The 90/20 rule: how to get 110 percent out of yourself and your day

Posted April 13

We all have the same 24 hours...but you can turn yours into more with this simple trick. (Deseret Photo)

You’ve likely heard of the 80/20 rule: 20% of the people do 80% of the work. But this is something altogether different. 80 + 20 = 100. 90 + 20 = 110. Like it or not, there are times when life requires 110% of what you have to give. The 90/20 rule is my formula for sustained, focused work over an extended period of time without sacrificing health or sanity.

Dr. Rona Schwarz, a Los Angeles-area psychologist, conducted her Master’s Degree in sleep psychology. She learned that the body renews itself in 90-minute cycles and that the cells themselves grow and regenerate in 90-minute cycles. The body also sleeps in 90-minute cycles. Based on this information, Dr. Schwarz has theorized that the body can only maintain optimum focus on a given task for those same 90 minutes, and then requires a 20-minute break to rejuvenate.

The 20 minutes of rest are important, because it keeps your body from falling into a deeper sleep. And it doesn't need to be sleep. Your break can be anything relaxing to you that gives your mind and your body a rest.

After learning of this theory, I put the 90/20 rule to the test. I am an artist, and one summer I faced the impossible task of creating 23 paintings in just under two weeks in order to meet a publication deadline. (I need to clarify here that up until this point, 23 paintings was more than I usually completed in an entire year.) I realized I had to create two paintings a day just to keep up.

In order to accomplish this, I simplified my life down to the barest details, kept up my exercise routine, enlisted a group of friends to pray for me, and set to work. I painted 12 hours a day, six days a week, working in these 90-minute cycles and taking 20 minute breaks in between (allowing a little longer for mealtimes). I went to bed at 11 o’clock every night. I never wore out, I never burned out, and I finished all 23 paintings in time. The day after I finished, I got up early in the morning and ran a 5K. That’s how I realized the 90/20 rule really works!

Although I do occasionally have to work this steadily when I’m preparing for an art show, I don’t always have looming paint deadlines. But what I do have, that all of us have, are other arduous tasks. I find this especially useful when I have something unpleasant to accomplish, like preparing the information for our tax returns. This takes me days on end. But following the 90/20 rule I can accomplish it without too much suffering.

In order to take full advantage, Dr. Schwarz recommends pre-selecting what you’ll do on your 20-minute break, so you don’t whittle away your valuable break time deciding what to do. Know in advance that you’re going to take a power nap, flip through a magazine, or walk the dog around the block. It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it’s giving your mind a change of scenery and a healthy opportunity to recharge. Sometimes my 20 minute “break” was folding laundry with a movie in the background. But it was enough to take my mind off the deadline so I could go back to my work re-energized and refocused.

The next time you face a big deadline, an arduous household chore, or anything else potentially taxing, consider using the 90/20 rule. Require yourself to perform 90 minutes of sustained, focused work, and then allow yourself a 20-minute break. To begin with, I used to set a timer every 90 minutes. Now my body and mind naturally seem to know when it’s time for a break. Honor that. Give yourself a rest. You’ll return to your work revitalized. You’ll be able to accomplish 110% of what you thought you were capable. You’ll be amazed.

Jana Winters Parkin is an artist, writer, and adjunct faculty at UVU. She co-hosts a popular podcast for women: "The Living Room" ( and spends every day possible exploring mountain trails. Contact her at


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