At its heart, productivity is about two things:
- Focus. Your ability to focus on key work is what will give you the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day. Without focus, you’ll find that your work has a “scattered” feel to it.
- Getting away from clutter. You can work eight hours a day, sure. But unless those hours are spent on the most worthwhile activities, you’re still just spinning your wheels.
There’s just one problem. How do you know the difference between “spinning your wheels” and a real, productive workday? Let’s look at what the studies say about productivity, and what you can take away from the real science of the everyday productivity tip:
#1: Reward Yourself While Doing the Task
There’s an old saying in productivity circles: “rewards train behavior. Punishment untrains it.”
We won’t take on the “punishment” issue for now, but let’s focus on the idea that rewards help train behavior. Specifically, productive behavior. Do they really generate results?
One study found that to be the case. In the study, researchers wanted to see if they could get college-aged kids to go to the gym more often. They split the groups into three. One group received an iPod with audiobooks they could only listen to at the gym. Another group received audiobooks for free, where they could listen anywhere. The third group was the control group, rewarded with only a gift certificate.
What were the results? The group that could only access rewards while at the gym outperformed both groups and attended the gym more often.
Key takeaway: Don’t give yourself a reward long after you perform the desired behavior. Reward yourself while performing the behavior you want to keep consistent. This helps you associate pleasure with discipline and can boost results as much as 20+% over regular rewards.
#2: Health is Wealth—Especially When it Comes to Productivity
There’s another old saying when it comes to productivity: health is wealth. And for many of us, that means that everything from the stress of the commute to how we handle big projects will be affected by our overall sense of well-being and energy. That connection makes sense.
But does the saying actually hold up in the face of the evidence?
One study found this to be the case. The study examined companies with employee-participation wellness programs, looking at the productivity associated with cooperation with these programs. After looking at these associations, they concluded: “Participating in health promotion programs can help improve productivity levels among employees and save money for their employers.”
In other words, better health did become more money, especially from a productivity standpoint.
What does this mean practically? The study found that employees who participated in the health programs would save approximately $350 per year, which puts a dollar amount on how much a program like this might be worth. In other words, the study said, it equates to about 10 hours of more productive time per year. That might sound like a small amount, but
Key takeaway: Investing in health has a demonstrable effect on productivity, especially at the company-wide level.
Further reading: Do Wellness Programs Make Employees More Productive? - Entrepreneur
#3: Noise-Cancelling Headphones Might Work—But Maybe Not Music
It’s always important to block out distractions. Distractions cost millions of dollars every year, and three out of four people admit to feeling consistently distracted at their job.
But according to the Wall Street Journal, the noise-canceling benefits of a pair of headphones might not be worth the distraction of listening to music.
According to Robert Desimone, a brain researcher at MIT, the idea that listening to music helps improve focus is largely bunk, says the article. In fact, listening to music with lyrics can actually lower concentration. In that case, some music may even be considered a contributor to distraction, and not a way to enhance it. “In separate research, listening to hip-hop music was linked to a significant reduction in reading-test scores, based on a study of 133 adults published in 2010 in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” writes the Wall Street Journal.
What’s the solution? Avoiding the “over-taxing” of the verbal-processing regions of the brain.
Key takeaway: Noise-cancellation can have distraction-lessening effects, but not when paired with music that contains lyrics. The lyrics tend to bring our focus away from the work. For people who want to focus with some music, it’s better to choose something that’s intentionally less distracting, like music without lyrics or even music created for video games, which is intended not to distract from the main storyline.
#4: Why the “To-Do” List Has Such a Good Reputation
The “to-do” list is a productivity technique so ubiquitous that many people don’t even consider it a productivity technique anymore; it’s just a regular part of life. But the truth is, writing things down in a to-do list does show powerful effects on productivity.
According to the Journal of Graduate Medical Education, the effectiveness of the “to-do” list all comes back to something known as the Zeigarnik Effect. But this might not be what you think. The Zeigarnik Effect actually refers to how much energy we put towards problems that remain unsolved.
Consider how good you feel after you’ve cleaned a room. There is no longer that impending feeling of “doom” because of all the papers you have to organize, the furniture you have to dust, the floor you have to vacuum. Your mind is clear and open. You’re ready to work.
That’s exactly what the to-do list can help accomplish. Which means that it’s probably a good idea to approach it with a fresh perspective:
- Use the to-do list to tackle nagging problems. The more your to-do list takes a “load off” your mind, the more you get your mind primed for productive, distraction-free work.
- Tackle what you can. You also have to make sure that you don’t spend too much energy clearing out time just so you can be more productive. Find ways to delegate some of your problems out from your to-do list so you can have the feeling of the tasks being completed, but without requiring any extra energy from you.
Key takeaway: The to-do list is great for productivity—but not because of what you think. Sure, it’s a great way to plan
#5: People Feel Better When They Work at What They’re Good At
Ever work on a project that was right “up your alley”? You probably noticed a sense of invigoration because of it.
It’s not a coincidence. A study found that people who tend to get to carry out activities that are closely related to their strengths tend to have more positive experiences at work.
It’s a simple productivity tip: when people can work to their own strengths, they’ll be more productive. People who work at the skills they enjoy tend to feel happier and more fulfilled at work. More people who did so reported smiling, laughing, and having enough energy to get their daily tasks finished.
Key takeaway: If you don’t want to do something, you don’t always have to. You can delegate tasks to a virtual assistant—and it may be more productive to do so.
#6: Clutter Has a Real Impact on Your Sense of Well-Being
Need another reason to declutter your home or your workspace? It’s about more than having a clean and tidy atmosphere.
The Journal of Environmental Psychology noted that the presence of clutter had a clear impact on how people self-report their feelings of well-being. To declutter is, essentially, to improve the sense of “meaning, belonging, and identify.”
In other words, the psychological impact of clutter goes far beyond having a mess on your desk. It will affect your entire perception of work and your environment.
Additionally, it wasn’t enough to declutter. Ever notice how people like to personalize their offices and cubicles? There’s a psychological reason behind why this may be effective. One key finding was that “Attachment to one’s physical, external environment reinforces positive feelings about one’s private home.”
Key takeaway: Clutter has an adverse effect on how you perceive your own workspace, while adding items that have personal meaning—such as photographs of family—have a positive impact. This can lead to less stress and more feelings of ownership and well-being. This is especially relevant for anyone working from home who wants to make sure that their home space feels like an efficient workspace or home office as well.
#7: Time Management Isn’t About Creating More Work
In one study, researchers noted the importance of time. It’s not that productive people are able to more time out of their day. After all, we all have 24 hours in a day. More productive people are able to focus on time management. “The key to reaching success in life is to concentrate on effective time management,” said one study on nursing students in Tehran.
According to the study, the four skills essential in proper time management are:
- Determining the important tasks (Planning)
- Goal setting
- Prioritizing goals and activities
- Effective communication and delegation
The results? The mere act of improved time management was shown to improve academic results, reduce stress, increase creativity, and improve efficiency. In other words, if you can prioritize your tasks effectively, you can expect that simple task to have far-ranging effects in every other aspect of your life.
Key takeaway: Simply choosing the most productive tasks to work on—and which to delegate—can have wide-ranging effects on everything else you do, including reducing stress and increasing creativity.
#8: You Don’t Have to Make Major Changes to Boost Productivity
It’s tempting to look at these studies, get inspired, and make massive changes to overhaul your productivity. But will this really lead to lasting change? According to the American Psychological Association, that may not be necessary. They recommend that if you want a lot of time, or less time devoted to distractions, you can make some small, incremental changes:
- Taking a few minutes of rest from distractions. Phones and other distractions tend to get in our way so much, according to the APA, that some people have trouble concentrating for six minutes! Frequent breaks away from distractions like phones help us recalibrate our attention span.
- Writing goals. The simple act of putting a pen to paper has a certain magic to it. For many people, that might be as simple as a to do list. For others, it means not having to keep a tab to Twitter or Slack open, but instead looking at something real, in their hands, and changing the way they perceive their goals.
Other Small Habits to Consider:
- Setting regular morning routines to help beat procrastination (this can be particularly helpful during the covid-19 pandemic when many of us are working in different setups and sometimes non-ideal setups as well, whether with children at home, in make-shift home offices, or with family members around who normally are not)
- Limiting time on social media (whether LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook & Instagram) to focus on work that needs doing, or giving designated social media breaks during the day
- Avoiding multitasking: some people believe they're "great at multitasking", however, it's widely believed that multitasking actually diminishes productivity, and instead greater focus helps bring about greater results. We've previously covered concepts such as the pomodoro technique which recommends instead, breaking your day into 20-30 minute intervals where the amount of time dedicated to any one task is blocked accordingly. This can also help if you're working to limit social media time to certain blocks in the day.
The key takeaway from all of this? Building more productivity means emphasizing what really works, and what the psychological studies actually prove. And there may be more paths to productivity than you ever imagined. Simply implement a few of these strategies into your daily life and you’ll have scientifically proven ways to improve your time management skills.