Many of us believe in the nose to the grindstone model. Keep working until it’s time to go home. The origin of that phrase “nose to the grindstone” lies in the practice of knife grinders in the 16th century. When they were sharpening blades, they would put their faces right next to the spinning stone to watch carefully as the steel was honed. As you can imagine, even 16th century knife grinders didn’t keep their faces near the sharpening stone for hours at a time. They finished with one knife, then stood up and took care of other duties before starting on the next. That’s the model I want you to follow in the future. Focus on one task at a time, work for a while on it, and then take a break. 

Often, we feel we should be productive all the time. That’s not humanly possible. Our brains are not like computers that you leave on it. Our brains pulse between activity and idleness. Allowing the brain to follow its natural rhythm is the best way to ensure your are creating an environment in which you can do your best work. 

Scientists have studied this extensively in recent years and found the ideal schedule is short bursts of very focused work, followed by regular breaks. Research shows that if you work without interruption for 50-57 minutes, then take a short break, you’ll get much more done and, because you’re more likely to engage the executive part of your brain while using this schedule, your work may be more insightful and creative. 

Surveys have determined that the average person can focus for a few minutes shy of an hour, but remember that you are an individual and not an average. It’s possible that your personal ideal is nearer to forty minutes or sixty minutes. This is something you’ll have to test and discover for yourself. 

One professor at MIT recommends working for 75 to 90 minutes before resting. That’s based on observation of musicians who are most productive when they practice for up to 90 minutes. It also happens to be the amount of time allotted for most college classes. I think that may be a little too long for most people. In fact, other experiments suggest the duration of uninterrupted work time should be significantly shorter. Several surveys done in offices found the most productive employees worked for 52 minutes and then took 17-minute breaks, repeated throughout the day. In other words, 50 minutes of focused work was treated as a sprint, and workers would 

need to get up and cool down a little before they ran again. I’ve found I need to take a break about every fifty minutes or so. 

You can split that time into smaller chunks, by the way, as long as you do one thing at a time. Spend twenty minutes on email, then call a co-worker for ten, and then work on spreadsheets for another twenty before you get up and walk away. The important thing is not how you use that focused time, but that you alternate work with rest as much as possible. 

Also, try not to use that break time to check in on social media or text people. Try not to direct your thoughts to any task at all, just for those few minutes. Neurologically, you’re trying to allow your brain to switch over to what’s called the default mode network, or DMN. The DMN becomes active when we allow our minds to wander. That’s when our brains sort through new things it’s learned or sifts through memories trying to put past events into context and analyze what’s happened. It also imagines the future, works to understand the minds of others and reflects on decisions. The DMN is the source of much of our creativity and innovation, since the brain actively reshuffles the puzzle pieces of our memories and emotions when it’s not directed to solve a problem or complete a task. 

In practice, your brain will only switch to default mode if you allow it to ramble without purpose. It’s not idleness, since you could be jogging or wiping down counters during this time. 

Psychologists say that mentally disengaging from work thoughts can help you naturally recover from stress and return to your work truly refreshed. If you choose to make a phone call, try not to talk about work. Take a breath and hit pause. Believe me, I totally understand how this might feel like a waste of time. Maybe at first you’ll just take 5-minute breaks. Maybe you sometimes have to rush from meeting to meeting without taking time in between. That’s all okay. Just remember that survey after survey shows the most productive employees are those who alternate between focused work and idle time. It may seem counter-intuitive, but taking regular breaks will make you more productive in the end. 


  • Celeste Headlee is an internationally recognized journalist and expert on conversation and communication. She's a regular guest host on NPR and American Public Media, and the co-host of the PBS series "Retro Report." Celeste is the bestselling author of "We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter" and her newest book "Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving." She serves as an advisory board member for and The Listen First Project and received the 2019 Media Changemaker Award. She lives in the DC area with her rescue dog, Samus.