Productivity, which is the measure of your efficiency or of your success in converting inputs into useful outputs, is a prized goal for most of us – and the question of how to increase productivity has spawned numerous books, articles, apps, tools, and copious research. So, how do we achieve it? Fortunately, research into productivity has revealed some helpful answers; below are five research-backed ways to improve your productivity.
1. Work in 90-minute blocks
Like The Energy Project says, “Human beings are not computers.”
We’re not machines – we’re human beings, organisms that function according to a biological rhythm; an ultradian rhythm that lets our bodies know when it’s time to sleep, work or rest. A brief knowledge of this rhythm can boost your productivity by working with your natural cycle, and not against it.
The human brain can only concentrate for roughly 90 to 120 minutes before it must rest, according to its ultradian rhythm. This rhythm was first discovered by sleep researcher Nathan Kleitman, who describes the 90 minutes during which we move through the five stages of our sleep as a “rest-activity cycle”. Significantly, Kleitman discovered the existence of these 90 minutes during waking hours, too, as humans move from higher to lower states of alertness. Our bodies indicate our need for rest through signals such as fidgeting or a general feeling of lack of focus. A default reaction of many of us is to give ourselves a caffeine or sugar fix rather than addressing the body’s real need: rest. And so we draw on the body’s emergency reserves which take us into the ‘fight or flight’ psychological state that’s associated with stress. In this mode, we’re less productive and less able to think calmly and reflectively.
The importance of working to the body’s rhythm, and the link between this and productivity has been confirmed in research whereby optimum performance is associated with working in undisturbed blocks of no more than 90 minutes, the most compelling research being the widely cited 1993 study of elite violinists by Anders Ericsson at Berlin’s Academy of Music. And in an article for Harvard Business Review, The Energy Project CEO Tony Shwartz describes working in 90-minute intervals as the “optimal” limit for focusing on any given task, citing the body’s ultradian rhythm as the basis for this demarcation.
Work in uninterrupted time periods of 90 minutes, followed by a break of 15 minutes for optimum performance. Make sure the work you do during that time period is work you must do to accomplish your goal.
2. Track your achievements
Study after study has shown that when we rigorously monitor and record our progress, our performance improves. Tracking achievements is also a great way to generate improved efficiencies, as this article from Econsultancy shows.
See also: How to Achieve Your Goals
Use tracking to confront unproductive behaviours or multitasking (research has shown that when we juggle multiple tasks, it takes us significantly longer to complete each of them). There are several apps or tools that boost productivity: chrome extensions such as StayFocusd or TeuxDeux are just two tools that respectively will help you improve your focus and prioritise important tasks.
Combining these insights is a simple tool known as an ‘accountability chart’. A simple version of the chart has two columns: the first records the key tasks to be accomplished during each 90-minute period, and in the adjacent column notes the tasks that were actually accomplished (be honest here), forcing you to face up to the fact that you spent 45 minutes on the Net-a-Porter website when you should have been working.
3. Regulate your office lighting and temperature
Study after study has shown the link between working environment and productivity, with temperature and lighting being key factors. In one study, low temperatures (around 20 degrees Celsius) resulted in employees making more mistakes than optimal room temperatures (around 25 degrees Celsius).
Lighting is also an important contributor to productivity, and studies have shown that exposure to daylight can boost productivity. To maximise natural lighting, consider simple tips such as repositioning your desk to get the most of the natural light. The wrong kind of light, direct light, can be detrimental to productivity, causing eyestrain which leads to fatigue and headaches. Ensure your light fixtures provide uniform coverage and minimise your exposure to dark or shadowy areas and take regular breaks away from your computer screen. Consider using apps such as F.lux, described here on Lifehacker, which cleverly adjust your screen’s brightness to the time of day.
Ensure your work environment is a help and not a hindrance to your work. Check your lighting and temperature as these can have a significant impact on your productivity.
4. Take a powernap
Several studies have shown that a short, 15-minute, perfectly timed nap can boost productivity, with the optimum time said to be between the hours of 1pm and 4pm. After lunch, serotonin and dopamine levels dip, which is the reason why we tend to feel sluggish and tired. Benefits of powernaps include boosting cognition, creativity, performance, and reaction times. Interestingly, naps have been found to be more effective than drinking a cup of coffee in waking yourself up. Napping at work is, of course, difficult to do, though many have learned the art of the clandestine powernap.
Although naps have been found to boost productivity, to be effective they must be short and well-timed.
5. Google “kawaii” (cute) animals
A study by the University of Hiroshima in Japan has found that looking at images of cute animals increases focus. Apparently, we transfer the “aww” feeling we experience when we view these cute critters to our work, resulting in our being more careful and attentive. Give it a shot – you might just get that dissertation written.
See also: Cats with Jobs
Aha! Now you know why cat memes are so popular. Feel free to check out 15 of the best here.
How do you enhance your productivity? Do you have any tips, from psychology or elsewhere, you’d like to share?