Be more productive: A neuroscientist explains how to get more done in less time
There are all sorts of productivity myths out there – but are there any that actually work?
Open social media and you'll find countless posts from people claiming to have the secret to improving your productivity, whether that's by waking up at 4am, taking certain supplements or packing your day full of activities.
However, a lot of these claims don't have any scientific basis, and many are completely wrong. So, is there a trick to increasing your output? Are there any simple, science-backed life hacks we should all be incorporating into our daily routines?
There may be no life-changing hacks that will turn you into the next Bill Gates, but there are some small changes you can make that will help you to work more productively.
Background music is beneficial
There’s a lot of debate at present regarding what’s more productive. Is it working from home, or working in the office? And both sides regularly argue that the other offers more distractions from work.
However, one thing that rarely gets mentioned is the fact that certain distractions can be helpful for productivity. Some people prefer to work in relative silence, but a great many find they’re more productive with some sort of background noise. Generally, this takes the form of background music. This helps, rather than distracts, because of how our attention works. Basically, we have two attention systems: the conscious one, which we direct and control, and the unconscious one, which alerts us to anything significant that our senses pick up and diverts our focus towards it.
When we’re trying to focus on a task, our conscious attention is occupied, but can still be diverted by the unconscious system. And if we’re in complete silence, any creaks or sighs or murmurs or other random sounds stand out more, meaning our unconscious attention is more likely to be distracted, which hinders our productivity.
But if we play music in the background, it masks obtrusive noises and occupies our unconscious attention, like giving a bored child a toy to play with while you’re trying to work. Obviously, the type of music will make a difference. Things with lyrics aren’t as good because our brains are more stimulated by linguistic information, and music that has a negative impact on mood can sap motivation.
Weirdly, one type of music that seems to readily boost productivity and focus is video game soundtracks. It makes logical sense, really; it’s music designed to be stimulating while you’re focusing on something else.
In any case, there are many situations where background noise and music can actually enhance productivity and not disrupt it.
Waking up when you've had enough sleep is better than waking at 4am
We previously saw that forcing yourself to wake before dawn in order to be more productive can become self-defeating. However, this need not be the case. In truth, any wake-up time can be productive, if you’ve had enough sleep. So if you wake at 4am after going to bed at 8pm, you’ve almost certainly had enough slumbering time. There are many health benefits of sufficient sleep. It boosts memory retention, aids focus, improves general health, elevates mood and reduces irritability, all of which increase your capacity to be productive.
Sleep can aid productivity in other ways. Sleep is when our brains process all the memories and thoughts we’ve accrued during the day, and integrates them into our existing neural networks.
This is why ‘sleeping on it’ is a legitimate approach to problem-solving. If we can’t get our head around an issue, sleeping on it means more of our brain is connected to our experience of it, opening up new approaches, while staying up all night trying to figure it out is less effective. So yes, sleep is important for productivity – more so than waking up at certain times.
Go for walks and decorate your workplace with plants
It’s rather common for people to liven up their workplace by incorporating houseplants into it. Or to covet the desk or office with the window that looks out onto the nearby park or wooded area. Some organisations frown on such things, opting instead for greater uniformity, but by and large, plants (and green views) in the workplace are sought after and appreciated by employees.
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Why, though? Why would we, as a society, put so much time and effort into constructing buildings that keep nature out, only to constantly keep bringing bits of it inside them?
It’s not just for aesthetic reasons; it turns out that plants, foliage, and other types of greenery are actually good for productivity. This has been borne out by many studies which report increases in productivity when plants are introduced into the workplace. This happens, at least in part, thanks to the process of attention restoration, which is sometimes called ‘fascination’.
The problem is, in most modern human environments, there are things that ‘actively’ attract our attention. Screens, billboards, writing, numerous colours and shapes, an ever-changing variety of people, and more. Our brains like all these things, sure, but they invariably have to work hard to pay attention to them all, to decipher the sensory information they’re providing, and so on. But, as we saw earlier, our brains only have finite resources to do all this, so eventually they’ll just become depleted.
However, this doesn’t seem to happen when we look at plants and similar stimuli. When we look at natural greenery, it seems our brains are occupied without being taxed. It’s the cognitive equivalent of putting your feet up with a good book; it’s doing something, but something restorative, rather than demanding.
This is why greenery is helpful for productivity. It replenishes your brain’s resources. So if you feel that you need to go for a walk to ‘clear your head’, you’re probably being more literal than you realise.
Diet and exercise improve productivity, as long as you ignore the fads
Of the countless articles about how to be productive by following the advice of ‘highly successful people’, many focus on the individual’s diet and exercise regimen.
While their exercise routines are typically unobtainable purely due to practical concerns (most people lack a home gym, dedicated personal trainer, and four spare hours a day to use them), their diets can often be classed as ludicrous. You’ve probably read an article about some go-getter pulling in seven figures who seemingly breakfasts daily on a bowl of unfamiliar berries and leaves deemed to be ‘superfoods’, washed down with several glasses of ionised water, or the secretions of a beluga whale, or something equally bizarre.
If their claims come across as sanctimonious and superior, that’s because they are. It’s a way of displaying status and achievement to the unwashed masses. But if we ignore the ridiculous aspects, it’s fair to say that diet and exercise can be a big help with productivity.
Regular exercise has been shown, countless times, to have many benefits for your body and brain. Your brain is ultimately another organ after all, and the better shape your body is in, the more resources it can dedicate to the brain, improving functionality and productivity.
Diet can have a direct impact on our brains too. While the indirect health consequences of ‘junk’ foods are worth keeping in mind, recent studies show that such foods can have rapid negative effects on the brain’s workings, affecting our ability to focus and stay motivated on the tasks at hand.
So while you needn’t fill your fridge with the latest superfoods, improving your diet and exercise can boost productivity.
Just get in your 'zone'
With everything discussed so far, it’s important to consider one important caveat; everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. Individual differences play a considerable role in how we end up being productive.
But if you can eventually figure out what factors work best for you, it would be wise to exploit this awareness, because it increases your chance of reaching a state of cognitive ‘flow’, known to most people as being ‘in the zone’.
Flow is arguably the most productive state of mind it’s possible to be in. It’s when you’re the most focused on a task, whatever it is, and thus demonstrating the maximum level of skill in performing it that you’re capable of.
Despite how much time and effort people dedicate to achieving a state of flow, it’s actually tricky to do. This is likely due to the fact that our brains are actually doing dozens of things at once, and often, like with our attention systems, many of those things will get in the way of other things.
Sometimes, though, all of the scattered bits of our consciousness join forces and focus on one specific task, and so we enter a flow state. The issue is, what effectively occupies the myriad parts of your brain will vary from person to person. So the particular setup that allows you to be most productive will likely be unique to you.
The point is, reading articles and advice columns on how to be more productive is all well and good, but nobody is going to know the best way to boost your own productivity better than you.
- This article first appeared in issue 375 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.