We all have 24 hours in a day — and we all have room to improve our productivity. At the onset of this new year, many of us will set goals and resolutions to be more productive, whether that's by closing more deals, increasing our email marketing open rates, or improving our customer service.
There’s no shortage of self-help articles on making the most of every hour. But how do you know what will actually work? Hint: It’s science.
We researched the top 10 ways to get — and stay — more productive and turned them into this easy-to-read interactive site. Take a look at five of the best tactics now, and for the rest of the list, check out the interactive infographic.
20% of adults are chronic procrastinators. -Joseph Ferrari, APA
For most people, a long to-do list without deadlines is a recipe for procrastination. When we feel no rush to complete a task, it’s pushed further and further down the priority list until it’s forgotten and shrugged off. That’s why many of us set deadlines to encourage our procrastination-leaning selves to get moving on important projects.
But research shows that, although self-imposed deadlines are better than nothing, external deadlines are are the true productivity boosters. In one MIT study, self-imposed deadlines did improve performance, but people typically didn’t set their own deadlines to really push themselves. In other words, we tend to go easy on ourselves. External deadlines are much better at improving performance.
So to truly increase your productivity, set deadlines for key projects — then tell others about those deadlines to hold you accountable.
In our hyperconnected world, a variety of screens and messages cry out for our attention. Email, texts, social media, phone calls, Netflix, more email — all of these distract us while we scramble to complete important tasks. The best way to battle distractions? Narrow your focus to one thing at a time, and deeply focus on only that.
Author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport says this extreme focus — or deep work, as he calls it — is “one of the most valuable skills in our economy.” He explains, “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. ... In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.”
In his book Deep Work, Newport cites a University of California, Irvine study of knowledge workers in real offices. The study found that all interruptions, even short ones, delayed the total amount of time required to complete tasks significantly. To be most productive during critical-thinking tasks, close your email and chats. Avoid social media. Embrace the solitude with just you and your ready-to-work brain.
Higher smartphone usage correlates with a weaker tendency to delay gratification and a greater inclination toward impulsivity.
You probably already know that you won’t be productive while actively skimming Twitter or flipping through texts. But your phone may be a bigger detractor from productivity than you realize.
In one study of the mobile technology habits of college students, more time spent on mobile devices correlated with “a relatively weaker tendency to delay gratification (as measured by a delay discounting task) and a greater inclination toward impulsive behavior (i.e., weaker impulse control, assessed behaviorally and through self-report)”.
So the next time you’re tempted to reward yourself with some smartphone time after 20 solid minutes of working on a project, realize that your phone may be quietly tempting you to seek instant gratification — like relaxation instead of more work — and act more impulsively. Instead, if you need a mental break, take a few deep breaths and enjoy a walk around the block or your office building.
Productivity is about making your actions automatic.
Let’s say you have a major project due on Friday. You’re planning to spend all day Tuesday and Wednesday working on it, leaving extra time Thursday to seek your manager’s approval. But do you have a detailed plan for where, when, and how you’ll actually start and finish the project?
In most workplaces, last-minute meetings, questions, and phone calls are par for the course — and goals can quickly be shifted off-course. As Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl explains, “It's not enough to have a goal intention, you need to have an implementation intention too."
So what does that intention look like? Here’s an example. If your goal was to floss your teeth regularly, your implementation intention might be: "When I put the toothpaste on my toothbrush in the evening (a habit I already have), I will then stop and get out the floss first." Pychyl explains, “Essentially what I've done in making this implementation intention is to put the cue for behavior (putting the paste on my toothbrush) into the environment, so it serves as a stimulus for my behavior. I don't have to think about or remind myself about my goal. … The issue here really is one of a predecision.”
Back to your Friday project. You might have blocked off 10-3 on Tuesday and Wednesday to complete your project, with an hour for lunch. Your implementation intention might be that at 9:45 on both days, after you go to the bathroom and get a fresh cup of coffee (which you already do), you immediately open your project and alert your desk neighbors likely to bother you that you’re not to be disturbed for a few hours. Productivity is all about making your actions automatic.
The world’s best violinists practice in sessions no longer than 90 minutes — and they take breaks between each session.
Sure, we workers today have a lot more technology at our disposal today to boost our productivity than our great-great grandparents did. But humans still need approximately eight hours of sleep a night, access to sunlight, physical activity — you know, the basics. Another basic that seems to be part of our biology: we can only work for 90-120 minutes before we need a break.
Depending on the task, you may be able to extend that 90-minute working session to 120 if you’re truly in a flow. But if you spend an hour and a half on a given project and find that your mind seems to be problem-solving more sluggishly and drifting to other topics, it’s probably time for a break.
Practically speaking, you can schedule these 90-minute cycles of work alongside your meetings, lunch or gym breaks, and conversations with coworkers. This 90-minute productivity cycle even applied to prodigious violinists in a study cited by HBR: “The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and took a break in between each one.” So feel free to unplug every hour and a half. It’s science. (More on how to do that on the full site.)
These five tips are just the beginning. To read the rest of the 10 tips, download the interactive infographic.