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A neuroscientist debunks the most annoyingly common productivity myths

Published: 19th April, 2022 at 07:00
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How much truth is behind the productivity myths touted by influencers, and do we all need to be setting our alarms for 4am?

Increasing your productivity is easy. It’s just a matter of making a few simple changes to your routine, or behaviour, or thinking, and your productivity will soar.

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At least, that’s what countless online articles claim. The actual science tells a different story. Even a modest amount of research reveals that some of the most commonly touted claims about how to boost productivity fall apart in the face of the evidence. So, here are some of the most common myths around boosting productivity.

Waking up at 4am will make you more productive

It’s regularly claimed that you’ll be more productive if you get up early. Very early. According to a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, the most successful (and therefore productive) people typically rise at 4am.

There’s some logic to it. For instance, if you’re awake while everyone else is still asleep, they won’t distract you, so you’ll be more productive.

However, there are many reasons why waking up at 4am could be actively unproductive. An important one stems from our own biology; sleep is crucial for our ability to function, and depriving yourself of it does more harm than good.

A typically healthy amount of sleep for adults is around seven to nine hours. Less than that quickly has negative health effects, compromising focus, mood, memory, stress tolerance, and more. Forcing yourself to wake at 4am means you’re losing sleep, and will be less productive as a result.

Some people seem able to get away with it, being natural ‘early risers’. But the veneration of such people may be misplaced. A study by the National Sleep Foundation stated that “Individuals who habitually sleep outside the normal range may be exhibiting signs or symptoms of serious health problems or, if done volitionally, may be compromising their health and wellbeing”. Another study claims sleeping far fewer hours than average is more likely to be self-imposed than anything natural, and will incur a significant sleep debt, harming health.

Overall, while there may be some productive advantages to waking up in the early hours, these can easily be cancelled out by the consequences of lost sleep.

We all have the same 24 hours!

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The most successful people experience 24-hour days just like anyone else. Much ‘advice’ on increasing productivity includes this observation. The implication is that you, the less successful person, could do the same as them if only you used your time better. This is, presumably, meant to motivate you to be more productive.

Many have pushed back against this claim. Yes, we all experience 24 hours in a day. But the ability to use those hours productively differs tremendously from person to person.

Context is everything. Someone who is working nights to pay for their studies during the day will not have the same ability to use their time ‘productively’ as, say, someone who was born a millionaire thanks to their father’s lucrative diamond mine. Hypothetically.

Similarly, there’s the impact of societal gender roles and other unhelpful factors. Ultimately, it’s far easier to use time productively when you have the money and resources, or faithful individuals taking care of the ‘unproductive’ demands of everyday life. And the vast majority of people lack these things.

Also, the idea that you should use 24 whole hours productively is objectively nonsensical. Psychology has repeatedly emphasised the importance to wellbeing (and thus maintaining productivity) of a healthy work-life balance. Dedicating every possible hour to ‘being productive’ actively goes against this.

The ‘we all have the same 24 hours’ claim actively downplays the fact that few people have the option to use that time 100 per cent productively.

Keeping busy means being more productive

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When a boss appears in the workplace, you need to ‘look busy’, because if you aren’t visibly in the middle of several tasks, you aren’t being productive.

The idea that constantly being busy is the only way to be truly productive is the default assumption for many people. It echoes the ‘we all have the same 24 hours’ claim from earlier, with the implication that any time not spent productively is time wasted. Those who take on many tasks and roles at once are often looked up to and feted as the productive ideal. But the science tells a very different story.

In truth, it has long been known that multitasking or ‘task switching’ actually erodes your productivity. Impressive as it is, the human brain has limited resources when it comes to attention and working memory – our abilities to focus on and think about things.

These are both essential qualities for performing tasks successfully and productively, and if you overwhelm your attention and working memory with too many demands at once, then you will compromise your ability to do even the most straightforward tasks effectively.

This can then have knock-on effects on the productivity of other people too. Everybody will have experienced an increased workload because a colleague didn’t do their job right, meaning others have to fix their mess (and if you haven’t experienced this, then I’ve got bad news for you…).

But even if you are somehow able to handle an excessive workload successfully and effectively, this becomes detrimental, as ever-increasing cases of burnout in the workplace clearly reveal.

Thanks to how we and our brains work, productivity is often more about quality rather than quantity. Anyone insisting on trying to do as much as possible at once is just shooting themselves in the foot.

You should be happy in your work

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According to many people, productivity is linked to happiness. As in, the happier you are, the more productive you’ll be.

Again, there’s logic to this. We’re often instinctively motivated to do things we find rewarding and make us happy, and avoid those we find unpleasant. Also, scientific studies reveal that happy workers are around 12 per cent more productive. So, if you’ve got a workforce of 100 employees, and they’re all happy, you’ll get the productivity of 112 employees, at no extra cost! It’s therefore unsurprising that so many organisations are fixated on employee happiness.

However, the simple yet persistent idea that ‘happiness = productivity’ overlooks considerable evidence to the contrary. For instance, other studies reveal that persistently happy employees can have negative effects on productivity in the workplace. They go to pieces quicker during difficult periods, are more easily exhausted (constant happiness is draining), and can even be more selfish.

Also, there are productive benefits of more negative emotions. Fear, anger, stress and envy have been shown to make people more productive in various situations.

As well as this, compelling people to be happy, whether via advice on how to be productive or employers insisting on ‘service with a smile’, often backfires. Studies reveal that if people believe they must be happy, it’s harder for them to achieve that. It’s like your hobby becoming your job; you stop enjoying it.

This feeds into the whole ‘Toxic Positivity’ issue of insisting that people must be happy at all times, and it’s entirely their responsibility to be so (because we can all choose our emotional state, apparently). This can quickly lead to the exact opposite outcome.

Even if being happy does make you more productive, efforts to force this outcome can easily backfire.

Hard work always pays off

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If you want to be productive, to achieve something, you just need to work hard, and you’ll get it. Because hard work always pays off.

That’s the mantra adopted by many. Unfortunately, reality is rarely as formulaic. As much as we might want to believe otherwise, when countless people are working equally hard for the same goals the most important factor is actually going to be… plain old luck. Unfortunately, you can’t tell people to ‘be lucky’ in the same way you can cajole them to work hard.

In fact, telling people that hard work inevitably leads to productivity and the outcomes they want is unhelpful. Our brains are sensitive to the balance between effort and reward. Our subconscious systems are constantly assessing how much work a task will involve and the likely outcome from putting that effort in, and asking ‘is it worth it?’ And when the effort we put in is not rewarded as expected, it causes stress and negative emotions. This is believed to be a key factor in workplace stress, because modern jobs often mean the person putting the effort in to something is far removed from the eventual outcome.

Given all this, why do people still believe that hard work always pays off? Possibly because of the ‘just-world hypothesis’, the cognitive bias where we assume that the world is a fair place, that good work is rewarded, and bad deeds are punished. It would also explain why successful people insist they’re solely responsible for their success, which is a common aspect of advice about productivity.

Read more about productivity:

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Authors

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.

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