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What psychology research can teach us about becoming more productive

The average American works 8.8 hours every day. And yet research has found that they are only productive for about 2 hours and 53 minutes a day at work. The reason is that our brains are not structured to work efficiently, based on how our work life is designed.

This article is divided into 2 parts

  1. What the science has to say about maximizing productivity
  2. 3 simple tips you can use to significantly increase productivity.

Multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%


Most of us are proud of having the ability to multitask. And on average workers are interrupted every 10 and a half minutes. But the reality is that our brains are built to focus on 1 task at a time.

It takes nearly 30 minutes to refocus after you get distracted

Gloria Mark, who was the lead on this research study told Fast company that this is what they found about multitasking:

“You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were…We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here’s the bad news — it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.

What was even more amazing was their finding that this happened even if the interruption was related to the task you were doing. Participants thought the interruption had benefitted their work, but this absolutely not true.

Distractions double the number of errors you make

Distraction at work

In one study conducted by Michigan University and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers found that 3-second interruptions double the error rate of the task you are performing.

And interruptions of four and a half seconds triple the error rate of the task you are performing.

This means that distractions as minor as checking your phone have a significant cost to the task you are performing.

Participants in the study were asked to simply complete sequence tasks such as determining whether a letter was closer to the beginning or end of the alphabet.

They were then distracted by another simple task like inputting 2 unrelated letters, before returning to their original task. The time to input the 2 unrelated letters took on average 2.8 seconds – less time than it takes to check your phone.

Multitasking reduces your IQ

Another study completed by the University of London found that when participants multitasked their IQ declined as much as individuals who have stayed up all night. The IQ for some of the men who were multitasking fell 15 points – which left them with an IQ of an 8-year-old boy.

Multitasking reduces your productivity by as much as 40%

A study done in 2001 found that the effort to switch between tasks takes up brainpower and effort. In fact, switching tasks can add up to a loss of 40% of productivity

The only exception is when it’s a physical task that you have you have done often, and are a pro at. So something like walking. But even then, it will have a negative impact.

Here is what the APA had to say about this study:

“Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task takes a toll on productivity. Although that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has talked on the phone while checking E-mail or talked on a cell phone while driving, the extent of the problem might come as a shock. Psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists tend to liken the job to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.”

How the top 10% of productive people structure their day

The time-tracking and productivity app Desk-time has done extensive research on productivity and is able to pinpoint the habits and workflow that allow individuals to get the most work done.

Surprisingly the most effective way to get more things done is by taking regular breaks. In particular, what they found was that the 10% of most productive people worked for 52 minutes, and then took a break for approximately 17 minutes before they got back to work.

The 17-minute break was usually spent away from technology and often used to get some exercise or to socialize.

Timed regular breaks are very effective

This isn’t the first time research has found regular and timed breaks to be helpful. Another study done by Cornell University’s Ergonomics research lab conducted at Wall Street found that workers who were reminded to take regular breaks worked more efficiently, and made fewer mistakes – than those who didn’t.

One theory behind this is when we have regular breaks scheduled for ourselves we are working under a time restriction. This creates a sense of urgency. If you know you only have 50 minutes to work, you will work with more purpose and focus.

Furthermore taking a break after doing intense work will allow your brain to get the rest that it clearly needs for another 52-minute sprint. Taking that break ensures that your brain is working at the most optimal level.

what research tells us about planning

Planning your day

Have you ever started to work on a project and had intrusive thoughts about other things you have to do? You’re most certainly not alone.

The Zeignarnik effect was discovered in 1927 and found that until a goal is completed, its details remain in our minds. This is even the case when we are not actively working towards completing the goal.

This would be effective if we were only working on one or two goals at a time. But on average most of us are working on at least 15 personal projects.

It is one of the reasons we experience so many distracting thoughts while working, making it difficult for us to focus. Our brain is unconsciously thinking about all the other goals that we have to achieve. You may be working on an important project when you start thinking about an event you need to go to. Or about how you need to clean the kitchen.

It is impossible for your brain to focus if it is continuously bombarded with reminders and thoughts about all the other things it needs to do.

Baumeister and Masicampo published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology where they found that planning each of your goals in advance, prevents it from taking up space in your brain.

Participants who made plans to complete their goals experienced no more intrusive thoughts than individuals who had already completed their goals.

According to their research paper “participants who made plans were better able to focus, exhibited fewer instances of mind wandering, and comprehended more of the reading passage than participants who did not plan for their tasks.”

Increasing productivity according to science

Research has found that it takes a minimum of 21 days to create a habit. That’s why completing a 30-day productivity challenge is the perfect way to create a productivity habit.

Based on the research we have found the most effective way to create a productivity habit is to make the following 3 changes for 30 days straight.

  • Optimally structuring your work day
  • Planning your day in advance
  • Minimizing distractions and interruptions.

Focusing on these 3 simple, but related areas will allow you to make real changes in how productive you are.

1. Plan your day in advance.

This simple technique can make a huge difference in how productive you are. Remember most of us are only able to maintain proper focus for 5 hours a day. Planning your day in advance ensures that you maximize your productivity during those 5 hours.

Here are some things to take into account while planning your tasks for the next day.

  • Schedule a maximum of 5 hours worth of tasks that require complete focus/thinking. These should be the most important tasks of your day. The ones that require complete focus, and are most important to your job. If you’re a writer, this would be the time you spend writing. If you’re an accountant, it may be doing reconciliations, or creating financial statements.
  • For the rest of your day schedule tasks that don’t require focus and allow for mind wandering. Things like sweeping the floor, or doing simple admin tasks. Again this will vary by job and profession. Schedule your daydreaming and mind-wandering during these tasks. Remember our mind wanders 50% of the time. So if you allow your mind to freely wander while you’re doing less important tasks, they are less likely to wander when you are doing important tasks.

Planning your day doesn’t require excessive focus, so you can do it while watching tv, or lounging on your sofa. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of planning It’s not a task that requires complete focus

2. Structure your day for success

Structure your day so that after every 60 minutes of work you take a 15-minute break. Make sure that you take a real break, and are not still thinking about work. Some effective ways to stop thinking about work are:

  • Have a quick 15-minute conversation with someone – either in person or over the phone.
  • Meditate for 15 minutes.
  • Go for a short walk outside.

3. Set up your environment to minimize distractions while doing focused work

  1. Put away your phone, and don’t touch it for the entire duration of your focus work.
  2. Don’t have your email open while you are trying to do focused work.
  3. Let people know that you are in the middle of working if they distract you.
  4. If something very important does come up, make a note of exactly what you were doing, and what you need to do next. This will allow you to refocus faster when you start working again.

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