The fact that you’re reading this article on how to improve productivity means one (really significant) thing: We stopped procrastinating long enough to write it. How did we do it? With the help of science, that’s how. And don’t we all want to know how to increase productivity, both in the workplace and, well, anywhere?
So here’s the good news. It is actually possible to maximize productivity, to have more focus, and to show procrastination who’s boss. We know because we’ve done it ourselves. And so can you.
How to improve productivity in the face of 6 common problems
Let’s take a look at six common productivity blocks and find out how to work through them using research-backed strategies.
1. How to prevent productivity: Multitasking
Yeah we know, being able to eat breakfast, check your Twitter feed, and sing along to the radio— while driving to work—makes you feel pretty accomplished. We’re going to argue, however, that you’re better off abandoning the multitasking efforts.
Why? Authority on multitasking, Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, explained in an interview to PBS :
It turns out multitaskers are […] terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.
Nass’s seminal study from 2009 found that media multitaskers (i.e., those who use multiple devices at the same time aka everyone) are more susceptible to distraction. Media multitasking has even been connected with reduced gray matter density in the brain. (…though researchers aren’t yet clear whether the reduced gray matter density was caused by frequent media multitasking or whether those with reduced gray matter density in the first place were more likely engage in media multitasking. Chicken + egg.)
How to improve productivity: Monotasking
What it is: Giving your full and deep attention to the task at hand
Why it works: Multitasking creates what researchers call “switching-time costs”—mental delays that occur because you’re constantly toggling between tasks. Monotasking eliminates these switching-time costs, which add up big time over the course of your day. It can also help keep your tasks organized and reduce your susceptibility to spreading yourself too thin.
How to do it: A lot of the points explored later in the article factor into it, but in essence, it comes down to removing distractions and enforcing limits.
At home that might mean turning your phone off and giving all your attention to cooking lunch, or helping the kids with their homework, or whatever. When online for work, try reducing the number of tabs you have open or use some productivity tools that are specifically designed to help eliminate distraction.
For example, browser extensions like Cold Turkey or Self-Control limit your activity for a set period of time. For writing, there are apps specifically designed to diminish distraction while you pen that letter, story, or report (like OmmWriter or Focused).
Cut away the distractions and you’ll find that focusing fully on one task makes you much more productive.
2. How to prevent productivity: A disorganized workspace
Where did you put that book again? If you’ve ever wasted time crawling headfirst into a desk-cave of papers and coffee cups, you know what we mean.
But losing stuff isn’t the only problem with clutter. An untidy workspace also affects your ability to focus.
One study found that visual clutter distracts our brain and wears out its ability to focus over time. This is because objects in our visual field keep pulling at our attention, so even when we ignore them they take a mental toll.
How to improve productivity: Declutter
What it is: Getting rid of visual and mental clutter. That means you shouldn’t just sweep junk under the rug, but actually sort it out. That way, it’s out of your line of sight and also out of your mind.
Why it works: Decluttering eliminates distractions and increases focus.
How to do it: Aside from the obvious (i.e., doing one huge clean up) here are a few other key tips:
- If you work in an office, try doing a quick tidy of your desk at the end of every workday to maintain a clean slate and make the next day easier.
- Declutter your digital spaces as well. You don’t need to be at inbox zero or have a meticulously organized hard drive, but be wary of how many windows you have open and try keeping your documents in some kind of logical file structure.
- Use to-do lists to get the jumble of thoughts out of your mind and onto paper—even better if you have a way to prioritize them.
- Do regular clean-outs at home. Too many clothes, books, or other items? Periodically do a haul to the local charity store and consider new purchases carefully.
The less clutter there is to draw your attention, the easier focusing becomes.
3. How to prevent productivity: Not knowing how to time your breaks
…or not using them at all. Taking a break from work sounds as easy as pie (and coffee). But for maximum productivity, you don’t want to take too many—or too few.
Let’s say you’re hard at work monotasking on today’s biggest goal. (High five to you for nailing point one.) After a while, your focus is going to naturally drop off, because our brains aren’t wired to maintain constant attention for hours on end.
How to improve productivity: A system of regular short breaks
What it is: Research suggests that we can accommodate for our faulty focus by taking brief mental breaks. In one study, participants who worked on a task for 50 minutes straight showed a significant decline in performance. Those who took two brief breaks, meanwhile, saw no drop in performance at all.
Why it works: When we disengage from what we’re doing, we give our brains space to recharge and refocus. And we often find solutions to previously puzzling problems. A whole plethora of research shows that downtime is critical for your brain. And we’re just not getting enough of it.
How to do it: Whether you’re at work, or at home doing your taxes, keep track of time and schedule in regular breaks. Use both short breaks and, for longer blocks of work, longer breaks.
One method is the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working in blocks of 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break. After four of these cycles, you take a 30-minute hiatus. (You can download free timers like Tomighty or Focus Booster if you want to give this a shot.)
In short, when your attention is waning, it’s time to take a break. Productivity is aided by periods of rest.
4. How to prevent productivity: Not using your breaks well
So you know to take regular breaks, but do you know what to do when you take them?
If increasing productivity is your goal, some activities are going to do more good than others. Picking up your phone and scrolling through Instagram? It’s a break at least, but it’s not ideal.
How to improve productivity: Get up and move
What it is: Incorporating physical activity into your breaks—whether it’s a walk around the block or a HIIT session.
Why it works: Not only has exercise been shown to improve cognitive abilities, research has also found that spreading out physical activity across the workday packs an extra punch (that study used five-minute “microbouts” of walking during a six-hour work period) because it combines the mental rest of taking a break with the benefits of exercise.
How to do it: If you’re working on a lengthy task, try getting up and walking for a few minutes to take a break. This will make you feel better and more focused.
If you can’t fit exercise into your micro-breaks, a half-hour lunchtime walk is another great option. One study of employees who aren’t usually active found that “lunchtime walks improved enthusiasm, relaxation, and nervousness at work.”
Walking on your break is also great if you’re creatively stuck, whether it’s for a project at work or that novel you’re writing at home. Research suggests that walking “opens up the free flow of ideas” and increases creative thinking.
5. How to prevent productivity: A chaotic mind
So you’re doing everything right, have only one thing to work on, and yet…your mind keeps running around like a kid in a candy store. You just don’t have the ability to stay focused.
How to improve productivity: Meditation
What it is: Research consistently shows: Meditation is good for focus. It’s been connected with increases in attention span. One study found that older people who had been practicing meditation long-term outperformed young non-meditators in tasks measuring attention, suggesting that meditation can even “help to overcome age-related attentional deficits.” Indeed, meditation is linked with increases in gray matter volume over time, which may help protect the brain from age-related decline. (Again, causal direction isn’t clear here, so be careful when passing this information on as a sure-fire way to beat back aging.)
Why it works: Because focus is like a muscle. The studies above suggest that the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets—and meditation can help you do this.
How to do it: There are countless different styles and methods of meditation, which we won’t go into here. The short answer is that any kind of meditation activity is likely to be beneficial for focus if you do it regularly. One easy way is to try a guided meditation app.
Some research suggests that you don’t even have to meditate long-term to reap the rewards. “Our findings suggest that four days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention,” found one study on mindfulness meditation.
6. How to prevent productivity: Procrastination
You want to do that thing, you really do. You’ll get around to it right after you check Facebook and put away the dishes and make a snack and…
You know how it is. Putting things off is a natural human tendency. You may not be able to get rid of procrastination completely, but you can find ways to break through it.
In his book, The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey explains that procrastination is a war between the emotional, instinctual part of our brain (the limbic system) and the logical part (the prefrontal cortex). The latter might want you to get that task done but the former tells you Netflix is calling. Overcoming procrastination means giving your limbic system a swift smackdown and choosing the rational action. Easier said than done, right?
How to improve productivity: Reframe tasks
What it is: According to Bailey (and based on research by Tim Pychyl and Allan Blunt), we procrastinate because a task is one or more of the following:
- Unstructured or ambiguous
- Lacking in personal meaning
- Lacking in intrinsic rewards (i.e., it’s not fun or engaging)
If we can consciously recognize which of these characteristics is making a task unappealing, it can help us reframe how we think about that task.
Why it works: Choosing to listen to our logical brain takes willpower—which we all know is a faulty thing to count on, especially when a task is boring or frustrating. But if we can lessen our aversion to that task, our emotional brain loses some of its power. Choosing the logical option becomes more appealing.
This idea is supported by a 2016 study on emotional regulation skills, which found that the ability to handle and then change less-than-pleasant emotions led to less procrastination.
How to do it: First you need to identify the procrastination trigger, then reframe how you think about it. For example, you might see a difficult job as a challenge rather than a chore. Or decide to blast music while you clean the house so you can dance around with the mop and make it fun. Or create a step-by-step workflow to manage an unstructured project.
If the task is difficult or feels overwhelming, another trick you can try is “chunking”—i.e., breaking a big project down into smaller, more manageable tasks. This not only helps you get started, it also gives you small victories to celebrate along the way. And this is behavior change 101, which we’ll come back to a lot.
How to improve productivity in the workplace and in life: The secret of self-awareness
Being more productive, whether at work, home, or anywhere else, comes down to understanding your personal strengths and barriers and then using the right strategies to get through them. Only you can figure out how to improve productivity and efficiency for yourself.
But there are plenty of science-backed strategies to try as you figure out what works for you. Like training yourself to focus on one thing at a time, getting rid of distractions, and reframing how you think about pesky tasks that you really don’t want to do (but know you should). Putting these strategies into practice isn’t always easy—but it is worth the effort.
Your turn: What strategies do you use to increase your productivity? Tell us all about ’em.
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Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.