5 ways to boost your productivity that are backed by science

The internet is full of articles claiming to provide the secret to limitless personal productivity. If only we got out of bed earlier, organised our email more often, or divided our day into 25-minute bursts of activity followed by tiny little breaks. There’s even one study out there that says that the secret is to pause to look at pictures of kittens every few hours…
leg exercise in office

What do these mostly have in common? They’re generally based on very little in the way of solid evidence and, often, simply cite another dodgy news article rather than anything even approaching a scientific study.

There is some great scientific research on productivity. Here are the top five ways to boost your productivity that I’ve been reading into over the past weeks with an eye on optimising the office environment for maximum productivity.

I’d love to know what you think works for you in your office. Share your views in the comments.

1. List, prioritise, and implement

American founding father, Benjamin Franklin, is reputed to have said that "for every minute spent organising, an hour is earned." The clever chaps at popular science magazine Psychology Today  certainly seem to agree.

Based on their understanding of how the brain is wired, they've come up with a kind of "super to-do list".

Step one, they say, is to break larger tasks down in very specific tasks, and then to create a sense of priority and urgency by designating tasks as "must do," "should do," or "could do," and then to review at the end of each working day.

Step two is to get specific about when and where you'll complete the task. It's called if-then planning. The trick is to not only decide what you need to do, but to also decide when and where you will do it, in advance. The general format of an if-then plan looks like this:

If (or When) ___________ occurs, then I will ________________.

For example:

When it's 3pm today, then I'll stop whatever I'm doing and work on that project.

If it's Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I'll go to the gym before work.

Studies show that when tasks are clearly broken down into achievable subtasks and a specific time and place is specified for their completion, productivity soars. Why not give it a go?

2. Optimise your working environment

You probably have a gut sense that certain environments lend themselves better to productivity than others. There is a huge wealth of science to support the idea that some office conditions are simply more productive than others.

Take lighting for example. Studies have found that those exposed to natural daylight, as opposed to artificial light, were much more alert in the afternoon and early evening. There also seems to be a correlation between artificial lighting and low cortisol levels (that's the hormone that helps to balance our sleep and wake cycles), resulting in higher stress levels and more irritation.

It isn't just lighting, though. There's evidence that slightly warmer temperatures may be best, that certain colours may negatively affect mood and productivity (avoid too much red, basically), and that having just a few indoor plants around the place can markedly improve mood and morale.

3. Take regular breaks (but don't restrict yourself to 25-minute chunks)

The most productive people are rarely those who work the longest hours overall. That's because, no matter how hard we think we're working, the human brain can only concentrate for so long — just like a runner who starts to flag after a few miles, our ability to perform tasks has diminishing returns over time.

The answer is obvious: regular short breaks. But what is the optimum length for a break? 17 minutes according to a recent study. DeskTime — a productivity tracking app — analysed all of their data, and found that the highest performing 10% tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes, followed by a 17-minute break.

Crucially, however, those 17 minutes were spent away from the computer, by walking, stretching, or talking to co-workers. So, if you spend your breaks browsing Instagram, it may not really be a break at all.

4. Exercise regularly

Most people, when they think about the benefits of regular exercise, consider the positive consequences for our health: lower blood pressure, a healthier heart, a reduced risk of certain cancers.

Fewer people would think of improved concentration, faster learning, and prolonged mental stamina. But over the last ten years, scientists have amassed compelling evidence the amount of mental firepower we possess is strongly correlated with the frequency and intensity with which we exercise.

A study by Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK found that on days when employees visited the gym, their experience changed. As described in Harvard Business Review, "they reported managing their time more effectively, being more productive, and having smoother interactions with their colleagues."

So, as Harvard Business Review suggests, it may be time to stop considering exercise as something we'd do if only we had time after work and, instead, considering it to be a crucial component of the working day.

5. Listen to your favourite music

Offices are generally fairly noisy, distraction-filled places. Someone is usually jabbering away on the phone, aggressively tapping on their keyboard, or violently thumping the photocopier after yet another paper jam.

The answer? Either tough it out or pop in your earphones and drown out the background noise with your favourite music. Listening to music in the office may have much broader benefits, however.

Teresa Lesiuk, a professor in music therapy at the University of Miami, found in a study of computer programmers that those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly, came up with better ideas than those who didn't and had improved moods overall.

What's going on? Dopamine, the chemical responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being, is being released in response to the melodious or familiar sounds, reducing stress and increasing focus.

Have you tried out any of these tips? What did you think? We'd love to hear from you in the comments.

This article was previously published on the One Legal website, and is reproduced with kind permission.

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