The 3 things that stop you from being productive

Monday morning300By Rosie Gollancz -

 If you’re looking to improve your productivity, listen up!

What we do affects our productivity more than what we’re not doing – introducing new things into your routine can’t help if the leg you’re already standing on is shaky. So no matter how fun it is to seek out the newest productivity hack, it’s your current habits that might be key in helping you become a productive, and thus a happier, person [1].

Below, I’ll explain the three things that were my daily routine, and might be part of yours as well, which the latest research suggests harm productivity. Now that I have eliminated these three things from my life, I’m noticeably more efficient than before.

Read on to find out what these three productivity killers are and what you can do about them.

#1: Micro sleeps

You’ve probably heard it said many times that getting enough sleep is crucial to being productive. And yet so many of us accumulate sleep debt until we crash.

The importance of getting enough sleep is in minimizing the occurrence of micro-sleeps throughout the day.

Micro sleeps are short lapses into sleep. Though they last only seconds, they can have a hugely detrimental effect on our output, as our attention lapses [2] along with our ability to concentrate [3].

Throughout the day our sleep-wake rhythm oscillates which is why we sometimes feel sleepy, while at other times we’re wide awake. Lack of sleep makes the changes to this rhythm volatile so our ability to remain awake can at times be affected to the point of lapsing into a microsleep.

Doing monotonous and complex tasks has been shown to increase the likelihood of a micro sleep occurring [4]. Lack of sleep not only makes micro sleeps more frequent, but increases the time spent completing a task [3].

So, whilst I might have felt like I was doing a lot in staying up late, I was actually under-performing in terms of quantity, and the quality of my work might have suffered as well.

Alertness, motivation and engagement [3], all of which are crucial to completing a task are more likely to be affected the longer we’ve been awake. Additionally, our mental performance gets worse the longer a task takes to complete [2].

So, just by getting enough sleep you might already make yourself a do-er.

#2: Sitting

While researchers are still arguing over the health benefits of standing versus sitting at work, their impact on productivity hasn’t been questioned – physical activity improves productivity [5] and it’s known that standing engages more muscles than sitting.

It isn’t imperative for you to rush out to buy a standing desk, just sitting straight should help you maintain alertness. Interspersing periods of sitting straight with periods of standing has definitely helped me maintain focus on what I’m doing.

I try to remember to take a breather and walk away from my desk periodically – this has been shown to benefit productivity and can be an alternative to physical activity when I’d rather not interrupt my workday for exercise. Interestingly, one research study found that workers who sat for most of the day took more breaks than their colleagues who stood and that their breaks were longer on average [6].

#3: Multi-tasking

This formerly hyped work strategy has been subject to increasing criticism in recent years, and deservedly so. In trying to complete more than one task at a time, we risk spreading our attention too thin, which increases the likelihood of making errors. Having to switch between tasks decreases productivity as our brain has to adjust to a new context in order to perform that task [7], making us less efficient. And, if interrupted, it’s said to take 25 minutes on average for a person to get back into the flow [8].

Combining multi-tasking and sleep deprivation and/or chronic sleep debt, which is what many of us tend to do, causes one’s work to further suffer [2] both in quality and quantity.

I saw both my productivity and the quality of my work improve when I started working in spurts based on the Pomodoro technique – intensely focusing on a task in 20-minute periods. As someone who finds it difficult to maintain focus for hours on end, this is the only so-called productivity hack that I truly use.

Getting caught up in searching out amazing new ways to hack productivity, we sometimes overlook the obvious solutions. Having eliminated the three productivity killers listed above, I am now able to do more, do it better and maybe even do it faster, if I’m having a good day. I hope you do too!

[1] Oswald, A.J., Proto, E., Sgroi, D. (2009). Happiness and productivity. IZA Discussion Paper No. 4645.
[2] Durmer, J.S., Dinges, D.F. (2005). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology 25(1), 117-129.
[3] Lim, J., Dinges, D.F. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Department of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
[4] Porcu, S., Bellatreccia, A., Ferrara, M. (1998). Sleepiness, alertness and performance during a laboratory simulation of an acute shift of the wake-sleep cycle. Ergonomics 41(8), 1192-1202.
[5] Schwarz, T.U., Hasson, H. (2011). Employee self-rated productivity and objective organizational production levels: effects of worksite health interventions involving reduced work hours and physical exercise. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 53(8), 838-844.
[6] Bossen, D. (2007). Improved workplace performance and productivity through movement.
[7] Lin, L. (2011). Multitasking in Today’s Learning Environment:Does Technology Make a Difference? University of North Texas.
[8] González, V.M., Mark, G. (2005). Managing currents of work: multi-tasking among multiple collaborations. ECSCW 143-162.

Bio: Rosie Gollancz is the Community Manager for Sleepio, a clinically proven sleep improvement programme and online library of articles written by sleep experts, including co-founder Professor Colin Espie.

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