In the workplace one of the words that we constantly hear is productivity. Usually referring to how we need to, or can increase the amount we get done in a set amount of time. This is typically through multitasking, will power and spending more time at work. However, scientific studies have actually repeatedly shown that despite their widespread use, these methods are not actually effective at boosting your productivity.
Scientists have found that willpower is actually a finite resource. You cannot simply decide to use will power to push yourself to complete a task within a certain period of time. You will actually run out of will power. The concept is known as ‘ego depletion’.
The Zeigarnik Effect
One of the best ways to be productive is through something that is known as the Zeigarnik Effect. While it may have a strange name it is actually relatively simple to understand. It is just the process of finishing a project once we have started it. Human brains have the tendency to avoid or procrastinate until we start work on a project; this is especially true of large projects. However, once we start a project we have a natural tendency to finish it. According to a lead researcher into the Zeigarnik Effect, “It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.” So the best way of actually finishing a project is by simply starting it in the first place.
Similarly pushing yourself to work all day does not increase your productivity. A good example of people just pushing themselves to work all day is pilots. Research by the FAA found that when they fly for a huge number of hours without adequate rest their focus and effectiveness decreases dramatically. In some instances this has even led to plane crashes. Researchers have found that the most productive way of working is by focusing on the hardest tasks for short periods of time and taking regular breaks. The best example is that of elite violinists who practise for 90 minutes and then take breaks of 15 – 20 minutes. When this pattern is repeated in the workplace it leads to much more productive workers compared to those who try to work for hours without any breaks.
An extremely simple yet important part of staying productive is being disciplined. Numerous studies have shown that if people are able to set themselves deadlines then their productivity will increase massively. One group of the population where this is quite clear was in University students. According to research by Dan Ariely, students who set themselves deadlines for their projects completed them much more efficiently than those who didn’t. This also happens in the workplace.
One method that has been suggested to keep people disciplined is by using an accountability chart. It is simply a blank page divide by a line down the middle. The left side lists the times and the right side lists what you accomplished in the time listed. Tracking your progress has been shown to make us more productive as we know what we have done rather than what we think we have done. Essentially when it is written down it is harder to lie to ourselves and say you got a project done when you actually spent an hour and a half on Twitter.
Despite what everyone has told you multitasking is actually the enemy of productivity. Handling more than one task at the same time means that a person will get less done rather than more. Dr Zheng Wang found much to her surprise that despite numerous studies showing how unproductive multitasking is, it is only becoming more popular. According to Dr Wang, “they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive - they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”
Instead of multitasking like your boss may want, you will probably be a lot more productive if you just block out as many distractions as possible. The idea is to keep you focused on a single task. A simple method of doing this is by creating a list of the five most important tasks for the next day, every night. If you do it the following morning it will not be as effective as research by the Kellogg School has shown that our ability to gauge the amount of work that we can do is much reduced in the morning.
It is clear that if you truly want to get more work done in less time, take the advice of scientists. Don’t just try and rely on will power or work for hours on end. Keep track of all your work and whatever you do don’t multitask no matter how good it sounds.