10 Productivity Hacks Backed By Science

How do you get things done? Work harder? Faster? Become a slave to the job?

Being productive is a strange science, but it is a science. There are things we can do to help us do our work better that we don’t associate with work. These productivity hacks bring better results than sticking to the desk for over eight hours, pounding away at our work.

You might be surprised at how you can get things done better than before.

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1. Skip the big groupthink. Work in smaller groups.

Jeff Bezos has a “two pizza” rule: if you can’t feed your team with two pizzas, your team is too big. The more people you have on your team, the less productive it becomes. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. The large the team, the less creative output you’ll get from each member.

When a large group gets together, something called “social loafing” occurs. This is a term coined by Nicholas W. Kohn in a 2010 Applied Cognitive Psychology study in which Kohn was describing how group participants compare themselves to each other and conform to the common denominator. The larger the group, the more the downward conformity.

So, if you want to get things done, break up into smaller groups. You’ll be more productive and have more to show from your efforts in the long run.

2. Eat breakfast every morning

Lots of people skip the first meal of the day to save calories and lose some weight. Not only does that not work for weight loss, but it also contributes to poor productivity.

When we’re hungry, we’re unfocused and we react more harshly to people around us. Our outlook is also more negative.

Still, some breakfasts are better than others.

High-sugar foods like donuts release sugar quickly into our bloodstream, burning through it and leaving us feeling groggy in about 20 minutes. Not great for productivity first thing in the morning, right? Studies show that a better choice than that donut are foods (such as oatmeal) that are low-glycemic foods; these foods release glucose into your bloodstream at a slower, steady rate. This helps you avoid that sugar crash early in the morning.

The last thing you need is a sugar crash half an hour into the day, with seven hours left to go. Instead of bringing in donuts for the office, consider low-glycemic foods such as Greek yogurt treats, or whole grains and fruits.

3. Take breaks during the day

It seems like bad advice, but the key to productivity isn’t to glue yourself to the desk and work, work, work. You’d be better off taking breaks. Regularly.

Studies have shown that brief diversions and breaks actually increases your focus on the project you are working on, which in turn makes you more productive.

According to John P. Trougakos, a professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, you can think of your ability to concentrate and focus as if it were a muscle. You need to take breaks in between weight lifting reps, and for the same reason, you need to take a break when doing serious work. You get tired, you keep working, your work suffers and you gradually slow down. It’s called “vigilance decrement”, where the longer you focus on something, the less attention you end up giving it.

Why do people skip breaks? Because they feel guilty about taking them.

Not keeping your nose to the grindstone is seen as lazy in a driven environment. But, if you want to stay productive, take frequent breaks before you hit rock-bottom when it comes to concentration.

Get up, walk around, get something to drink–anything that gets you physically moving for a little while. You’ll come back to your project with more concentration and problem-solving abilities than when you left. A good rule of thumb is for every 90 minutes of work, take a 20 minute break.

4. Take a nap

How foolish we were as children, despising naps. Most of us would give anything to be able to take a nap these days. As the day goes on, we get sluggish and groggy, and try to fix that problem with sugar-laden food or lots of caffeine. That’s not good for anyone, and is only a temporary fix for a real productivity problem.

That’s where naps fit in.

Naps are simple, but have powerful health and mental benefits. A nap can help you be less tired, of course, but it can also relax and reduce stress. At the end of a nap, you are more alert with improved reaction and thought processes. In other words, you’ll be much more productive.

How should you nap properly? The best time to take a nap is between 1 and 4 p.m. Your nap should either be for 20 minutes, or more than 90 minutes. Anything else will leave you feeling groggy and worse off than not taking a nap. If you nap too long, you might have trouble sleeping at night. So don’t get too carried away.

It’s not always easy to take a nap in the middle of the work day at the office, of course, but for those who work at home or have access to their car during their break, it might be an option.

5. Exercise right away in the morning

Some people prefer exercising after work or in the evening, because it fits their schedule best. However, if you’re looking for lower blood pressure and a better night’s sleep, a recent study suggests that exercising in the morning (try 7 a.m.) is your best bet.

You might think that since you can’t make it to the gym and pound out three miles on the treadmill each morning, you’re out of luck. But even seven minutes of exercise can do the trick.

How does this play into productivity?

Getting good sleep is going to put you in a better position for the day, and exercising in the evening can have an negative impact on your sleep. Plus, all the physical benefits of exercise — endorphins, warmed-up muscles, increased oxygen intake, more active brains — are an optimal way to start the day.

If you can’t exercise in the morning (or even if you can!), you should definitely make a point of moving around and exercising at work. Studies have shown that people who exercise are more productive, even if they are taking the time out of their work day to do that exercise.

6. Look up images of cute animals

There’s a reason social media feeds are often full of images of cute baby animals. People love to look at them, and there’s some science behind that. A Japanese study found that when people looked at such images, their “caregiving” nature increased, and that translated into more attention to detail in what they were working on.

With that attention to detail, there was something else that improved: performance. Study participants became more productive.

So keep those YouTube videos of cute animals handy whenever you need a pick-me-up.

7. Eat healthy food

This is almost a no-brainer. Everyone is telling you to eat healthy food. But will healthy food really make you more productive?

The World Health Organization has said that adequate and improved nutrition levels can increase productivity by 20 percent. Eating “brain” foods, like fish, nuts, grains, and even dark chocolate, are better for people who want to get work done.

While your brain needs glucose to function, the way we eat (think: donutes, bagels) tends to send glucose spiking and plummeting in our bloodstream. That makes us tired and less productive in the moment, and hurts our productivity in the long run.

Employers can help out by providing healthy snacks instead of processed and sugary foods to their workers.

8. Pick a day of rest

Call it a day of rest, call it a stop day — whatever you call it, you need it. You need at least one day where you are not “at work.”

According to Dr. Matthew Sleeth, it’s only in the last 30 years or so where the seven-day work week has become the norm. Stores are open, and there is no particular day where employees are necessarily guaranteed to not be working. For those who are freelancing or working at home, this is even more so. The temptation to work a little bit every day is hard to overcome.

The problem is, not having a day when work is stopped and truly set aside is leading to depression and anxiety.

If you want to productive, take a day off. Don’t touch your work. Do something else just for you and your family. Constantly working, without stops, will hurt your productivity eventually.

9. Do only one thing at a time

Multitasking is a very bad idea. It is not a strength, and ability to admire, and it’s definitely not your friend. Studies have shown that people who multitask and attempt to do more than one thing at a time show subtle brain damage, damaging cognitive abilities. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that workers who were big multitaskers were less productive, with a lower quality of work than those who focused on just one thing at a time.

Focus on doing one thing at a time. You won’t save time by trying to do two or more at once.

If you must do two things at once, pair a cognitive activity with a physical activity that you don’t have to think about to do. Brainstorm blog posts while on the treadmill, or work through that problem at work while cooking dinner. Don’t try to listen to music or watch TV while trying to write or do other cognitive activities. Your brain can’t focus on two cognitive distractions at once.

Learn to say no…the right way.

The best way to be productive in the moment and in the long run, is to learn the right way to say “no.”

Saying no to projects you simply don’t have time for or know you have no interest in doing will help you focus on the important things and keep you more productive. But how you say no matters, too.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that participants who said no to something by saying “I can’t” were more likely to cave in and do the thing they didn’t want to do. Those who said “I don’t” were more likely to remain firm about saying no.

The first group were focusing on what they weren’t able or allowed to do, and that made it harder to stick with the “no.” The second group, though, had the mindset that what they were turning down was simply not part of who they were. That meant they weren’t as tempted to relent on that “no.”

Knowing what to say no to is the first part of the battle. Knowing how to say no so that it sticks is the second. Master both, and you’ll be more productive. You won’t be frustrated with the time you waste on things you don’t want to be doing.

10. Don’t imagine yourself a success

It’s perfectly fine to have a goal and imagine how you’ll get there, but it’s important to not spend a lot of time imagining that you are already a success. A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology discovered that positive visualization doesn’t actually work, and, in fact, made you more likely to fail.

Constantly visualizing or imaging ourselves as a success drains the ambition right out of us, and instead of doing the actual work to reach success, we are perfectly happy to relax and do nothing. We end up training our brain to accept the imagined success as good enough instead of going for the real one.

Positive visualization is great for calming us down in highly negative or stressful situations, but when it comes to being productive, it’s the last thing you want to be doing.

About The Author: Julie R. Neidlinger is a writer, artist, and pilot from North Dakota. She has been blogging since 2002 at her Lone Prairie blog, and works as a freelance writer and visual artist.

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