10 Science-Backed Ways to Increase Productivity

We all have the same number of hours in the day, however, some people can accomplish significantly more than others during the same 24-hour period. Fortunately, there isn’t anything magical about high-achieving people, it simply comes down to little habits sprinkled throughout their day that enables them to get way more done than the rest of us.

1. Know thyself!

In terms of productivity know when you’re in the flow and get the most done. And know when you just can’t be bothered to work on a task. If your peak productivity occurs in the morning then this is the time you need to tackle your work.

2. Make a to-do list the day before

Before you sign out for the day, make a to-do list of all you need to accomplish the next day. Be realistic about this list. You might feel ambitious and write down a long list that is actually not achievable. A good tip to avoid this is to write down the estimated time each task will take you. This is more likely to force you to not pile on too much. 

3. Break tasks into smaller steps

When we accomplish a task our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released from the hypothalamus and is responsible for the feeling of pleasure. Completing a task results in a dopamine release.

If your to-do list has tasks that are too big it will take a really long time for that dopamine boost to occur. Break down your big task into small actionable items so that when you check each off you get your dopamine fix. You’re more likely to move to the next task once you’ve finished the previous one.

4. Clear the clutter around you

It’s interesting to note that research is actually split on this one; some believe a cluttered workspace is a genius at work whereas others believe it shows disorganization. Perhaps it’s safe to assume that for the majority of us, it's disorganization and not a genius at work!

Research shows that clutter makes us procrastinate. If our workspace is full of papers and notes and whatnot it will shift our focus and waste our time. Imagine walking up to a clean desk each morning. You’re more likely to get in the groove of your work if your desk is neat and only has the items you need.

I once had a professor in college who had mountains of papers stacked on her desk. I don’t even know how she kept track of what was on there. Suffice to say never once in the semester did we get our work graded and returned back to us on time. As a result, I never even knew how I was doing in that class because the professor was yet to grade my work.

In one workplace study managers admitted that they would be hesitant to give a promotion to employees with cluttered desks.

Unless you know you’re a messy genius, having a clean desk space will truly save you time and help increase productivity.

5. Avoid multitasking

The research on multitasking is interesting and eye-opening. We might fool ourselves into thinking we’re capable of multitasking but we’re truly not. We lose 40% of productivity when we switch from one task to the next. 

Often times while we work we get distracted by an incoming email, or quickly hop onto Instagram or Facebook. Every time we do that our brain has to spend energy to get back into our original task that we got distracted from in the first place.

In one study neuroscientists looked at the grey matter of people who often switch between social media devices and people who don’t. They found that people who frequently switched had smaller grey matter density in their anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG). The ACG is responsible for emotional and cognitive control. Although the researchers say that their results show correlation, not causation, it does not make a good case for multitasking. 

Another study showed that when men were asked to multitask and complete cognitive tasks their IQ levels dropped to that of an 8-year-old child.

So close all other tabs, put your phone away and tell yourself you will focus on just the one task on hand. There are several extensions available that will block distractions from popping up on your computer.

6. Exercise

Exercise not only benefits our physical health it also helps our cognitive health in the following ways. It improves our learning, memory, concentration, creativity, and mental stamina. It also reduces our stress levels. 

In one study employees were asked to exercise during their workday at the company’s gym and then self-report on how they felt at the end of the day. On the days that employees exercised they reported higher productivity, greater time management, and smoother interactions with their co-workers.
Sometimes getting yourself to exercise is half the battle; some people love working out while others can’t convince themselves to even get into it. It is important to identify what type of exercise we like doing; high-intensity cardio, or weights or slow-paced yoga, etc.

Not all people will enjoy cardio so if we’re forcing ourselves to get into exercising by consistently doing cardio the result will be that we wont be able to make exercising a regular, consistent habit. Maybe slow-paced, calm yoga is your thing. Find out your exercise style and it’ll be much easier to get into it.

7. Take breaks

Taking breaks ensures that we don't work past our optimal productivity stage and end up working less efficiently. One good technique to take breaks is called the Pomodoro Technique. It was devised by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. Cirillo was an Italian university student who has having a hard time staying focused on studying so he took a kitchen timer that was shaped like a tomato and had 10 minuted timed study sessions before he took a break. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato!

Here is how the Pomodoro technique works:
Set a 25-minute timer and begin working.
Take a 5-minute break once your timer goes off.
Then get back to work for another timed 25-minute session.
Once you’ve had 4 25-minute sessions, take a longer 15-30 minute break.

Studies show that we perform better when we take breaks. Our brain replays the task that we were working on during a break, once we return we get better at it than if we had not taken that break. Take this as your permission to take that break you’re craving……but time it!

8. Set your own due dates

If we work for ourselves it’s harder to stay motivated to complete a project. Set a due date for yourself and put it in your calendar; whether that is on your phone or on your desk calendar. Just make sure it’s very visible. Take the due date seriously!

You’re much more likely to get the results when you have a deadline pending. If you want to take this one step further you can get a family member or friend involved. Tell them there’s a deadline you have to meet and they have to hold you accountable for it. Social pressure can be a positive force in getting ourselves in gear and knocking projects out.

9. Do things that make time for tomorrow

In other words, set yourself up for success today so tomorrow is smooth sailing. This could mean delegating work to others. It could mean automating stuff as well. For example, set as many bills on autopay as you can. This will give you time and mental energy back so that you can devote it to something else. 

10. Sleep!

We may not think of sleep as something that is related to productivity but the truth is sleep is crucial to our productivity. So much so that the American workforce loses 1.23 million working days because of sleep-deprived employees. This is because their productivity goes way down when they are sleep deprived. In fact a study found that workers who were sleeping six hours or less reported that their productivity fell by 2.4%. 

So what has sleep got to with productivity? When we sleep our brain gets busy building and maintaining pathways that result in memory formation and creation. Good sleep improves our ability to learn and helps us solve problems faster. All these help with being more efficient in whatever we’re doing. Conversely, sleep deprivation causes you to be moody, irritable and unable to focus. One study found that the creativity levels of interior design students decreased after getting poor sleep. 

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night.

Amna Qureshi