Are you struggling with your productivity? Do you want to be more productive and happy at work?
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 the results they want.
We wanted to know how people like you and me can reach extraordinary levels of productivity and be happier while you work. So, we turned to productivity science to find out.
Here are some action-packed strategies to help you become more productive.
#1: Use Your Rhythms to Be More Productive
The time at which you choose to perform a task is incredibly important. Not all times are created equal. Think about your typical daily and weekly tasks and make a basic list. Mine are:
- Writing articles
- Filming videos
- Brainstorming / Strategizing
- Team Calls
- Podcast + Media Interviews
Now think about when you do best at these tasks. For example, I used to do all of my email first thing in the morning. Then I found this fascinating research. In Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body, 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 body releases the most brain power hormones to help you to solve problems, generate ideas and plow through meticulous work.
I was wasting all this good juice! I was most fresh in the morning, and didn’t really need that energy for silly emails. I was much better off spending my tired afternoons corralling emails and putting my morning juice into writing and strategizing.
- Look at your tasks and assign them ideal times. You also might think about what day of the week is best. For example, I find team meetings on Monday are not nearly as productive because not enough of the week has happened to review. After you have broken down tasks and times, begin shuffling your schedule to accommodate.
- A fun tool called Inbox Pause can help prevent distraction by temporarily keeping incoming emails from reaching your inbox!
- The morning is also a good time to brainstorm with teams. There’s a crazy phenomenon called the “morning morality effect” where research has shown that a person tends to have strong moral awareness and self-control in the morning, but this decreases as the day goes on. This is thought to happen because our capacity for self-control can start deteriorating throughout the day as we make more and more decisions. With this being said, try to make all ethical and strategic judgments with your team and colleagues in the morning, while everyone’s mind and moral awareness is heightened.
#2: Learn to Work & Read Faster
One of the best investments I ever made was learning how to speed read. The summer before my freshman year of college, I was sitting with a family friend who I admired very much. I asked her if there was anything I should be doing before college to be more successful. She didn’t hesitate to answer:
“Learn to speed-read. It will save you hundreds of hours of time over the years.”
She was right. I spent a few weeks learning to speed-read, and I always was done with my reading before my fellow students AND I credit my speed-reading for my being to double-major at Emory. There is no way I would have had the time otherwise.
Some skills you can learn will give you back time. Find these and hone them.
These might take investing some time up-front, but they will return time in the future.
Action Steps: Here are some easy ideas to speed up your life and be more productive.
- Learn Keyboard Shortcuts — for Gmail, for Windows, for Mac.
- Use our awesome guide to speed reading like a champ.
- Reorganize your desktop and homescreen on your phone based on time. What are the apps and docs you need most often?
- Speed Up Your Mouse — seems small, but I think I save an hour a week!
#3: The Weirdest Productivity Tip You’ll Hear Today
There is nothing we love more here at Science of People than quirky science. And this one definitely counts…Studies show that chewing gum can increase your productivity:
Chewing gum has incredible effects:
- Speeds up performance. Chewing gum has been found to speed up your reaction time by up to 10 percent.
- Boosts cognitive abilities. Psychologists at St. Lawrence University conducted an experiment with more than 150 students to study the effects of chewing gum on cognitive abilities. Students who were given gum to chew prior to taking a series of tests scored higher than those who chewed gum during the tests or not at all. The psychologists believe this increase in performance is because chewing arouses the brain, making people more prepared to think through complex problems.
- Combats sleepiness. Another study conducted by Coventry University found that participants who chewed gum during the day reported they felt less sleepy. Physiological tests confirmed that chewing gum does in fact make your body more alert. In laboratory testing, participants who chewed gum while multitasking had lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and rated their feelings of stress and anxiety lower than when they did not chew gum.
- Makes you more charismatic?! In 2013, Argentine chewing gum company Beldent set up several pairs of identical twins as pieces in an art exhibit and asked visitors questions about their social lives, such as “Which one is more popular?” The only difference? One twin was chewing gum. Remarkably, the twin who chewed gum was viewed 73 percent more positively. Talk about an easy way to make a great first impression! Check out this crazy experiment:
Action Step: Set up a chewing gum buffet at your desk. Tap it when you need a boost and offer it to officemates and colleagues when they look sleepy!
#4: Use A Domino to Be More Productive At Work
Productivity is also about choosing your tasks wisely. At the start of every day and every week, identify your domino. What’s a domino? A domino is the one task that has the greatest impact on your goals. Then you can ease the other tasks on your list. Think about hitting that one domino in a line to set off a cascade of action. You want that for your to-do list.
Chosen correctly, that one perfect task will set off a domino effect that leads you to accomplishing more than you thought you possibly could derive from a single action. Another way to think about this is with the Pareto Principle.
The Pareto Principle is simple: different activities generate different amounts of value using the same quantities of time and resources. This principle was created by an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, and it is the basis for what is popularly known now as the 80/20 rule. It’s the idea that approximately 20 percent of what we do (our most important tasks) generates about 80 percent of the value in our lives. Your domino should fall into the 20 percent of high-impact activity.
Action Step: Identify the 20 percent of your tasks that generate most of the value in your life and invest your best energy in them. Doing so will require that you set boundaries and eliminate tasks that don’t add any value – this includes learning how to say no.
#5: Make a Better To-Do List
There is a HUGE mistake people make with their to-do lists and it DESTROYS productivity. They assign tasks based on time, not talent. I have a new way of tackling your to-do list.
The key to productivity is hitting your best work. Watch the video and make a list of your A work, B work, C work, D work and F work. Now set time re-assigning duties based on skills, not time!
#6: Use Productive Self-Talk
What you do before you start your tasks may be just as important for productivity than how you do your tasks. Recent research has worked to uncover which of the three most common prep techniques work best: self-talk, imagery or “if-then” planning.
- Self-talk includes saying things such as, “I am ready for this” or “I will be successful today”.
- Imagery is when you imagine yourself doing something in a successful way, whether it is tackling your to-do list, winning that big promotion or being highly efficient.
- “If-then” planning is making a plan to act a certain way. For example: “If I can be productive for the rest of the day, then I can enjoy the long weekend ahead.”
Which do you think works best? More than 44,000 participants took part in this study, all competing in an online game. Researchers divided them into twelve groups and used the three motivation techniques to assess their success. They found self-talk was the most powerful motivational technique! Self-talk was associated with faster performance, higher arousal, and greater effort put into the online competition.
When you believe that you’re going to succeed and believe that the strategies you’re using to reach your goals are effective, you actually do succeed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Before you even get started on your to-do list, your projects, or your tasks, talk yourself up. Here are some ideas:
- I am ready for this.
- I am going to rock this task.
- I feel successful today.
- I got this!
- Let’s do this, and let’s do it well.
#7: Work with Chunks
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 precious time go by. Next thing you know, it’s two days until the deadline and you’re freaking out to finish.
It turns out there’s a psychological reason for why we procrastinate on big projects. According to researcher Janet Polivy, our brains are overwhelmed by big, complicated projects, prompting us to avoid working on them.
Unfortunately, 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, non-intimidating tasks. Once you’ve eliminated your brain’s stress trigger, being productive is a breeze. The key is keeping each task to 20 minutes or less under. Anything more than 20 minutes, and it will be harder to fit into a day.
- Break up any big projects you have into 20-minute tasks.
- Need more willpower? Check out our science-based guide for improving your willpower.
#8: Create a Break List
A study conducted by the US Army Research Institute discovered that people had better focus and energy for longer periods of time when they worked for 90 minutes followed by 15-20 minute breaks. It turns out 90 minutes is the magic number for productivity because it matches your body’s 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. I highly recommend creating a “break list.”
A “break list” is a list of short, pleasurable activities to give yourself breaks throughout the day to avoid burnout and to motivate yourself to get more done. You can keep track of your lists by writing them down on a notepad, or if you find that apps or electronic reminders work best for you, Wunderlist is a great app to keep track of it all. The key is to pick restorative tasks — don’t check social media unless it fuels you.
Some other great break ideas:
- Call a funny friend.
- Change up your environment — work from a coffee shop, sit in the park to read, try a new breakroom.
- Watch educational videos.
- Do a laughter lunch with our funny YouTube playlist.
- Write out your thoughts in a work journal.
- Go outside.
- Take up a new hobby! This is the time to do something you’ve always wanted to do–work in the community garden, join a book club, take cooking or kickboxing classes. These are perfect, post-work distractions to do something you love and to reduce your stress.
- Self-educate. Read a new business book in your industry or try something totally different to learn about a new topic.
Special Note: If you struggle with online distractions, use an app such as Cold Turkey that prevents you from visiting unproductive sites during your work hours.
#9: Be Happy and Productive at Work with Mindfulness
Mindfulness is defined as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
Practicing mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety by focusing on what we’re experiencing in the moment, instead of keeping our worries and dreads in the forefront of our attention.
While at work, instead of focusing on upcoming deadlines or how much time you have until your break, direct your attention to the rhythm of your fingertips typing on your keyboard or how your slow, even breaths calm your body before you lead a presentation. Stop trying to multi-task, and instead, take care of one task at a time and be fully aware of all that your mind and body is doing for you to get it all done.
Insider Tip: One unique way to find mental zen is to break out coloring books for adults! One study found that simply coloring in shapes can reduce anxiety. My friend, Dr. Samantha Brody, even has created free adult coloring pages that you can download and print out. I loved coloring as a kid, and it’s even better as an adult.
#10: Get a Great Morning and Evening Routine
I believe the best way to set yourself up for success on a daily basis is to bookend your day with two great routines:
Check out our systematic approach to setting these up for yourself. Whether you are a morning or evening person, these routines will help you be more productive throughout the day.
#11: Hack Your Productivity Habits
Habits are powerful productivity tools because they drastically can reduce the time and effort we have to invest in our routine responsibilities. No one has unlimited willpower. Numerous studies have shown that willpower is like a muscle. The more of it you use, the more worn out you become. Building habits reduces your dependency on your willpower levels because it limits the amount of decisions you need to make to do the things that make you successful.
Read our full guide on building habits that last and breaking bad ones here.
#12: Reframe Your Stress
According to the Global Organization for Stress, at least 60 percent of working adults in major global economies are stressed. That number is even higher in countries such as Australia, where an estimated 91 percent of citizens are stressed out about some area of their lives, and America, where it’s estimated that, at any given time, 75 percent of the population is experiencing high levels of stress.
But what if stress itself isn’t the problem?
Research from The Upside of Stress by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has found that the only people who experience the lasting, harmful effects of stress are those who believe that their stress is hurting them; people who don’t think stress is a bad thing are able to deal with their problems symptom-free. When handled properly, stress can be one your greatest assets for boosting productivity and performance in challenging situations.
Read more on how to turn your stress into your ally.
#13: Use Science-Based Goal Setting
We can’t talk about productivity without talking about your goals. Setting goals is a unique science. I created a process I use to set my big, bold goals and would love to teach you the formula. I use this goal-setting strategy once a year for a big goal review and then monthly to check on my progress.
#14: Find Your One Thing
Productivity is about focus. Authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan have found that the key to focus is having just one thing. Here are the questions that should be driving your actions and decisions:
- What is the one thing that you are the most passionate about?
- What’s the one most important thing on your to-do list right now?
- What’s the one thing you could be doing that would have the greatest effect on all of your goals?
If you want to take this to the next productivity level, you can anchor yourself in:
- Your one daily thing: What’s the one thing I need to excel at today?
- Your one weekly thing: What’s the one thing I need to excel at this week?
- Your one monthly thing: What’s the one thing I need to excel at this month?
- Your one yearly thing: What’s the one thing I need to excel at this year?
- Your thing: What’s your driving mission in this lifetime?
Once you have honed in on your one thing, write it down. Dr. Gail Matthews of the Dominican University of California found that people who write down their goals are 39.5 percent more likely to achieve them. If you feel really brave, state your one thing to your colleagues, partner and friends to get accountability.
Applying even one of these tips will help you me more productive and happy at work, at home and in your life. Remember, every minute you save, is a minute gained!
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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