Reducing Hours to Increase Productivity

Work Less, Do More

Have you ever watched a hamster running on a wheel? Its tiny feet flutter beneath its furry middle. Its little lungs pump harder and harder. Have you ever thought about the miles that those critters could cover if given the chance? If they could just get off the wheel and use their calories to embark on an adventure? Some estimates say that a hamster runs an average of 9 km a night[1]– the equivalent of 1/5th of a marathon- without ever leaving its cage.

Here’s another question: Have you ever felt like that hamster? Like you’re running harder and harder, and yet you don’t seem to be covering any ground? Many of us have experienced the feeling of being overworked, but unproductive. We’ve grown up with an ethos that dictates a formula: More hours working equals more work done. Today’s corporate culture beats this drum loudly, associating working overtime with commitment to one’s job and applauding the individuals who sustain the most relentless schedules.

It turns out that most of us have internalized this ethos to such an extent that it drives us to lie about how much we work, in order to gain praise and recognition. A study by the Harvard Business Review[2] reported that the more people work, the more likely they are to exaggerate how many hours they work. Rather than bragging about how much time we spend with our children, or how many paintings we’ve completed this year, we claim to work 75 hours a week and sigh about all the personal items that have fallen to the wayside.

We worship at the temple of busy. And yet, we can’t escape a universal human truth: Our bodies and our minds require rest in order to be productive.

Can You Do More in Less Time?

Your body’s ultradian rhythm is run by a delicate balance of sodium and potassium exchanged in cycles throughout the day. Sleep Researcher Nathaniel Kleitman[3] was the scientist responsible for discovering Rapid Eye Movement (REM) in sleep, and determining that active brain processes continue through the night. He also discovered that we have a Basic Rest Activity Cycle (BRAC) that functions through the day as well. This daytime cycle alternates 90-minute periods of high-frequency brainwave activity with 20-minute periods of lower-frequency brainwave activity.


Your brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body, draining up to 20% of your available fuel. About two thirds of that energy is used for the firing of nerve cells, which requires the use of sodium and potassium to transport other chemicals in and out of the brain cells.

When your brain is consistently working really hard for an extended period of time, it eventually disrupts the sodium/potassium balance. In response, the brain switches to a lower frequency. We experience this as fatigue or fogginess- and it’s a precious signal that we need to pay attention to, lest we trigger our body’s fight or flight mechanisms.

Not only does the fight or flight pattern cause the release of the stress hormone cortisol, but it also causes the part of the brain responsible for planning, logic, and critical thinking to become less active. In a survival setting, this makes sense; you wouldn’t want to be pondering existential philosophy if a bear was chasing you through the woods. To stay alive, you’d need to run. But when we’re safe and sound in an office building, and the only threat is a looming deadline, this pattern of events is detrimental to our health, and our productivity.

Harness Your BRAC

Understanding how your body’s activity cycles work, it’s easy to see how a few small tweaks to your work habits could decrease your stress response and increase productivity. Here are a few of our favourite ways to harness the power of the 90-minute / 20-minute activity cycle to turbocharge your professional results:

1) Schedule it In
If your team is in the process of planning a big conference event, consider building little breaks into the schedule throughout the day. Rather than booking a 3-hour window for brainstorming and discussion, keep it to 90-minutes max, with a snack and coffee break at the end.

2) Nap Like a Pro
Though it’s not realistic for everyone, stopping for a 20-minute nap when you start to slow down is an excellent way to restore your body’s sodium/potassium levels. You’ll return to the task at hand feeling rejuvenated and capable.

3) Walk it Off
When you start to feel your attention wane at work, stand up, shake off the cobwebs, and set out on a stroll. Even just taking the elevator down to the lobby and moving your legs, walking down the hall to the bathroom, or into the office kitchen for a snack is enough of a change of scenery to reset your brain.

4) Force Quit
If you’re unable to resist the temptation to check email or tinker on that presentation during a set 20-minute rest period, consider enlisting the help of an app. Digital productivity tools are available to block your screen for a chosen interval, or keep you away from social media during your downtime.

5) Mindfulness Meditation
20 minutes is the perfect amount of time to focus on practicing mindful breathing and present moment awareness. Close your office door, pop in your earbuds, and listen to a guided meditation (like this one from SIGMA), nature sounds on YouTube, or any music you find calming. You’ll work with your lower frequency brainwaves and reduce your blood pressure while you’re at it.

The Power of Less

For more than 50 years, SIGMA Assessment Systems has assisted organizations to select and develop talent. Our approach to effective leadership development is backed by science, and utilizes the latest research to help our clients achieve greater levels of success within their enterprises. For more information on how we can enhance your productivity, contact us today.

[1] Hamster Wheels, “How Far do Hamsters Run?”,

[2] The Atlantic, “Study: People Claiming to Work More Than 70 Hours a Week Are Totally Lying, Probably”,

[3] Inc, “Why Working in 90-Minute Intervals is Powerful for Your Body and Job, According to Science”,

About the Author

Sharon Van Duynhoven

Office Manager

Sharon brings our tests and assessments from the development stage to marketable product. She ensures quality control at every step of a project, edits technical documents and manuals, and artistically enhances reports and resources. She also manages contracts with clients across the globe and answers technical questions.