Get More Things Done with Ultradian Sprint

Are you satisfied with your current level of productivity? I’m not. I’m always looking for ways to increase my productivity. The challenge, of course, is to get the most results within a certain period of time.

Recently I learned a technique to do exactly that called “ultradian sprint”. I read it in an article entitled Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time in Harvard Business Review:

Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another – stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance – increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time”. It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity. We refer to these work periods as “ultradian sprints.”

While the ideas of “do not multitask” and “block the time” are not new, I’m interested with the word sprint. It describes the level of intensity required in such work periods. You should not just walk or even run; you should sprint. If you make it a sprint instead of just running, you will be able to accomplish much more in the same amount of time.

While I’m still learning to do ultradian sprints, here are some tips I can share to get more things done with ultradian sprints:

1. Set a clear goal

A sprinter needs a clear finish line to run to. Similarly, doing ultradian sprint requires you to have a clear finish line. Set a goal for your work period. The goal acts as a finish line that helps your mind focus on only one point so that you can run as fast as possible.

2. Kill distractions

Can you imagine a sprinter who is being distracted by someone or something while running? In a race where 0.1 second makes a big difference, even the smallest distraction is not tolerable. That’s why you should kill distractions before you begin. Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Listen to music to tune out outside noise
    Of course, the music itself should not be distracting. Instrumental music could be good here.
  2. Unplug the Internet connection (unless your work is related to the Internet).
    Unplanned browsing is a major cause of black time.
  3. Tell your colleagues not to disturb you
  4. Switch your cell phone off or put it to silent mode
  5. Use distraction-free tools
    For instance, if you are writing you can use tools like Writeroom or Dark Room. They give you a blank screen with only your writing and nothing else.

When you are tempted to allow distractions, just remember: 0.1 second makes a big difference.

3. Set a timer

Using timer has a lot of benefits to increase productivity. In the case of ultradian sprint, timer helps you:

  1. Focus your attention
    Since you know that you work for only a limited amount of time, it will be easier for you to focus within that period.
  2. Create a sense of urgency.
    Using timer gives you a form of deadline that creates sense of urgency. This sense of urgency helps you increase your work intensity.

I use Cool Timer, but there is a lot of other timer software you can use.

4. Determine not to stop before the time is up

For me, this is where the difficulty lies. There is often a temptation to stop before the time is up because I feel that I can’t concentrate. Often I do stop in such moments, but recently I try not to stop.

I think the word “sprint” gives us a tip on how not to stop. If you sprint, your mind is fully focused on the finish line that you can’t possibly think of something else. Similarly, if you do ultradian sprint, your mind should be so focused that you can no longer think of something else, stopping included. If we still think that we want to stop, it means that we are not focused enough. Perhaps we just run but do not sprint.

5. Aim to accomplish as much as possible

The word sprint means you should run as fast as possible. It is not the time to relax and work at a comfortable pace. Instead, you should push yourself to accomplish as much as possible within that period.

6. Take true break

After you completed a work session, you should take true break. It means that you should not do something work-related like reading emails. Let your mind be fully relaxed. Depending on your preferences, you could meditate, lie on the bed, take a walk in the park, or chat with colleagues over non-work topics. During this break periods, try to clear your mind and refresh your energy so that you are ready for another sprint session. The break periods might not seem important, but the quality of your next sprint session very much depends on it. So not only you should have quality sprint, you should also have quality break.


Do you have tips to make ultradian sprint more effective? Or perhaps you have other ways to get more things done? I would love to hear them.


  1. Nice article.

    Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    Stanley Bronstein
    Attorney, CPA, Author, Blogger & Professional Speaker

  2. As a person with a very low productivity and heavy case of procrastination I’m always looking for tips on improving my productivity and I find this one of the better techniques around.

  3. Stanley,
    This is something I find useful myself. I’m glad to learn about it.

    Many people often procrastinate. I know I do.
    In my opinion, one benefit of ultradian sprint is it takes our limited amount of energy and tries to get the most out of it. It’s easier to overcome procrastination when we know that just need to put a limited amount of energy.

  4. I sometimes use the 10+2 Yahoo Widgets timer, depending on what I need to work on. It’s great for stuff that you really don’t want to do because it lets you work for 10 minutes, then take a 2 minute break. Then work for 10 minutes straight, break for 2, etc. Very effective.

    For a to-do list type of thing I actually use a nice journal book specifically for my to-dos. I write them down the night before (after writing in my journal) and limit them to 3-4 “Most important tasks” a la Zen Habits. It’s very satisfying and motivating to be able to flip back through old pages and see all the things I’ve gotten done, even if it’s just laundry or writing a letter.

  5. Ann,

    Using 10+2 method for things we don’t want to do is a nice trick. Having to work for only 10 minutes makes it easier for us to do the difficult tasks. I think I will try it.

    I also agree with the satisfaction of seeing what we have done. I put my to-do list on the computer, but I often leave some completed tasks there just to give me the satisfaction of seeing how much I’ve done. That increases my motivation.

  6. Hey thanks for the article. I tried it out just now and it worked really well for the novel I’m writing.
    I cut and pasted your list of the steps. Then I replaced your description with my plan for the session so I had an outline of my session before starting.
    I used Q10 to avoid distractions and used its alarm to set the time.
    Very nice!

  7. Dale,
    I just learned about Q10 from you and I gave it a try.
    I love it! It’s a perfect editor for writers and its features like timer and global target are ideal for ultradian sprint. Thanks for the tip!

  8. I like your great articles!
    Don’t ever think to stop writing!


  9. Slavi,
    Thanks for the encouragement! I love writing and haven’t thought of quitting… especially after what you said 🙂

  10. I just found this article, and I think it’s really great, I am gonna try it now! Thanks!

  11. Finja,
    Glad you like it. Good luck with your ultradian sprints!

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  13. Wow.. I use the Yahoo widgets counter and timers too! This is a great article. Thanks!

  14. wow you are such a great writer

    ive been reading your articles and they are just simply amazing!! you have made me realize so much and i am surely motivated!! 😀

    thanks a bunch~~~

  15. Kathy and Nonno,
    Thanks for stopping by!

    It’s my greatest pleasure if you find the articles here useful 🙂

  16. <3You’re very kind! Thank you! 🙂

  17. […] a sprinter rather than a marathoner. It means that you should have an intense work session (called ultradian sprint) for about 90 to 120 minutes followed by a shorter rest period. The rest period recovers your […]

  18. Thanks so much!! it really works for me! It’s a great help, you can’t imagine how grateful I am… 😀

  19. Francesca, glad to know it works for you 🙂

  20. […] October 11, 2009 · Filed under personal, work &#183 Tagged mind, productivity, tools, work Got this from the website: […]

  21. I have a really hard time focusing, always getting distracted, my mind just wonders a lot. I have so much to do but barely get anything done. any tips

  22. Hey , very insightful articles. I’d like to second a comment above: don’t stop writing 🙂

  23. Hello,
    Just wanted to thank you for posting this. Having just completed an assessment of my learning styles, I found it accurately described that focus and distractions are a big weakness of mine. Your post came up during research on how to overcome this and it’s really great and helps a lot.

  24. I just stopped here to thank u, ure a great person keep it up 🙂

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