I have a confession — I’m a terrible worker. I’m easily distracted and my focus…could be better.

I’ve run marathons and longer races. I know how to make small goals and build them into larger accomplishments. One step building to the next.

However, I never applied the same process to my work. I started this blog at the beginning of January and managed two posts in a month-and-a-half.  I know, killing it.

I’m busy, but am I getting anything done?

I want to get my work done while keeping an eye out for important emails. I want to follow the news and my New York Jets, catch up with friends, check in on social media, and the list goes on, and on.

I’m sure you’ve been there, too, right?

Fortunately, I made a breakthrough!

I had the good fortune to stumble across productivity guru Sebastian Marshall on Twitter (sometimes I end up down the right rabbit hole!). That led me to Ultraworking.com and work cycles.

To give a quick synopsis of work cycles, they are awesome. Okay, okay, I can describe them a little better than that…

cycles bring increased productivity

Work cycles are a method of managing blocks of time to hyper-focus on completing goals in small, achievable pieces. Each cycle consists of 30 minutes of work followed by 10 minutes of recovery, although those times are adjustable. Cycles are usually organized into a session ranging from just a few hours to a full day and can easily be split up throughout the day, if needed.

Work Cycle Specifics

So let’s take a closer look at what make-up a session of work cycles (and you can click here to get the Ultraworking template):

Each session starts with the preparation phase. This phase provides the overarching strategy for your entire work session and afterwards provides a clear benchmark to determine whether you achieved what you intended. The focus is:

  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • Why is it valuable?
  • How will you know it’s complete?
This is what my preparation looked like on my 3rd day of cycles; could still improve on specificity.

Next, you plan your first work cycle:

  • What will you complete in the next 30 minutes? For me, great ambition brought great humility.
  • Identify a clear starting point so there is no hesitation when the cycle begins.
  • How would you rate your energy and morale? These are insightful because you can see how they shift depending on what you’re working on, progress towards goals, and changes in physical condition (hunger, fatigue). If they’re declining or flat-lining, you need to make a change.

Once you hit your designated starting time, start your 30 minute counter, go to your identified starting point, and get to work!

Day 1…vague mess and a lot of incomplete targets.

At the 30 minute mark, halt your work for your 10 minute recovery.

Recovery starts with a debrief of your just completed cycle. This is my favorite part of the work cycle as you measure progress and reflect, which leads to improvement.

  • Did I complete what I intended?
  • Was there anything noteworthy for that cycle? This could be the % actually completed, any great insights, or discovered work along the way.
  • Any distractions?
  • How can I improve?
Day 2: Making improvements

There is significant research that achieving mastery in a subject requires deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice consists of two main components: 1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill or idea you’re trying to learn/improve and 2) you receive feedback to make corrections and focus your attention where it’s most productive. With work cycles, you are performing those two steps every cycle

Day 3: Locking in on my targets!

Then you plan the next cycle. The debrief and planning usually take the initial 60-90 seconds of the 10 minute break. The rest of my breaks are usually spent getting a snack or doing some quick exercises. I try to avoid emails because they derail me. I’d rather handle them at their own time.

At the end of the session, you debrief all of your cycles collectively:

  • What was accomplished in xx amount of time? How does this compare to normal? I was immediately and consistently above my normal output.
  • Analyze whether you got bogged down and, if so, where?
  • What went well and how you might replicate that in the future? Any other takeaways or lessons to share? (Like a blog post, hmm?)

So, how about a Work Marathon?

Ultraworking.com conducts what they call “The Working Gym” or TWG several times a week where they moderate a group session of work cycles in four-hour blocks to provide social accountability and external feedback (if desired). They watch the clock; you focus on the work. You also have the option of sharing your work area via webcam.

work together towards productivity

During rest breaks the moderators will provide feedback on individual’s cycles. The moderators also generate speaker breaks where either themselves or another individual working during that session will provide 7-8 minutes of insight into a topic or their area of work. And these people work on really cool stuff.

Instead of doing a four hour session, Ultraworking has started doing a work marathon once a month. 96 consecutive hours of moderated work cycles. Users are able to log-in on the even hour intervals and leave at their leisure.

The reason I wanted to do the work marathon was to have an extended block of focused productivity towards my blog and as an experiment to see what I could accomplish.

My goal for the work marathon was to produce 2 fully completed posts with 16-20 hours of time spent working across the four days. Remember, 2 posts in 1.5 months. Ambitious? I didn’t think so…

Final Output

Despite a LOT of discovered and unplanned work (not surprising considering my lack of previous posts), I completed:

  • 2 completed blog posts, nearly 3
    • Started with: 1 post sourced w/ ~1100 words and ALL OVER THE PLACE
    • Ended with: 2 completed posts w/ 2575 words (Beating Millennial Burnout) and 2510 words (Upcoming), and a 3rd post about 60% complete (644 words — needs more details and pictures)
  • Plan for 6-7 additional blog posts
  • Mailchimp Template to automatically email updates for new posts
  • 415 push-ups

I ended up working 27 hours across the four days for a total of 39 work cycles. Crazily, I actually found myself waking up at 4:30am on the final day so that I could start at 6am rather than 8 because I was so excited to work.

I was also asked to conduct a speaker break on Day 4 which was a neat opportunity for me to talk about my goals and reflect on my work cycle experience.

Click here if you’d like to see my daily production breakdown:
  • Day 1:
    • 10am-4pm, 4.5 hours of deep work, 9 cycles (no gaps in between)
    • Exercise during: ~80 push-ups (10/break)
    • Minimal distractions; email that totally derailed me threw one cycle off
  • Day 2:
    • 10am-4pm, 4.5 hours of deep work, 9 cycles (no gaps)
    • Words typed: ~2300 (521 in 30 minute cycle)
    • Exercise during: ~80 push-ups (10/break)
    • Some outside distractions due to the dogs and people walking in/out of my house
    • 1 prior post completed (different from Day 1); still failed to meet daily goals (too aggressive)
  • Day 3:
    • 8am-4pm (2 hours off for food/interviews), 4.5 hours of deep work, 9 cycles
    • Words typed: ~1405 (403, 586, 416)
    • Exercise during: 120 push-ups (15×8 cycles)
    • Spent first cycle of the day focused on planning; devised an outline for series of 8+ blog posts (at least); provided coherent plan to two working posts
      • Pulled a 644 word section out of a post; nearly a post unto itself
  • Day 4:
    • 6am-4pm (2 hours off for food/run), 6 hours of deep work, 12 cycles
    • Words typed: Mostly editing
    • Exercise during: 6.25 miles, 135 push-ups (15×9)
    • 2nd Post and Mailchimp Template Completed
    • Conducted a Speaker Break

Daily Lessons Learned

Day 1:
  • Realized baseline goal was very aggressive; I had no coherent long-term strategy and the first post I was writing was very unwieldy without thinking about the big picture.
  • My goals for each cycle needed to be more specific as to make them achievable and measure. An example is “Write x words on …” and the goal should be externally verifiable by a 3rd party that knows nothing about what I’m working on.
  • Provide a % accomplished for missed targets to help calibrate future goals.
  • Be careful with email; one negative email during a break totally derailed the work that followed.
Day 2:
  • Daily goal was still too aggressive and unfocused. Completed a post but still missed my daily goals.
  • Reflections are identifying a lot of discovered work or work that was not initially planned for. But it’s being captured to provide more realistic measures moving forward.
  • If morale tanks due to getting stuck in a project, you can start a new cycles sheet and mentally “re-start the day.”
Day 3:
  • Good planning is the key to achievement. I need to spend more time planning, particularly when I’m fresh and starting the day. I spent the first cycle of the day focused solely on planning and created coherency for the blog posts that I was working on along with a road map for 8+ more.
  • Really good moderator/speaker break by Sebastian Marshall where he spoke about the writing process. Look at the writing process as being broken into four phases: 1) Brainstorming, 2) Outline/Organize, 3) Writing, and 4) Editing. Focus your attention on one phase at a time for greatest efficiency. Switch back-and-forth between them as you hit a wall in each phase. This insight was striking for me because I spend a lot of time editing during all of the other phases and it slows my writing to a crawl.
  • 30 minutes goes really QUICKLY; days and cycles need to be planned conservatively. Have clear goals and make them achievable. unless you want a disheartening number of missed goals.
  • ~450 words/per typing block (actual was 481, but plan conservatively) 
Day 4:
  • I was exhausted after several long and active days; fatigue definitely affected my cycles, especially later in the day. Rest is important.
  • Focused on planning in the morning and moved to less cognitively demanding tasks in the afternoon such as looking for pictures and a Mailchimp template.
  • Great insight from one of the speaker breaks: “The first move is always figuring out the first move.”

Final Takeaways

Similar to the marathons that I’ve run, I finished with a definite sense of accomplishment and fatigue. By setting big goals and then zeroing in on each next step or individual cycle, it is mind-blowing the distance that can be covered.

And sometimes, the next step is taking a break. Especially for big goals. (Mile 183 of 314?)

The marathon was likely my four most productive days of work ever — and they provided a lot of valuable insight to continue getting better.

Here is a quick synopsis of my overall takeaways and improvement points:

  • Planning is everything; time goes fast! Prioritize and plan conservatively.
  • It’s extremely powerful to use small, achievable goals to maintain and increase morale/focus. They also make refocusing much easier.
  • 30:10 work:break cycles are awesome for me, as long as I take the breaks! Don’t work through!
  • I’m way too focused on perfectionism; go fast and edit in due time!

My biggest challenge using work cycles in my everyday life is neutralizing distractions. During this marathon, that was surprisingly easy to achieve. However, I wasn’t in a busy and conversation filled office. That will take some time (and likely headphones) to adjust. Saying that, I fully intend to continue using work cycles both independently and through TWG sessions.

plan for productivity
“The first move is always figuring out the first move.”

Your Turn

  • How do you organize your work sessions?
  • Do you set session or daily goals — and measure them afterwards? Maybe more informally?
  • Would work cycles benefit you?
  • Any ideas how these cycles could be even more efficient?
As always, thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts! Connect with me via Twitter or email!

About Scott

Writer. Teacher. Learner. Keen on process and individual improvement. And running really, really far.

View all posts by Scott

2 Comments on “Boost your Productivity with Work Cycles”

  1. I had no idea work marathons existed until recently. Thanks for the insight. Will definitely check one out!

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