This is your brain on productivity

10 Scientifically
Proven Tactics
to Stay Productive 

10 Scientifically Proven Tactics to Stay Productive 

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DEADLINES

FOCUS

DISTRACTIONS

FOLLOW THROUGH

WORKING SMART

BREAKS

MOVE AROUND

GET SUPPORT

MUSIC

10 BAD HABITS

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INTRODUCTION 

GROWTH FACTORS 

WINNING SERVICE 

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CONCLUSION

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1 Set external deadlines

For most people, a long to-do list without deadlines is a recipe for procrastination. When we feel no rush to complete a task, it’s pushed further and further down the priority list until it’s forgotten and shrugged off. That’s why many of us set deadlines to encourage our procrastination-leaning selves to get moving on important projects.


But research shows that, although self-imposed deadlines are better than nothing, external deadlines are the true productivity boosters. In one MIT study, self-imposed deadlines improved performance, but people typically didn’t set their own deadlines to really push themselves. In other words, we tend to go easy on ourselves. External deadlines are much better at improving performance.

 

So to truly increase your productivity, set deadlines for key projects — then tell others about those deadlines to hold you accountable.

20% of adults are procrastinators - Joseph Ferrari, APA

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2 Focus deeply on one task

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Why all the optimism about growth? “They are probably marketing more aggressively to achieve their growth goals, which means other SMBs are feeling more competition,” says Stu Richards, CEO of Bredin, Inc., which conducted the survey.

 

In fact 49 percent of those surveyed said increased competition from other small businesses will be their greatest obstacle to growth this year. Usually, it’s larger enterprises that pack the pressure on SMBs to compete. Not this year. Only 44 percent said competition from larger businesses would hindering their growth in 2016.

 

In our hyperconnected world, a variety of screens and messages cry out for our attention. Email, texts, social media, phone calls, Netflix, more email — all of these distract us while we scramble to complete important tasks. The best way to battle distractions? Narrow your focus to one thing at a time, and deeply focus on only that.


Author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport says this extreme focus — or deep work, as he calls it — is “one of the most valuable skills in our economy.” He explains, “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. ... In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.”


In his book Deep Work, Newport cites a University of California, Irvine study of knowledge workers in real offices. The study found that all interruptions, even short ones, delayed the total amount of time required to complete tasks significantly. To be most productive during critical-thinking tasks, close your email and chats. Avoid social media. Embrace the solitude with just you and your ready-to-work brain.


3  Put away your phone

You've probably noticed that you aren't productive while you're actively skimming Twitter or flipping through texts. But your phone may be a bigger detractor from productivity than you realize.


In one study of the mobile technology habits of college students, more time spent on mobile devices correlated with “a relatively weaker tendency to delay gratification (as measured by a delay discounting task) and a greater inclination toward impulsive behavior (i.e., weaker impulse control, assessed behaviorally and through self-report)”.


So the next time you’re tempted to reward yourself with some smartphone time after 20 solid minutes of working on a project, realize that your phone may be quietly tempting you to seek instant gratification — like relaxation instead of more work — and act more impulsively. Instead, if you need a mental break, take a few deep breaths and enjoy a walk around the block or your office building.


In his book Deep Work, Newport cites a University of California, Irvine study of knowledge workers in real offices. The study found that all interruptions, even short ones, delayed the total amount of time required to complete tasks significantly. To be most productive during critical-thinking tasks, close your email and chats. Avoid social media. Embrace the solitude with just you and your ready-to-work brain.

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To be most productive during critical-thinking tasks, close your email and chats.

4  Make an implementation intention

Let’s say you have a major project due on Friday. You’re planning to spend all day Tuesday and Wednesday working on it, leaving extra time Thursday to seek your manager’s approval. But do you have a detailed plan for where, when, and how you’ll actually start and finish the project?


In most workplaces, last-minute meetings, questions, and phone calls are par for the course — and goals can quickly be shifted off-course. As Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl explains, “It's not enough to have a goal intention, you need to have an implementation intention too."


So what does that intention look like? Here’s an example. If your goal was to floss your teeth regularly, your implementation intention might be:  "When I put the toothpaste on my toothbrush in the evening (a habit I already have), I will then stop and get out the floss first." 

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Pychyl explains, “Essentially what I've done in making this implementation intention is to put the cue for behavior (putting the paste on my toothbrush) into the environment, so it serves as a stimulus for my behavior. I don't have to think about or remind myself about my goal. … The issue here really is one of a predecision.”


Back to your Friday project. You might have blocked off 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday to complete your project, with an hour for lunch. Your implementation intention might be that at 9:45 a.m. on both days, after you go to the bathroom and get a fresh cup of coffee (which you already do), you immediately open your project and alert your desk neighbors who are likely to bother you not to disturb you for a few hours. Productivity is all about making your actions automatic.

Productivity is about making your actions automatic.

Productivity is about making your actions automatic.

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5  Work in 90-minute increments

Sure, we workers today have a lot more technology at our disposal today to boost our productivity than our great-great grandparents did. But humans still need approximately eight hours of sleep a night, access to sunlight, physical activity — you know, the basics. Another basic that seems to be part of our biology: we can only work for 90-120 minutes before we need a break.


Depending on the task, you may be able to extend that 90-minute working session to 120 if you’re truly in a flow. But if you spend an hour and a half on a given project and find that your mind seems to be problem-solving more sluggishly and drifting to other topics, it’s probably time for a break.


Practically speaking, you can schedule these 90-minute cycles of work alongside your meetings, lunch or gym breaks, and conversations with coworkers. This 90-minute productivity cycle even applied to prodigious violinists in a study cited by HBR : “The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and took a break in between each one.” So feel free to unplug every hour and a half. It’s science. (More on how to do that in the next section.)


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6  Take strategic breaks

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Thanks to the previous chapter, we know that our minds need a break every 90 minutes. But all breaks are not created equal. Here’s how to take a break that will boost your productivity instead of detracting from it:

Enjoy some conversation
According to one article, “A team of MIT researchers ... discovered that call center workers who took the time to converse with their co-workers, instead of just grinding away, got through calls faster, felt less tension, and earned the same approval ratings as their peers who didn’t schmooze at the office.”

Do a few breathing exercises
 For those super-stressed days when you can’t take a long break but need mental reinvigoration, consider some mindfulness-inspired breathing exercises. Here’s one example from Greatist: “With one hand on the chest and the other on the belly, take a deep breath in through the nose, ensuring the diaphragm (not the chest) inflates with enough air to create a stretch in the lungs.” Try this six to 10 times per minute for 10 minutes.


Move around
 Simple stretches can help relieve the stress of awkward typing positions and poor sitting posture. Alternately, doing 10-20 reps of a moderate strength-building exercise will get your blood pumping and can slow down the loss of muscle tissue that comes with a sedentary lifestyle. Here are a few greatdeskercise ideas. See the next section for ideas on incorporating walking for a longer break.

When productivity is at a premium, make every break more strategic.

7  Go for a walk

Few areas of productivity science are more documented than the benefits of a humble walk. For example, we know that employee performance and productivity increases with use of a treadmill desk. Compared to sitting, scientists at Stanford found that "any form of walking could increase creative thinking by about 60%."


And consider this mind-blowing example from Murray Newlands, founder of Due: “On average, each task was taking around 7 business days to complete. After we started doing our daily walks for about a week, we noticed that average dropping to 6 days, then to 5 days after about 20 to 30 business days of having daily walks 2x a day.”

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Walks are about as close to productivity magic as you can get. Depending on the weather where you live and your proximity to the outdoors, the greatest barrier to going for a walk is often simply getting started. But once you lace up your walking shoes and get your heart pumping, the benefits are incredible.


To incorporate more walks in your workday, try having walking meetings, walking for half of your lunch break, walking the stairs when the outdoors aren’t favorable, or walking during conference calls when your primary role is listening.

Walking can boost creative thinking.

Walking can boost creative thinking.

Plan to scale. Plan to win.

Want to be more productive as you scale your small business? Get useful tips from the leaders of a successful Salesforce startup as you build a foundation for rapid growth.

 

8  Build the right support

Think about the most productive people you know. What do you think sets them apart? One answer may be willpower. Often, highly productive people have an extreme amount of discipline and self control that helps them outperform their peers.


But according to the American Psychological Association, willpower may be a limited resource: “Every day, in one form or another, you exert willpower. You resist the urge to surf the Web instead of finishing your expense report. You reach for a salad when you’re craving a burger. ... Yet a growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.”


So how can you ensure your willpower stays strong? Build in the right support so you’re not constantly fighting the battle of productivity versus relaxation — a battle you risk losing every time. 


Do you find yourself struggling to stay productive around 10:30 a.m. as you get hungry? Aid your willpower by having healthy snacks on hand around that time. Or maybe your productivity lags around 4 p.m. as you anticipate your long commute. Plan repetitive tasks or inbox-cleaning during that time so you’re not in the middle of deep work assignments.

Your willpower can get tired, plan ahead so your resolve stays strong.

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Your willpower can get tired, plan ahead so your resolve stays strong.

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9  Listen to music

Trying to be productive while drowning out the sounds of your desk mate’s conference calls and keeping your spirits high all at the same time can be tricky. Music may be just what the psychologist ordered. 


Music releases dopamine, which helps us feel more positive and pleasant. According to Dr. Teresa Lesiuk, that’s important: “When you’re stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention. When you’re in a positive mood, you’re able to take in more options.”


And in one study from the University of Birmingham, England, music helped workers perform repetitive work more efficiently. If you find that listening to music distracts you from work, try music without lyrics. Nature sounds, classical, or electronic are tried and true workplace options. You can also try adjusting the volume so that the sounds are neither too loud, which may make it difficult to concentrate, or too quiet, which may allow outside noise to creep in.

Music helps our brains remain positive and ready to problem-solve.
It also boosts efficiency.

MUSIC 
IS THE
MISSION

10  Replace bad habits

Now that you understand the benefits of adding 90-minute work cycles, walking, music, and other productivity-enhancing tactics to your routine, it’s time to trim the fat. Take an honest look at your productivity over several weeks and uncover where you’re spending unnecessary time. Conduct your productivity assessment over an average period — not right before a big vacation or the end of a quarter.

 

You may find that you're losing time:
 

Attending less-than-valuable meetings
Responding to unimportant emails
Summoning up the motivation to start difficult projects
Checking news sites or other social media
Fighting the urget to take an afternoon nap


 

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All of these productivity-killers are actually nothing more than bad habits. And bad habits can be broken with a little science. Charles Duhigg is a reporter for The New York Times and author of The Power of Habit. Duhigg examined hundreds of productive people and behavioral studies to distill habit-changing into four steps:

Identify the routine.
 
Experiment with rewards.
 
Isolate the cue.
 
Have a plan.
 

Depending on your own reward interests and cues, you can experiment with hundreds of ways to rid your workday of bad habits and replace them with new ones (like focusing more on deep work or taking more strategic breaks). As Duhigg says, “Sometimes change takes a long time. Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures. But once you understand how a habit operates – once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward – you gain power over it.”

Change bad habits by diagnosing the cue, the routine, and the reward.

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Service agents are the most important part of delivering a customer experience that people talk (and tweet) about. But you have to empower your agents for productivity and success.