I'd like to start this article on how to adopt a proven corporate productivity tool, "working in sprints," to fuel personal growth, with this disclaimer.
If you have one (or both) of the items listed below, then this article may not be very useful to you:
- Unlimited resources
- Unlimited time
For the rest of us, with time and resource constraints, I'd like to share some ideas on how to turn time and resource lemons into great lemonade. The emphasis here is on making the best use of the limited time and resources at our disposal to be more and do more without running ourselves ragged.
To this end, let's borrow a powerful productivity hack from the world of business—working in sprints—an idea that has become the darling of corporate project managers.
The idea of sprints
When you hear the word "sprint," the first thing that comes to mind is the colloquially widespread usage of the term sprint—a brief, fast-paced run covering a short distance.
Running sprints are hard to do. Track workout day is probably the least awaited part of an endurance athlete's weekly training schedule. That said, for runners looking for substantial improvements in running speed, cardiovascular capacity, and muscle endurance, no other form of training confers the same benefits that sprints do.
No pain, No gain.
The notion of going all-out for a limited amount of time caught the eye of project managers. It led to the development of the Agile methodology of project management, which uses sprints as its implementation framework.
A brief history of sprints in the world of business
This section contains a 20,000-foot view of how sprints came into being in the corporate world. Close to, but not quite yawn-inducing.
Why do you even need to know about this? Here's why: the same reasons that opened corporate eyes to sprints apply to individuals too—an essential tool to enhance productivity.
So, here's the brief story of how working in sprints sprinted (bad pun) to popularity.
As the 21st century dawned, with rapidly innovating technology, customers desired to get the latest and greatest products quickly (Iphone18 anyone?). The traditionally long-drawn-out ways to manage software product changes weren't quite working. The idea to release cycle was too long and couldn't keep up with growing demand and competition.
So, a bunch of clever heads got together in 2001 and introduced a new, iterative way to manage projects. This approach enabled companies to quickly release small changes rather than wait to bundle up several changes before shipping them out.
Agile, Scrums and Sprints
This new project management methodology was titled Agile. Agile has multiple frameworks within it, with scrum being a very popular one.
Scrum is derived from the concept of scrum in the game rugby—where players pack closely with their heads down to get possession of the ball. Project management scrums are similar—a way to organize teams of people and figuratively focus their heads together to get their version of the ball.
A scrum team gets to work through Sprints—short, time-boxed durations to complete a set of tasks.
Using sprints effectively, companies demonstrate their agility to respond to market demand and feedback by turning over products and releases efficiently. This not only increases a company's bottom-line but also manages to keep the company relevant and the customer engaged and happy.
Repurposing sprints for personal productivity
As you can see, the philosophy behind working in sprints makes sense not just for people in business but even for us individuals trying to better our personal lives.
I'd like to use this analogy: attempting to move an imposing mountain of rocks from A to B at once is a scary proposition. Moving a few stones at a time will eventually get you there.
By definition, sprints are simply a short, but more importantly, time-bound, duration during which you complete a set amount of work.
For instance, you could set a timer to go off in twenty minutes and start to clean your workspace. You can dust, clean shelves, get rid of clutter, etc., during that time. And when the timer goes off, you get to stop. Guilt-free. You're then free to go back to doomscrolling on your phone. What's not to love about that?
Of the myriad reasons why working in sprints can be helpful, two stand out in particular.
1. Our (in)ability to focus for long periods
We all acknowledge that our brains can focus on a task only for a limited amount of time before getting tired, bored, or distracted. Sprints allow us to stay well within the horizon of effective focus.
The web is full of theories of how we are wired to work in 90-minute cycles before needing a break; beyond the 90 minutes, our ability to stay focused on a task wanes. These theories cite the concept of ultradian rhythms.
While most of us are familiar with or at least have heard the term circadian rhythm, the ultradian rhythm is a derivative.
These "rhythms" are virtually internal biological clocks that most plants and animals (including us humans) operate on. Circadian rhythms are cycles that occur once a day, whereas ultradian rhythms (the word ultradian means short-day) are intra-day cycles that occur multiple times within 24 hours. (Infradian rhythms, on the other hand, occur in cycles that are longer than a day.)
These rhythmic cycles are wired in our nervous systems and are not governed by the external clock. As an illustration, a famous experiment showed how a plant opened and closed its leaves at precisely the same time each day regardless of whether it was exposed to the sun or tucked away inside a dark box.
How biological rhythms affect us
The most widely studied ultradian rhythm is sleep cycles—how we sleep in 90-minute cycles oscillating between REM and NREM states. After 90 minutes, there is an inherent period of possible "wakefulness" before we head back into the next sleep cycle.
While there is anecdotal evidence, there also happens to be a lot of creative appropriation of research to support the idea that performance and productivity follow 90-minute cycles. (While there is published research showing the effect of ultradian rhythms on sleep cycles, there is no peer-reviewed literature to prove its effect on productivity, per se.)
That said, we can all agree that we are beings essentially controlled by biological cycles. Everything happens quite rhythmically—when we feel hungry (leptin-glucose spikes), how often we blink, the frequency of our heartbeats, etc.
Therefore, it isn't a stretch (and we can see anecdotal evidence) to assume that our focus and concentration also follow similar cycles. We can only work efficiently on a task for so long before the focus cycle is broken and energy resources are depleted.
Long story short, the bottom line is this:
Working in sprints helps us honor our internal systems' rhythmic nature, giving us a chance to succeed in our chosen endeavors.
The second significant advantage of sprints is to address the problem of getting overwhelmed. This is especially true if the statement below resonates with you:
I look at what I need to do, and then I take a nap
We tend to get overwhelmed when confronted with large undertakings or massive changes. Many projects don't see the light of day simply because they are too overwhelming even to get started on. Sometimes we lack motivation, but at other times it's the scale of the changes we're attempting that can be overwhelming.
As stated earlier, Agile project management was borne out of a need to ship faster. Working in sprints allows you to limit the number of variables and factors you have to consider to get something done.
Key Sprint How-To's
Hopefully you are convinced about working in sprints. Here's how to actually do it:
The process itself is straightforward. Set a timer for however long you want to work; then focus entirely on getting the work done without any distractions.
Depending on what you're trying to accomplish, a sprint can vary from 20 minutes to 90 minutes in length. Beyond that, you'll need a break.
How many sprints
If you want to be a jack of all trades, it's quite acceptable to have your day split into multiple little sprints to do different things. You can spend 20-minute chunks of time practicing music, reading, working on the garden, calling a friend, etc., with short breaks between activities.
However, if your project ultimately is to build an equivalent of the Sydney Opera House or the Taj Mahal, you may want to be still working in sprints but focus on one action.
The general rule of thumb is to work for 90 minutes at most and then take a break. The length of the break can vary depending on your situation, but the ideal is 20 minutes. That may not be feasible in some cases, but scheduling rest and renewal periods are essential.
Sprints - Factors to consider
There a few factors that will determine how much success you have when working in sprints.
Successful sprints require a degree of planning. Before you set the timer, you need to be clear about what you're trying to accomplish. This planning needs to occur before the start of the sprint.
Eliminate digital distractions
With sprints, you need to act like you're entering an A-list celebrity's party. A-list hosts typically require guests to not just check in their coats and hats but their digital devices too to protect the hosts from Page 3 repercussions.
Similarly, before you set your sprint timer, device-free is the way to go. You should turn off your phone or other internet-accessible devices, or at least find a way to make them distraction-free (by silencing notifications, for example).
Don't underestimate this step.
Don't break the flow
If you start a task and then realize a few minutes in, you need to consult someone else or get an opinion, then table that task for the time being but move on to something else. Now is not the time for analysis-paralysis.
Sprints are the time to do not plan.
Course-correct, if needed
The beauty of working in sprints is that you're usually not too far into something before you realize you're heading down the wrong path. The short cycles lead to timely feedback loops that allow you to easily course-correct if you think something isn't working.
In the end
Work expands to fill time
Working in sprints is an ideal way to create an inherent time pressure to stay focused and get stuff done. For instance, if you just choose to spend 15 minutes each day for a month cleaning, there is no need to fear the closet that hasn't been touched since Kennedy was assassinated.
There are simply four steps you need to know and do.
Engage. Rest. Renew. Repeat.
You'll be amazed at how much you can get done.
Little drops of water make the mighty ocean.