Working Better

45 Minutes for Hours of Productive Work

Many of you will have heard of the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule which basically says that approximately 80% of the effects of many events, come from 20% of the causes of those events. The original idea came from looking at Italy’s income and wealth where Pareto noticed that 80% of the wealth was owned by 20% of the people but it has been observed in many other situations since. For example, 20% of the world’s population control 82.7% of global income, we dress in 20% of our favourite clothes about 80% of the time, and we spend 80% of the time with just 20% of our friends and acquaintances, etc.

I use a similar principle when I’m trying to get things done but rather than 80/20 it’s 45/15. It’s simple. I work/take action for 45 minutes and then take 15 minutes “off”.

I started doing this when I was at college and came across some research (the source of which I’ve long forgotten) that said that the maximum time we are able to work at top efficiency, is 45 minutes. I experimented with this when I was writing essays or revising for exams and discovered that I could study for longer overall and accomplish more when I applied this rule.

Nowadays, I apply the idea in many of areas of my life, especially if there’s something I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to do. But I find it particularly invaluable for when I’m working on the computer. When I’m at home, I will set an alarm for 45 minutes and then start working. When the alarm goes off I’ll get up from the desk and do something completely different such as putting on a load of washing, changing a bed or posting a letter. Then it’s back to the computer and another 45 minutes of work. The great thing about this approach is that I not only work more effectively but I’m also able to get through a load of chores without noticing I’m doing them.

If I’m working away from home I still set the alarm and use the 15 minute breaks to get a drink, walk around the office or chat with a colleague.

Strangely, I find the biggest challenge with the 45/15 approach is being disciplined enough to stop when the alarm goes off. It’s very tempting when things are going well, to keep working. However, experience has shown that working on past 45 minutes brings diminishing returns so I’ve developed the habit of standing up immediately the alarm goes off. Then it’s easier to move away and do something different. If it’s absolutely essential to finish off something I’m doing I’ll do it standing up!

If you spend a lot of time at the computer this has the added benefits of resting your eyes and moving your body so you’re putting less strain on your spine and muscles.

Also, you’ll find you come up with some great ideas in your 15 minutes “breaks” and you may even find solutions to problems you’ve been stuck on and unable to think your way out of.

I’d love to hear your experiences with the 45/15 rule so please give it a go and then leave a comment on the blog.


  • Alan M Jackson

    Hi Gillian,

    Have you tried the Pomodoro technique? It’s similar to what you describe but uses a 25 + 5 format… and a tomato shaped kitchen timer.

    (as an aside…Your 45 + 15 method equates to 75% + 25% split. The pomodoro technique is 83% + 17% split.)

    I saw Brent Snook give a good talk at PresentationCamp UK, on blending GTD (Getting Things Done) with Pomodoro. His insight is that with the two together there’s four parts to the task management process:

    Capture & Schedule (GTD)

    Execute & Improve (Pomodoro)

    You can see his slides here:

    • gillian

      Hi Alan

      Now you come to mention it the “tomato shaped kitchen timer” rings a bell. No pun intended!

      Not sure I’d get much done in 5 minutes though. I like the 15 minutes “break” as it’s enough time to get something else done without being so long that I need to wind myself back up into work.

      Thanks for the links