, I end up using a 60/30 cycle. Basically, the point is to set aside regular intervals of relaxation and fun to keep your mind fresh and alert throughout. How you go about doing it is totally up to you.

Okay, my thirty minutes are up. I’m off to start the Black Ops campaign. Good luck and godspeed.

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. Antoine de Saint-Exupery