What’s the secret to getting the most out of your day? The answer may surprise you. We look to cold, hard scientific research to assess whether the common ‘productivity tips’ are fact or fiction.
1. Wake up early
‘The early bird catches the worm’, so the saying goes. This approach may work well for ‘morning people’, who are at their prime at this time of day, but it’s not a hard and fast rule that benefits everyone.
Truth is some people work best at night; others are more productive midday. It’s more important to take advantage of your natural peak performance time, rather than wake up outrageously early, remedy your bleary eyes and brain with copious amounts of coffee, only to crash and burn quickly and achieve, well, not all that much.
In a 2010 study, Biology Professor Christopher Randler surveyed a number of students to see how inherent biorhythms (whether you’re naturally a morning person or evening person) affect productivity.
He noted that morning people tend to be more successful in school and the business world – in no small way due to the fact their biorhythms correlate with the typical corporate and school schedule. (He also noted, however, that evening people ‘tend to be smarter, more creative [and] have a better sense of humour’ – so there you go).
Another study, in 2011, demonstrated that the issue is more complex. The study, published in Thinking and Reasoning Volume 11, separated activities into productive and creative, and then looked at the optimal time of day to do those tasks for ‘morning’ people and ‘night’ people.
The takeaway? Pay attention to what works for you and adapt your schedule wherever possible.
2. Multitasking is the key to efficiency
Question: if you listen to a lecture podcast while you reply to emails and cook tea, will you get all three things done more efficiently than if you do one at a time?
We hate to burst your bubble, but studies show that most people who think they’re multitasking are actually doing a number of tasks not all that well at the same time.
‘Successful multitasking’ is really the unicorn of productivity. It’s a great concept to aspire to or dream of, but rarely manifests in reality. Often, people who claim to multitask well are generally mono-tasking in quick succession – and therein lies the key.
If you’re doing tasks that don’t require much mental concentration, then multitasking may be the more efficient approach. But if you’re doing anything that requires serious concentration, it makes sense that giving this one task your full focus is the key to actually completing successfully.
Research increasingly shows that multitasking negatively affects and reduces productivity, and instead mindfulness is the key. So consider this permission to only do one thing today. Not only will this increase your chances of productivity, it’s also likely to decrease unnecessary stress.
3. Busyness equals productive, right?
Wrong. Working long hours, chained to your desk, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working smart. It could mean the opposite.
An EU study of hours worked vs productivity showed that some countries with the shortest working week had the highest levels of productivity. The Danes work about 39 hours a week, but have a productivity rating of 119.2. The folks from Luxembourg gallop in with a productivity figure of 189.2 from 40.5 hours work a week. In other words, it’s quality that counts, not quantity.
Related to this subject is the value of taking breaks. It isn’t a sin to take some time out. On the contrary, it’s vital to get up, to get the blood flowing and to give your body, eyes and mind a rest from the computer.
A lot of people report making breakthroughs in their ideas when they escape the tyranny of the desk. Take a walk or a bike ride and let the ideas flow. A 2011 study from the University of Illinois showed that taking brief breaks was beneficial when working on long tasks.
Be a mythbuster
If you truly want to get the best work done with the time you have, you need to know what works for you and what doesn’t. As the ‘early riser’ myth illustrates, not every idea suits every person.
It’s alright to take a little time out for it. You might even consider it productive.
Want more tips?
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