The Science of Productivity

Our society is suffering from an epidemic of unproductivity.

A survey conducted by Microsoft found that most people are unproductive at work a whopping 17 hours per week out of an average 45 hour work week.

With so many unproductive hours it’s no wonder people struggle to achieve their goals. Here are seven action-packed strategies to help you become more productive.

#1: Overcome the Temptation of Distractions

Your brain is wired to love distractions. Scientists found that every time you take in new information, your brain releases a flood of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter.

This is why social media is so addictive. Every time you logon, your brain takes in stories, facts, and images it has never seen before and the exciting rush of dopamine makes you crave more.

It’s difficult to fight your brain’s natural dopamine rush so, the most effective way to be more productive is limit your exposure to distractions.

Note the ways you get distracted most often – talking to coworkers, scrolling through twitter, checking email, etc. – and take action to block your access to those distractions.

  • Action Step: If you struggle with online distractions, use an app like Cold Turkey that prevents you from visiting unproductive sites during your work hours.
  • Action Step: Are you distracted by people? Politely ask them to not talk to you during times set aside for productivity.

#2: Harness Your Body’s Natural Rhythms

In Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, Jennifer Ackerman explains that the hormones we need to feel productive are released based on circadian rhythms – natural cycles our bodies go through to carry out daily functions.

Her research shows that our brains are most alert 2.5 – 4 hours after waking up. This is the time of day that your brain is equipped with the most productivity-related hormones to helps you solve problems, generate ideas, and plow through meticulous work.

If you struggle to get started and stay focused on big projects, don’t wait to work on them. Take advantage of your body’s peak hours of the day.

  • Action Step: Maximize your daily productivity by doing your most challenging tasks 2.5 – 4 hours after waking up.

#3: Put Your Most Valuable Work First

Productivity is about excelling at the tasks that generate the most value not doing the most tasks.

Research conducted by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson revealed that the most successful musicians don’t practice more often than their peers. Rather, they practice more deliberately.

What’s the difference? Instead of practicing every piece, they practice only the parts of their performances that are the most challenging. By investing their energy into mastering their most important work, they outperform their peers.Instead of trying to cross every little thing off your to-do list, you’ll produce more and better work if you prioritize.

  • Action Step: Identify your work that generates the most value and spend most of your time working on it.

#4: Your Secret to Beating Procrastination

Have you noticed how the most time-consuming projects are the most difficult to start? You know they take days, if not weeks, to complete and yet you let time go by. Next thing you know, it’s two days until the deadline and you’re struggling to finish.

It turns out there’s a psychological reason for why we procrastinate. According to the researcher Janet Polivy, our brains are overwhelmed by big, complicated projects, prompting us to avoid working on them.

Big projects are inevitable. But, they don’t have to be complicated. You can increase your productivity by breaking up your large assignments into small, unintimidating tasks. Once you’ve eliminated your brain’s stress trigger, being productive is a breeze.

  • Action Step: Break up any big projects you have into easily accomplished steps.

#5: Take Strategic Breaks

The true value of taking breaks lies in their timing and what you do during them. A study conducted by the US Army Research Institute discovered that people had better focus and and energy for longer periods of time when they worked for 90 minutes followed by 15-20 minute breaks.

90 minutes is the magic number for productivity because it matches your bodies natural rhythms of rest and alertness.

What you do during your breaks is just as important to your productivity levels. While it’s tempting to jump on twitter or watch funny YouTube videos, you can maximize your breaks by doing activities that replenish your body and mind such as going for a walk, eating a healthy snack, or talking to a colleague.

  • Action Step: Start working in 90 minute blocks followed by mind-boosting breaks.

#6: Replace Bad Habits with Better Habits

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg argues that it’s almost impossible to stop bad habits, but what you can do is replace them.

How? Figure out what triggers your bad habit and find a productive replacement that gives you the same reward you get from the bad habit.

For example, if you have a bad habit of checking social media at work, ask yourself “Why do I do this?” Is it because you’re bored and looking for entertainment? Are you trying to stay connected to your friends and family?

If you check social media when you’re bored, you can replace the habit by switching gears to work on a more stimulating activity. This way, you get a break from the boring task while continuing to work.

  • Action Step: Identify your bad habit triggers and find productive replacements.

#7: Adopt the Growth Mindset

How you view productivity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, having a growth mindset is critical for developing new skills.

With the growth mindset, you believe abilities, such as being highly productive, must be learned over time and that setbacks are part of the process, not a sign of failure. Because you believe you can improve, you commit to doing the hard work of building better habits.

  • Action Step: Adopt the growth mindset and start learning new strategies and skills.
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