6 science-backed ways to make yourself more productive

A research paper published in Nature last month revealed something interesting about productivity… at least in ants.

Eisuke Hasegawa, professor of agriculture at Hokkaido University, has been studying lazy ants. Conventional wisdom tells us that ant colonies are models of discipline and solid teamwork, but apparently that’s not the case, with up to half of ants slacking off at any given time. “Even when observed over a long period of time, between 20 and 30% of ants don’t do anything that you could call work,” Professor Hasegawa told NPR.

In fact, your average ant’s favourite recreational activities include wandering around aimlessly, lying still and grooming. You might think these lazy insects are a burden on their colony, but it turns out they’re actually beneficial overall. Colonies with more slackers than average proved more resilient, as workshy ants are there to take the place of their fallen workhorse colleagues.ants_lazy_efficient

Even in humans, laziness isn’t necessarily a bad trait – one man’s idleness is another’s efficiency. Frank Gilbreth Sr was an efficiency expert and early pioneer in motion study. As his son noted in his 1948 book, Cheaper by the Dozen, “A lazy man, Dad believed, always makes the best use of his Therbligs [a term invented by Gilbreth to represent motion in the workplace – an inversion of his surname] because he is too indolent to waste motions. Whenever Dad started to do a new motion study project at a factory, he’d always begin by announcing he wanted to photograph the motions of the laziest man on the job. ‘The kind of fellow I want,’ he’d say, ‘is the fellow who is so lazy he won’t even scratch himself. You must have one of those around someplace.’”

I wouldn’t for a second recommend avoiding scratching as a productivity exercise, but it does raise a good point: endeavour for the sake of endeavour doesn’t really help anyone, which is why long working hours are such a terrible idea.

With that in mind, what can you do to improve your productivity and get the most out of your limited time on Earth? Here are some of science’s best suggestions.

1. Working flat out kills productivity

Humans aren’t built to work solidly without breaks, and productivity quickly suffers. Henry Ford figured this out as early as 1926, when the Ford Motor Company reduced hours from nine hours to eight, against the grain of conventional wisdom. Productivity improved as more was done in less time, and other businesses followed suit.

Working for shorter periods but with more focus seems to be the answer. This 2011 synthesis paper explains that long hours not only see no improvement in productivity, but often make things actively worse.

2. Breaks – both short and long – are a pretty good thingtake_breaks_reguarly_science_productivity

Good luck changing your company’s entire working philosophy, though, no matter how much academic evidence there is on your side. Working 9-5, as Dolly Parton sang, is here to stay for the time being, but you can still improve your productivity within this tight remit.

Taking breaks is the answer. Holidays offer a full recharge, but even small breaks can help you out. How small? Well, a 2012 study from Hiroshima University found that students who looked at pictures of baby animals were more productive than those who viewed pictures of adult animals or appealing-looking foods. So there’s that…

That’s not the only study to back up regular breaks. A Cornell University paper from 1999 suggested that workers who were given regular automated reminders to take a break from their computers were 13% more accurate than their co-workers, while a 2009 study from the University of Melbourne found that those who engage in the wonderfully euphemistic “Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing” were more productive than those who doggedly stuck to their schedule, “provided WILB does not exceed more than around 12% of work time.”

Twelve per cent, eh? That’s pretty specific, although not quite as fine-tuned as Julia Gifford’s advice in The Muse. Using a productivity app called DeskTime, Gifford’s team found the magic number to be 52 minutes of work followed by a 17-minute break. Rinse and repeat.dont_procrastinate_science_productivity

That doesn’t very comfortably break down into your average eight-hour shift, but the message from the research is clear: it’s not a bad thing to take a well-earned break, no matter what your manager has to say on the subject.

Just don’t go overboard.

3. Don’t work in silence

Put Spotify on. A 2005 study from the University of Windsor found that background music ensured workers stayed focused for longer, and were able to work more creatively – although from personal experience, I’d advise that anything with distracting lyrics is a no go (my pick: instrumental indie band Unwed Sailor.)

There’s also evidence to suggest that low-level ambient noise – such as that found in your standard office – helps you get stuff done. Home workers might suffer without, but never fear – apps can give the illusion of bustling ambience so your productivity needn’t suffer.

4. Set deadlines and stick to them

Deadlines work, as this 2002 paper shows. The trouble, as the paper also points out, is that we’re not great at setting realistic ones for ourselves, so a certain degree of flexibility is necessary.

5. Stop multitasking now

You think you can multitask, but you really can’t.

Don’t take my word for it, ask Stanford University, which in 2009 published research demonstrating that those who routinely multitask struggle to pay attention, recall information and switch from one job to another. None of these spell great things for your productivity, no matter how many tabs you think you can juggle.stop_multitasking_now

So you’re easily distracted – so what? Well, academic study suggests that if you lose focus on a task – either through your own fault, or just taking a call or answering an email, it takes around 23 minutes to return to your original focus.  

It’s a small wonder you’ve made it this far down the list, although it does suggest there’s hope for you yet…

6. Don’t put things off

I’ve already explained how procrastination is a bad thing and deadlines can be effective way at conquering them, but there’s another reason to just get a move on: the Zeigarnik effect.

Named after Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who first observed the phenomenon in the 1920s, the idea is that incomplete tasks stick in the mind, and nag away at the brain until they’ve been completed, at which point you can finally relax.

In other words, if you kick procrastination to the curb and actually make a start on your project, then the Zeigarnik effect will often kick in, mentally needling you until you get the damned thing done.

Hey, you wanted to be more productive – I didn’t say it would always be a comfortable experience.

READ NEXT: The uncomfortable truth about long working hours – they don’t work for anyone

Images: Miki Yoshihito, Sancho McCann, waferboard, Judit Klein and Rennett Stowe used under Creative Commons

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