Four science-backed ways to boost your productivity


Inventium founder Dr Amantha Imber. Source: Supplied.

We all have 24 hours in a day. And as entrepreneur Jim Rohn once said: “Time is more valuable than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time.”

The difference between getting to the top of our field and remaining mediocre comes down to how we use that time. Here are four science-backed tips to get you using your time wisely.

Work to your chronotype

Through studying thousands of people’s internal body clocks, scientists came to learn that we are not all created equal when it comes to our daily energy levels and how they fluctuate. About 14% of the population are what these researchers refer to as ‘larks’. They are stereotypical ‘morning people’ — who can be severely irritating if don’t happen to be one of them.

At the other end of the spectrum are ‘owls’, which represent another 21% of the population. Owls have their peak productivity after most of us have had dinner, and quite often, well into the night.

If you can’t relate to either extreme, you are probably a ‘middle bird’. In general, middle birds tend to follow the energy patterns of a lark, albeit a couple of hours delayed.

The big problem that owls face is the business world works against their natural body clocks. As a result, owls are at a distinct disadvantage in organisations that don’t dare challenge the default hours of working.

Whatever your chronotype, you need to start proactively structuring your days to align with your energy levels. Larks often work best when they can start work at 6am, while owls are better placed to not arrive at work until lunch.

Change your language

Becoming more productive often involves changing deeply ingrained habits. For example, we know checking our social media feed every five minutes is not great for productivity. Sometimes, changing your behaviour can be as simple as using different language.

Marketing professor Vanessa Patrick investigated the impact of the word ‘can’t’ versus ‘don’t’. She suspected the way we talk to ourselves and others actually impacts our ability to say no to temptation.

In one of Patrick’s experiments, 120 university students were taught about a strategy for managing unhealthy food temptations. One group was taught to say ‘I can’t eat X’ whenever presented with an unhealthy snack. The other group was taught to say ‘I don’t eat X’.

Participants were then asked to turn their attention to a completely different (and irrelevant) task, but when they got up to leave the room, the crux of the experiment happened. They were offered a choice of two snacks: a chocolate bar and a healthy granola bar. The experimenters quietly noted which participants picked which bar.

A total 39% of those who were taught to say ‘I can’t eat X’ when presented with a temptation chose the healthy granola bar. In contrast, 64% of those in the ‘I don’t eat X’ group picked the granola bar.

In other words, changing one simple word increased the chance of selecting the healthy snack by over 50%. Saying you don’t do something sounds like you are the one in control of your choices, whereas saying you can’t do something sounds like someone else is calling the shots.

So if you are trying to break a habit or change something about your own behaviour, such as checking social media and email less often, use the word ‘don’t’ to improve your chances of a successful change by 50%.

Avoid the need for willpower

Changing your behaviour to increase productivity can take willpower. It takes discipline to switch off social media and avoid mindlessly surfing the internet when you are meant to be working. But the problem is your willpower muscle is limited. So where possible, we should attempt to remove temptations rather than try to resist them.

To effortlessly stay focused at work, check out Freedom. Freedom allows you to block yourself from accessing certain websites and applications, or if you are game, the entire internet. You simply decide when you want to get deep, focused work done, and Freedom blocks you out of all potential distractions.

I’ve found for myself that while my willpower is strong in the morning and I can generally avoid digital distractions, afternoons were much harder. After using Freedom to lock myself out of Gmail and other distracting and addictive websites between 1-4pm every day, I was able to be far more productive in my afternoons.

To get the most out of Freedom, reflect on when you are most susceptible to digital distractions such as email and social media, and set Freedom to lock you out of these sites during these times.

And if you think you might end up wanting to simply hack the system, you can use ‘locked mode’ which makes it impossible for you to switch off a Freedom session prematurely.

Take a 40-second green break

Finally, if you don’t have time to implement any of the above suggestions, all you need to do to boost your productivity is take a 40-second break. Yes, just 40 seconds.

Research from the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that taking a 40-second “green micro-break”, that is, looking at a view of greenery, increased concentration levels by 8%. So taking less than a minute to look at some trees will work wonders for your productivity.

By applying these techniques, you will be able to use your time more wisely, develop more productive habits, and in doing so, truly stand out from the pack.

NOW READ: Lark, middle bird or owl? How to redesign your workday to reflect your biological clock

NOW READ: Why 25-minute meetings are easier than you think


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