Workload management 101: 52-17 ratio


Ain’t no one confusing my fat ass with someone like Tim Ferriss, but I’m obsessed with ideas around productivity — and a major part of that is workload. You’ve probably worked with a dozen or more people who constantly tell you how much work they leave on the table at the end of a given day, and you’ve probably worked with dozens more — likely mostly men — who tell you how they just racked back a 90-hour work week. These things do happen, although I myself have never worked 90 hours in a week. (In reality, 55 hours/week is pretty much a hard ceiling, science-wise.) But a major factor in any “Temple of Busy” discussion around the modern office is workload. Workload is, of course, compounded by the relative ease of mobile technology — so your boss can zing off an e-mail to you at 11pm, and you might feel beholden to complete a task within the e-mail. We all know that’s Managerial Bullshit 101, but we put up with it because we want to be seen as good little worker bees/keep our jobs, and that straight-up crushes our workload and any notion of work-life balance.

So, what if there was a way to do workload better?

The key workload ratio

I haven’t quoted Travis Bradberry in a while on this blog, but here’s a new post from him over at Forbes. He starts out talking about how the eight-hour workday is a relic of the Industrial Age, which I agree with wholeheartedly. Economists in the 1930s actually thought we’d be working six-hour weeks by now because of new technologies, and, uh, we have those technologies … and many Type-A target-chasers are still throwing themselves on the cross about working 90-hour weeks. Er, what gives?

Well, what gives is a lot of stuff — namely notions of male relevance, people wanting to advance at work, and people being swept up in a wave of everyone else thinking they’re super busy. Oh, and people not wanting to be seen as incompetent! Got it.

Alright, so then Bradberry goes into some research on workdays and workload. The research indicated that it’s not how many hours you work — A ha! A flaw in the Type-A male logic pattern! — but rather, how you structure your day. I’ve actually written about this twice. Here’s one. Here’s another.

And now, from the research:

The ideal work-to-break ratio was 52 minutes of work, followed by 17 minutes of rest. People who maintained this schedule had a unique level of focus in their work. For roughly an hour at a time, they were 100% dedicated to the task they needed to accomplish. They didn’t check Facebook “real quick” or get distracted by e-mails. When they felt fatigue (again, after about an hour), they took short breaks, during which they completely separated themselves from their work. This helped them to dive back in refreshed for another productive hour of work.

52 minutes on, 17 minutes off. Bam, bam, bam.

Let’s say you work 9am to 6pm and take 1 hour for lunch. That’s eight hours. That’s 480 minutes. 52 + 17 = 69. (Hah.) You’d have 6.95 pockets of productivity + leisure, or basically seven cycles of 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off. So in a week, you’d have 35 productive cycles. That’s pretty good for managing workload and hitting goals, right?

Why the workload ratio doesn’t work for most

In short: meetings and calls. Those things aren’t real work, but managers and other employees love to call them — and then everyone involved makes them utterly meaningless by not preparing for them even remotely, thus wasting everyone else’s time. Fun!

Meetings and calls make your time at work not your own time at work — you’re beholden to others who think they’re productively advancing an agenda when all they’re doing is running in circles like some cartoon car — so it’s hard to hit this 52-17 workload ratio if most of your hours (full 60-minute hours) are spent in meetings.


The other problem is how most managers view their role. Managers should manage team energy, not team performance — but most don’t get that, and that’s why other relics like “seat time” still exist. If your manager saw you in your 17-minute down time and was like “What are you doing?” and then you said “Well, there’s this study on optimum workload management, and…”

Well, your manager would probably shuttlecock himself through a plate glass window screaming about how you need to “get something out the door” or “operate with a sense of urgency” or some other shit. He would assume the 17 minutes off means you’re whiffing on targets, which means his boss will be mad at him. In reality, no human brain is capable of 8-10 straight hours of work — which is why most people’s Outlook calendars make no sense. Sitting in meetings all week drains your body, mind, and soul. But we often do that — and we often do it especially to executives, who have the biggest workload of all. (Well, kinda.)

The bottom line on workload

How you manage your workload is all about how productive you can be — so you need some semblance of some idea how to manage your workload. Most people have none. They race from meeting to meeting and call to call with no context except pleasing their own boss or chain of command. They think “Well, that’s how work has to be! I’m so slammed!” They totally forget that the human brain is a finely-designed instrument. It needs on-periods and off-periods. To maximize your workload and really hit targets around it, you can’t always be go go go. You gotta go, then break, then go, then break, etc. That’s life, but again, we often forget about basic human psychology when discussing work — and how we manage workload is a prime example of that.

Any other ideas?

Ted Bauer

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