How I Became Super Productive Using the 52:17 Method

Auriane Alix
Work for 52 minutes, then rest for 17 minutes.
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Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

I’ve tried everything. Getting up early and doing as much as possible in the morning. Working at night. Working over extended periods. Short periods.

All I’ve won is an allergy to the word “productivity”.

I am a freelance writer and translator. I work from home. Which means that I decide my own schedule. No one’s behind my back, putting pressure on me.

It’s at the same time fantastic and tough.

First meeting with the 52:17 method

One day, as I was scrolling through productivity blog posts, I stumbled upon something called the “52:17 method”.

DeskTime is an employee productivity tracking software. With 5.5 million logged records per day, it collects substantial amounts of computer-using behavior. In the article I found about the 52:17 ratio, the author Julia Gifford explains that the company isolated the 10% most productive employees, with criteria such as the use of applications considered “productive” for their line of work. Then, they analyzed their computer-use behavior during one workday.

What they found out, is that the employees with the highest productivity ratings didn’t even work for eight hours a day, nor did they work for long periods. Julia Gifford explains:

“Their secret to retaining the highest level of productivity is not working longer, but working smarter with frequent breaks.
A person can’t be 100% productive all day. As much as you want to make the most of every minute, to get shit done, to hustle, it’s just not humanly possible.
Concentration is like a muscle — it needs to rest to be able to function, and it shouldn’t be overworked. Otherwise, it’ll simply burn out and take longer to get back into the swing of things.”

It emerged from this study that the most productive people work for 52 minutes and then take a break for 17 minutes.

This reading left me very skeptical. I thought that having a break after less than an hour of work was a bit too much. And why precisely 52 minutes? Why not 50? Or one hour?

I left that aside and went back to my long work sessions which were not very effective. Until I decided to give it a try. After all, what did I have to lose?

Looks like I did the right thing.

Pros and cons

For this method to work, the key is to really work for 52 minutes, without any pause, notification, distraction, or “quick Facebook break”. 52 minutes is short enough to stay 100% focus, and get things done. It’s a sprint.

The second key is to have a real break. A proper one. Staying sat at your desk staring at your phone, or answering some emails, is not a break. Brewing yourself a cup of coffee and sipping it in a ray of sunshine while letting your thoughts wander is.

How I do it

My favorite schedule is getting up at 8, emerging at the kitchen table with my breakfast, then completing 4 cycles before lunchtime. After lunch, I indulge in a longer break, that I use for reading or having a nap. Then, I complete 2 or 3 more cycles, and I’m done with my day.

I use Clockify — a free desktop app — to track my time. I also set an alarm on my desktop — or phone, for the breaks — which rings when each cycle has reached its end. When I work, my phone is on silent mode, out of my sight and out of my reach. My emails and every other notification are turned off.

Cons

I had to rack my brain to find weaknesses in this method. Perhaps the only drawback is that stopping after 52 minutes can break the "flow". I can still decide to keep working if I feel that I’m in a really good state, but in a way, it breaks the functioning of the method.

Also, the 52:17 ratio suits better a remote worker’s lifestyle. Your employer might not be the happiest to see you taking a break every hour.

Pros

The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. So much so that I’ll probably keep this way of working from now on. Here’s why:

  • I find it easier to concentrate and tackle tasks when I know that a break is coming in less than an hour.
  • It allows me to work longer in a day, without feeling tired.
  • Stretching at least once an hour and getting some fresh air is good for the body and the brain. I feel the benefits deeply when I get back to work after each break.
  • It gives structure to my workday.
  • It makes task-switching easier.
  • 17 minutes is just the right amount of time for me to rest without totally disconnecting from work, making it easier to come back to it.

I couldn’t advise you more to try this method out. It has changed my workday and my relationship with productivity.

If 52 minutes is too short for you, I’ve heard about a 90-minutes cycle which could maybe suit your work better.

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