You've likely heard of the 80/20 rule: 20% of the people do 80% of the work. But this is something altogether different. 80 + 20 = 100. 90 + 20 = 110. Like it or not, there are times when life requires 110% of what you have to give. The 90/20 rule is my formula for sustained, focused work over an extended period of time without sacrificing health or sanity.
Dr. Rona Schwarz, a Los Angeles-area psychologist, conducted her Master's Degree in sleep psychology. She learned that the body renews itself in 90-minute cycles and that the cells themselves grow and regenerate in 90-minute cycles. The body also sleeps in 90-minute cycles. Based on this information, Dr. Schwarz has theorized that the body can only maintain optimum focus on a given task for those same 90 minutes, and then requires a 20-minute break to rejuvenate.
The 20 minutes of rest are important, because it keeps your body from falling into a deeper sleep. And it doesn't need to be sleep. Your break can be anything relaxing to you that gives your mind and your body a rest.
After learning of this theory, I put the 90/20 rule to the test. I am an artist, and one summer I faced the impossible task of creating 23 paintings in just under two weeks in order to meet a publication deadline. (I need to clarify here that up until this point, 23 paintings was more than I usually completed in an entire year.) I realized I had to create two paintings a day just to keep up.
In order to accomplish this, I simplified my life down to the barest details, kept up my exercise routine, enlisted a group of friends to pray for me, and set to work. I painted 12 hours a day, six days a week, working in these 90-minute cycles and taking 20 minute breaks in between (allowing a little longer for mealtimes). I went to bed at 11 o'clock every night. I never wore out, I never burned out, and I finished all 23 paintings in time. The day after I finished, I got up early in the morning and ran a 5K. That's how I realized the 90/20 rule really works!
Although I do occasionally have to work this steadily when I'm preparing for an art show, I don't always have looming paint deadlines. But what I do have, that all of us have, are other arduous tasks. I find this especially useful when I have something unpleasant to accomplish, like preparing the information for our tax returns. This takes me days on end. But following the 90/20 rule I can accomplish it without too much suffering.
In order to take full advantage, Dr. Schwarz recommends pre-selecting what you'll do on your 20-minute break, so you don't whittle away your valuable break time deciding what to do. Know in advance that you're going to take a power nap, flip through a magazine, or walk the dog around the block. It really doesn't matter what you do, as long as it's giving your mind a change of scenery and a healthy opportunity to recharge. Sometimes my 20 minute "break" was folding laundry with a movie in the background. But it was enough to take my mind off the deadline so I could go back to my work re-energized and refocused.
The next time you face a big deadline, an arduous household chore, or anything else potentially taxing, consider using the 90/20 rule. Require yourself to perform 90 minutes of sustained, focused work, and then allow yourself a 20-minute break. To begin with, I used to set a timer every 90 minutes. Now my body and mind naturally seem to know when it's time for a break. Honor that. Give yourself a rest. You'll return to your work revitalized. You'll be able to accomplish 110% of what you thought you were capable. You'll be amazed.
Jana Winters Parkin is an artist, writer, and adjunct faculty at UVU. She co-hosts a popular podcast for women: "The Living Room" (bit.ly/TLRSHowiTunes) and spends every day possible exploring mountain trails. Contact her at