There are many factors you and your team are unable to control when it comes to performance. You have economic constraints, each individual has limitations on their skills and brainpower, and there’s no way to guarantee that people in your workplace will always get along.
Productivity, on the other hand, is uniquely hackable. Since there’s so much riding on productivity from a financial standpoint, experts invest in productivity and behavioural science research. This research has evolved into a number of tips anyone can use to improve their efficiency, including the following 10 productivity hacks.
To-do lists can help ensure productivity, but without firm deadlines, they can quickly become to-put-off lists. A to-do list tells you what needs to get done, but a deadline moves you toward a definite finish line.
However, not all deadlines are created equally. Research shows that we tend to go easy on ourselves when setting self-imposed deadlines. One MIT study found that real boosts in performance come from external accountability.
Therefore, for best results, set deadlines and tell others about them to hold you accountable.
The same tools that allow us to communicate and do business instantaneously also provide distraction on demand. That’s not what your brain needs when you’re working through your to-do list.
The best way to complete a task is to focus deeply on one thing at a time. Author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport says this extreme focus—deep work—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 study of knowledge workers in real offices. The study found that all interruptions, even short ones, significantly delayed the total amount of time required to complete tasks.
The cost of constantly checking your phone goes beyond time management. One study found that college students who spend more time on mobile devices are more impulsive and have a harder time delaying gratification. These two skills play a major part in productivity and work quality.
Instead of checking your phone, do something that’s actually relaxing. Take a short walk or have a face-to-face conversation with someone.
Your to-do list tells you what you need to do, a firm external deadline tells you when, and an implementation intention tells you how. This is a divide-and-conquer approach that breaks your goals into actionable if-then statements.
An implementation intention automates your behaviour and takes the decision fatigue out of complex tasks. It’s the same reason pilots have checklists.
For example: “At 9:45 on Tuesday, I’ll get a cup of coffee and work on the project. If I get a cup of coffee, then I’ll work,” is much better than, “I’ll work on the project on Tuesday.”
A simple behavioural cue like brewing coffee can keep you moving in the right direction. Psychologist Dr. Timothy Pychyl calls this “predecision.” You already decided fresh coffee means “get to work,” so when the cup is in your hand, you know what to do.
The human attention span has limits—90 minutes, to be exact. After 90 minutes (give or take a few, depending on the task) you start to lose focus and your ability to solve problems suffers.
The 90 minute cycle is the preferred technique of world-class violinists, according to a study cited by Tony Schwartz in Harvard Business Review: “The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes and took a break between each one.”
To maximize efficiency, time your breaks around lunch, meetings, and errands.
Make the most of those breaks between 90-minute work intervals to further boost performance. Here are a few ideas for a break that will energize, rather than distract you.
An MIT study found that call center employees who socialize get through their calls faster and feel better on the job.
You may not have time for a long break, but you need to recharge. Try breathing exercises, like this one reported by Jordan Shakeshaft: “With one hand on the chest and the other on the belly, take a deep breath in through the nose, ensuring the diaphragm (not the chest) inflates with enough air to create a stretch in the lungs.”
Sitting for long periods is uncomfortable and takes a toll on your body. Remedy this with stretches. You can also do 10 to 20 repetitions of a moderate strength-building exercise like push-ups or squats.
A study at Stanford found walking can increase creative thinking by 60 per cent over sitting. Murray Newlands writes that two 15-minute walks per day can shave two days off a task that normally takes seven to complete. Consider this in terms of ROI: 30 minutes of walking a day increases productivity by 30 per cent.
Incorporate walking into the workday with walking meetings, walks after lunch, and moving around the office while on conference calls.
Productivity is a choice—one you must make every time a distraction pops up. The most productive people are usually the most disciplined. These people understand what psychologists have confirmed: Discipline is more powerful than willpower and motivation.
Have the discipline to construct your day around conservation of willpower. Schedule your simplest tasks, like going through your email, at the times when your productivity tends to lag.
Psychologists agree that work is better with tunes. Music releases dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical, which makes you feel upbeat and positive. This is especially useful when it comes to repetitive tasks.
But music does more than make boredom pass: That same relaxation effect you get from dopamine is vital when it comes to making decisions. According to Dr. Teresa Lesiuk: “When you’re stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention. When you’re in a positive mood, you’re able to take in more options.”
Bad habits are a slow killer of productivity; an unimportant email here, some social media there, and pretty soon you’re wondering where your afternoon went.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg developed a system for breaking bad habits based on behavioural science and observations of people with good habits. He recommends four steps to change any habit: identify the habit you want to change, find the “cue” that comes just before the habitual behaviour, experiment with rewards, and have a plan. We all have bad habits, and this system allows you to customize the way you break yours.
With these tactics, you and your team can become more productive and better spend the hours in your day.
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