The Science of Productivity: 10 proven strategies for boosting your productivity

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Today will be productive. At least that’s what I tell myself each morning. 

Most days are wins, but I’ve also had my fair share of days where I accomplish next to nothing.

It was a trial and error of many productivity hacks before I found the perfect combination of productivity strategies that worked for me. 

If you’re looking for productivity tips and tricks, below is a list of the top 10 proven strategies for boosting your productivity. 

I can’t promise they will all work for you, but I can assure you that they are more than just trends – these are productivity techniques backed by research. 

1) Declutter your space.

If you’ve been procrastinating on cleaning your work desk, let me give you a scientific reason for doing it ASAP.

A study in 2016 by a group of psychologists found that clutter can cause our brain to be overwhelmed because the eyes are distracted by so many things. They noted that this can reduce our working memory and ultimately impact productivity. 

This is supported by another research in 2011, where neuroscientists studied functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study patients’ brains. They looked at brain activity in combination with the subjects’ vital signs. Their findings suggest that decluttering improves information processing, sharpens focus, and increases productivity. 

However, decluttering to increase productivity may only be effective for some. I say this because I know a few creatives who thrive in slightly disorganized spaces. 

But generally, having your stuff ready and organized means no more wasting minutes of your day looking for sticky notes, pens, or that stapler. If everything is in place, you set yourself up for a positive start by hitting the ground running.

2) Embrace the light.

Now that you’ve organized your space let’s look at lighting. 

Andrew Huberman, a Stanford neuroscientist, made an interesting point about natural light in one of his podcasts. He emphasized that getting morning sunlight in your eyes must be a non-negotiable habit observed 360 days each year. 

When sunlight enters the eyes, your brain is triggered to produce serotonin, one of the main hormones responsible for happiness and motivation.

A lot of studies support the benefits of natural light on productivity. There’s one published in 2016 stating that workplaces with views of natural elements significantly decrease stress and, therefore, help with productivity. Similar results were reported by another 2016 research surveying students. This study found that classrooms with adequate natural lighting resulted in students with improved attention and performance.

So how do you apply these in your daily life? Start the day by immersing yourself in natural light for at least five minutes. Why not drink your morning coffee out on the front porch or in the backyard in the warmer seasons? In the colder months, have that drink by a window and take in the morning views focusing on the bright blue sky and the greenery outside. Position your work desk right next to a window. Open the curtains. But remember to never stare directly at the sun, as this can be extremely harmful.

If access to natural light is difficult or if you work afternoon or night shifts, you can still optimize your lighting to improve productivity. Dr. Huberman advises using appropriate artificial lighting to facilitate focus. 

In terms of what type of light to use, cooler lighting boosts workers’ productivity, mood, and alertness, according to a study published in 2007. To give you a better idea, an overcast winter’s day, a sunset, and a typical sunny day are all considered cool colors, while warm colors have a fiery glow, such as a candle or bonfire. 

A good rule of thumb is that bright white, blue, and green lights are considered cool, and lights with dimmer white and yellowish hints are considered warm.

3) Get off your chair.

The rising popularity of sit-to-stand desks comes with good reason. In 2016, researchers from Cornell University studied workers’ alternating between sitting and standing using these desks. Their results showed a statistically significant increase in productivity and a drastic decrease in the workers’ muscle pains.

On top of this, experts from Harvard Medical School also report that sitting for prolonged periods makes you more at risk for chronic and deadly diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

But don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to get yourself a sit-to-stand desk. Whatever you have now should work as long as you remember to stand and stretch every once in a while. I don’t have a sit-to-stand myself, so I sometimes stand with my laptop on the kitchen island countertop to give myself a break from prolonged sitting. 

4) Use smart goals to achieve high goals.

We’ve all heard it before: goals that are Smart, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound give us direction. But here’s the science that proves goal setting is a proven strategy to boost productivity. 

A 2014 Forbes article discussed groundbreaking studies revealing that setting goals increased productivity by 11 to 25%. To put things into perspective, it is like accomplishing 10 hours’ worth of work in just eight hours! Sounds great, right? But there’s more to this article that got me thinking. 

The article goes on to differentiate two types of goals. It talked about “high goals” or the bigger goals, such as buying a house, having multiple small businesses, or achieving a healthier body. High goals keep us persistent and committed, especially when our values align with the desired outcomes. But high goals take time to achieve, which is where clear goals come in.

Kotler, the author of the Forbes article, explains that the key to productivity is establishing small chunks of goals that ultimately lead to our high goals. Because they are relatively smaller goals, our brain perceives them as easily manageable and achievable, and we become more motivated to focus and accomplish them. 

For example, saving $2,500 monthly for the next 3 years for a house deposit is clearer and easier to follow than simply saying I want to buy a house in 3 years.

5) Minimize distractions.

Research done by neuroscientists from Princeton University reports that the brain can’t process everything in the environment simultaneously. So when a distraction happens, our brains have to pause on processing the current task so they can focus on working on the information from the distraction.

Psychology Today also reports studies showing that we lose an average of 2.1 hours daily, thanks to distractions. 

That’s an awful lot of wasted hours, so here are a few practical tips on how to minimize distractions when working:

  • Stay off your phone. Set it to do-not-disturb mode, hide your phone under a drawer, or flip it upside down. Doing this eliminates a lot of unnecessary notifications from social media, email, and spam text messages. My phone has been on this mode since the birth of my now 5-year-old daughter (I needed sleep, too!), and it has worked wonders. But what if it’s an emergency? I have mine set up to only get text and call notifications from my immediate family, my kids’ schools, and our family doctor. If they’re not on your contacts and it’s an urgent call, they will keep ringing, and multiple calls from the same number should bypass the do not disturb mode by default.
  • Set boundaries with colleagues. Next to gadgets, interruptions from our colleagues are the top distraction at the workplace. Learn the art of politely saying you need to return to your task. If a colleague asks for help, learn to refuse politely or offer to help at another scheduled time when you’re done with your work.
  • Dedicate time to checking messages. Unless it’s part of your job, there’s no reason to check emails, texts, or voicemails throughout the day. Set aside 5-15 minutes a day for this specifically.   

6) Single task.

If you’re a parent like me, multitasking is an innate superpower. But it turns out multitasking makes us less productive and more likely to make mistakes. 

According to separate studies from the University of Maryland and Stanford researchers, our brain gets bombarded rapidly with different electronic information when we multitask. This forces the brain to constantly switch gears to go back and forth between tasks. The entire process places an increased demand on the brain, slowing the person’s ability to pay attention, recall information, or complete the task at hand.

To avoid overwhelming the brain, focus on a single task at a time

7) Give your brain a break.

It may sound counterproductive, but taking regular breaks is one of the most underrated productivity tips and tricks.

Harvard Health says a lot of research suggests that working in blocks of time with regular rest periods helps with focus. This is reportedly because the brain can only maintain focus between 10 to 52 minutes. Harvard recommends experimenting with a span that works best for you and squeezing breaks in between.

I use the Pomodoro technique for my brain breaks and find it very effective. If you’ve never heard of the Pomodoro, it’s basically a time management technique that breaks work into 25-minute intervals in between short breaks. My sweet spot for focus is around the hour mark, so I have my timer set at 60 minutes of focus between 10-minute breaks. 

If Pomodoro is not for you, look into other time management tools that help with productivity while incorporating regular breaks.

8) Let it go.

Heads up: perfectionists may find the next productivity tip difficult to accept.

Psychology Professor Simon Sherry’s research concluded that perfectionism can be counterproductive because it results in over-striving, which limits productivity. 

Dr. Gratias, a workplace productivity coach, explains that perfectionists become counterproductive when they keep working and tweaking their projects because “it’s not perfect” enough for them.

But letting go doesn’t mean compromising quality or lowering the bar. Some tricks to overcoming perfectionism and boosting productivity include setting reasonable goals and allowing yourself to make mistakes. 

As Bren√© Brown said, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

9) Take time to reflect on your work.

As a nurse, the beginning and end of my shifts are almost always rushed. So when I first encountered this strategy, my first impression was, “who’s got time for that?!”.

I ended up giving it a go (I still didn’t have time for it, so I used the drive home as reflection time). It benefited me by allowing me to see what I did well and what I could have done better. But because no two days are the same in nursing, I didn’t have any metrics to gauge if my productivity improved.

Thankfully, Harvard Business School has the numbers and the science to support the contribution of reflection in boosting productivity. According to their study, engaging in reflection exercises could improve your productivity by up to 20%. That would mean for an 8-hour work day, you lose at least five minutes for reflection but gain up to 1.6 worth of work hours. Still a win!

Here are three sample questions you could ask yourself during the last 5-10 minutes of your work day.

  • What’s working that I can do more of?
  • What didn’t work, and how would I do it differently?
  • What did I learn today?

10) Practice self-care.

Self-care is the last, but definitely not the least, on my list. In fact, it should top the list as one of the most effective ways to increase productivity without causing burnout.

A few examples of daily self-care exercises that have been scientifically proven to improve productivity include:

  • Getting enough sleep. The Cleveland Clinic says that sleep allows your body to rest and recover physically, emotionally, and mentally. It benefits you by allowing even your tiniest of cells to recover, strengthening your immune system, and improving your mood, productivity, and muscle recovery.
  • Engage in regular exercise. Harvard Health experts note that exercise improves how our brain protects our memories and thinking skills. They said that “cardio” exercises specifically help increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
  • Eat a healthy diet. An American population health study in 2012 reported that employees consuming unhealthy diets were 66% more likely to have decreased productivity than those who ate healthier options.
  • Engage in mindfulness activities. A 2015 Japanese study confirms that mindfulness practices positively influence work performance, job satisfaction, and engagement. Yoga, meditation, journaling, visualization, and sensory exercises are just some of the many mindfulness practices that help calm your mind and boost your productivity. 

Work better, not harder.

If there’s one takeaway from this article, being productive doesn’t necessarily mean working longer hours. Thanks to these science-proven strategies for boosting productivity, we can work towards reaching our goals without sacrificing much of our time (and sanity). 

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