The power of bursts and breaks

When it comes to time management, these tools can help you structure your work more smartly for recovery.
The power of bursts and breaks

Near the end of the twentieth century, behavioral scientist K. Anders Ericsson set out to study what made prodigious performers—classical pianists and visual artists, champion chess players and distinguished surgeons—exemplary. Was brilliance born, he wondered, or made?

Armed with data on the behavior of these performers, Ericsson aimed to become an expert on experts. And here’s what he found: Gaining mastery wasn’t simply about the amount of time one put into practice (as the 10,000-hour rule might suggest), but the ways in which they structured that practice. Great performers tended to practice in bursts, with complete attention concentrated in to 60- to 90-minute periods, then took intentional breaks for rest and recovery. Ericsson’s findings echo that of interval training, the running technique that builds speed and endurance by breaking sprints into intense blocks and brief breaks.

The findings of these powerful performers—and the intervals they took for rest—also lend a lesson to how we structure our work. For all we talk about managing our time, we leave another component out of the conversation: Managing our energy. Think about projects you find most fulfilling, or the to-dos that give you an energy boost. How can you shift your calendar to maximize the energy you have to bring to them?

To do that, we need to think about not just how we work, but how we recover. With this shift in attention, we can seek out systems that help us become more intentional about how we put our time together—and leave ourselves with more verve to tackle the projects we’re excited about.


You might be afraid to find out exactly how much energy you’re ditching to tasks that drain you, or unsure how to rechannel it into the ones that give you a boost. Quartz at Work editor Anna Oakes has three favorite tools to get started:

🥧 The time pie

🧱 Calendar-blocking

🏗 Calendar-stacking

In combination, these tactics can help you assess how you spend your tasks—and how your tasks leave you spent. From there, you can move them into methods that help you regain your verve.


What it is: Most of us aren’t fully aware of how much time tasks are taking from our energy banks. Enter the time pie, a simple analysis of how you’re spending your time. With a time pie, you can group your time into the portions that count, then analyze how big each slice is.

Test the tool: To slice up a time pie, you’ll track your tasks for a week or two. Mark how you’re spending your workday: You might test out an automated app like the free Toggl, software that integrates with project management software like HourStack, or the tried-and-true paper method.

Much like an expense analysis, you’ll identify and classify work that you typically do just in large categories—like ideation time, feedback sessions, or email catch-up and other administrative tasks—and sort your time in as you go. 30-minute increments work well. After your tracking period is up, ask yourself:

  • What did I learn?
  • What do I need to keep doing, but could do it better?
  • What needs to come off my plate?
  • What processes can I tighten up, and which should I ask for support on?


What it is: With the understanding of how you slice your time pie, you’ll commit time on your calendar for its most important pieces. Calendar blocks are ideally sixty to ninety-minute sessions that allow you to flow through the most work, one category at a time.

Test the tool: Once you’ve seen what tasks take up most space in your time pie, put these sessions for large categories and projects on your calendar. (And block more time than you think you’ll need: for example, you can put in three 90-minute blocks per day, knowing you can sacrifice one; the other will remain to ensure you’re moving large projects forward.)

Fill those tasks in by day or week depending on what that time pie says, and name them so you hone your energy in on that focus. And during the block, make an agreement with yourself to turn off notifications and email. Mark yourself away across work platforms—or better yet, change your status to “Deep work 🧠.”


What it is: In the mid-1990s, two experimental psychologists set out to find what gets dropped as we move between tasks. Here’s what they found: When we switch between two tasks, even predictably, we’ll be slower than when we stay on the same one. It’s now known as the switching cost. 

Instead of a switch, try a stack. Calendar-stacking is a tactic in which you group similar activities together; by avoiding the mires of multitasking, you’ll save the energy that we normally drop by switching.

Test the tool: Group your day by the large slices of your time pie. If you manage a large team, for example, you might schedule your weekly one-on-ones in two stacks, with an early-week morning session for morning people or those who front-loaded their weeks, and a mid-week afternoon session for those who are more energized later in the day or tend to have more to discuss later in the week.

You can also pair it with calendar-blocking, where you’ll focus on 90-minute blocks for big-ticket tasks, but add shorter windows for tinier to-dos. Consider two half-hour stacks to check and organize email each day, or a fifteen-minute stack to share something a work project on social media. With uninterrupted time, you can slot the discretionary tasks, and sacrifice less of your energy on them.


When you reassess how you spend your tasks—and how your tasks leave you spent—you can become more intentional about how you put your time together. And with that, you’ll leave yourself energized for big-picture passions and the projects that leave you feeling more boosted than before.


🏖 To get control of your calendar, try a time oasis 

🪜 Try this 5-step exercise to clear your calendar for spring

🚧 How to set healthy boundaries at work

💼 Does your team need a meeting reset?

💡 When it comes to being successful, time management is more important than having great ideas


Send questions, comments, and stories of time-tackling to This edition of The Memo was written by Anna Oakes and Gabriela Riccardi.