The Science of Productivity
In today’s busy world, we’ve become a people obsessed with productivity and “work hacks.”
Getting more done in less time allows us to get ahead, and even gives us more availability to do the things we love outside of work.
The problem we run into is that it is easy to get motivated, but hard to stay disciplined.
Most of us look at productivity in the wrong way: task management tools are shiny at first and then go unused. Being chained to your desk is as unhealthy as it is unproductive.
At Help Scout we hold the belief that “achievement isn’t about doing everything, it’s about doing the right things.” Productivity is about saying no.
Focus and consistency are the bread-and-butter of being truly productive. Let’s take a look at the science behind how the brain works in the synthesis state, and what changes you can make for the better.
Productivity in a 3 Minute Video
Click play to learn…
- Why worrying about having “more willpower” is a fool’s game.
- How world class experts stay productive… and what they do differently.
- The reason why better energy management = a more productive you.
- Big pitfalls that lead to busywork and procrastination.
Watch and enjoy.
Once you’ve done that, if you’re still itching to know more just scroll down: a dozen studies and far more explanation await.
Abandon All Willpower, Ye Who Enter Here
The first thing to acknowledge in the pursuit of getting more done is the mountain of evidence that suggests willpower alone will not be enough to stay productive.
According to research by Janet Polivy, our brain fears big projects and often fails to commit to long-term goals because we’re susceptible to “abandoning ship” at the first sign of distress.
Think of the last time you went on a failed diet.
You stocked your fridge with the healthiest foods & planned to exercise every day… until the first day you slipped up. After that, it was back to your old ways.
To make matters worse, research by Kenneth McGraw was able to show that the biggest “wall” to success was often just getting started. Additional research in this area suggests that we’re prone to procrastinating on large projects because we visualize the worst parts; the perfect way to delay getting started.
According to researcher John Bargh, your brain will attempt to “simulate” real productive work by avoiding big projects and focusing on small, mindless tasks to fill your time.
“Big project due tomorrow? Better reorganize my movie collection!”
Perhaps worst of all, numerous studies on the concept of “ego-depletion” have provided some evidence that suggests our willpower is a limited resource that can be used up in it’s entirety. The more you fight it, the more gas you burn. An empty tank leads to empty motivation.
With all of that stacked against us, what can we possibly do to be more productive?
In order to figure this out, one of our best bets is to observe the habits of consistently productive people.
The Habits of Productive People
If I were to ask to describe the practice regiments of world-class musicians, you’d probably envision a shut-in artist who plays all day long and then tucks in their instrument at night.
Amazingly though, research by Anders Ericsson that examined the practice sessions of elite violinists clearly showed that the best performers were not spending more time on the violin, but rather were being more productive during their practice sessions.
Better yet, the most elite players were getting more sleep on average than everyone else.
How is that possible?
Subsequent research by Anders reveals the answer: the best players were engaging in more “deliberate practice.” You’ve heard the term, but beyond the hype, what is it all about?
It’s nothing more than spending time on the hardest tasks, and being better at managing your energy levels.
Think of it this way: If you were trying to get better at basketball, you’d be much better off practicing specific drills for two hours rather than “shooting hoops” all day long.
Since deliberate practice requires you to spend more brainpower than busy work, how can you implement it without draining your willpower?
The first answer isn’t very sexy, but it’s necessary: the best way to overcome your fear of spending a lot of energy on a big project is to simply get started.
The Zeigarnik Effect (mentioned above) is a construct that psychologists have observed in numerous studies on “suspense.” One such study gave participants brain-buster puzzles to complete, but not enough time to complete them. The surprising thing was, even when participants were asked to stop, over 90% of them went on to complete the puzzles anyway.
According to the lead researcher:
“It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”
It’s the same thing that happens when we become engaged in a story in a book, movie or TV show: we want to see how it ends.
You can use this knowledge to your advantage by just getting started on that next big project; in the most basic sense, don’t focus your motivation on doing Activity X. Instead, focus on making Activity X easier to do.
Start the night before. Is your to-do list already written up? Is your place of work ready for you to get started? Break down barriers of friction before relying on willpower.
On Working Like an Expert
A multitude of research has shown us that discipline is best maintained through habits, not through willpower.
According to Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, most people hold their productivity back by not rigidly scheduling work & rest breaks throughout the day.
Since most of us are worried about willpower, we don’t push ourselves to maximum output: instead of “giving our all” for brief sessions, we distribute our effort throughout the day, leading us back to busywork to fill our time.
What should we do instead?
Schwartz often cites a research study conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration that revealed how short breaks between longer working sessions resulted in a 16% improvement in awareness & focus.
Research from Peretz Lavie on ultradian rhythms matches up with these findings: longer productive sessions (of 90 minutes) followed by short breaks (of no more than 15-20 minutes) sync more closely with our natural energy cycles and allow us to maintain a better focus and higher energy level throughout the day.
Both of these studies on energy management match up with the practice schedules of the violinists: the most common regimen for the cream of the crop players was a 90-minute block of intense practice followed by a 15-minute break.
The moral of the story is that it’s hard to be productive while trying to maintain high energy levels through your entire day.
It’s much easier to work intensely when you know that a break is just around the corner, not at the end of the day. Instead of trying to conserve energy for hours, break big projects down into smaller chunks and plan a recovery period right after.
For projects done on your own time, try scheduling blocks of 90-minute work sessions with a planned cool down time of 15 minutes directly afterwards. When you know a break is on the horizon, you won’t try to “pace yourself” with your work, and will be more inclined to dive into the difficult stuff.
While great for tackling the toughest parts of large projects, this technique doesn’t really address many problems related to discipline, an important part of staying productive for more than just a day or two.
The Art of Staying Disciplined
One segment of the population known for struggling with discipline are those who are addicted to hard drugs.
Given their disposition for being unable to commit to many things, you might be surprised to find that during an experiment testing the ability of drug addicts to write & submit a 5 paragraph essay on time, those who wrote down when & where they would complete the essay were far more likely to turn it in.
These findings have some interesting correlation with those related to discipline in other people: in a study examining the ability of average people to stick with a strict dieting plan, researchers found that those participants who rigorously monitored what they were eating were able to maintain far higher levels of self-control when it came to maintaining their diet.
Last but not least, Dan Ariely and colleagues conducted a study involving college students and found that students who imposed strict deadlines on themselves for assignments performed far better (and more consistently) than those who didn’t.
These findings were especially interesting because Ariely noted that students who gave themselves too generous of a deadline often suffered from the same problems as students who set zero deadlines: when you allot yourself too much time to complete a task, you can end up creating a “mountain out of a molehill.”
Since we now know that tracking our progress is a key component of productivity, how can we implement this practice into our daily routine?
One method is to use an Accountability Chart to track what work you’ve completed during your 90-minute productive sessions, similar to how the dieters tracked their food consumption.
To easily implement one, simply create two-columns on a piece of paper, Google Docs spreadsheet, or even a whiteboard.
- Column 1 will list the time-span of one of your productivity sessions.
- Column 2 will list what tasks you’ve accomplished in that limited time-span.
Don’t include any columns for your 15-minute breaks, as those times are for your own sake and means to replenish your willpower.
This works well for 2 specific reasons:
Dr. Kentaro Fujita argues that tracking your progress in this way is helpful because you’ll be exposed to the work you’ve actually accomplished, and not the (inaccurate) assumption of work you might construe in your head.
Forcing yourself to write down the fact that you spent 2 hours on YouTube isn’t about shaming, it’s about awareness; you’ll be less likely to do it again.
Progress tracking is also a known strategy for stopping yourself from engaging in robotic behavior (also known as ‘busywork’), a habit that researcher John Bargh describes as the #1 enemy of goal striving.
Productivity & Multitasking
With a work schedule, an energy management strategy and a task-tracking system in place, the last challenge we have to face is that of multitasking.
According to a 1999 study, we have a tendency to view multitasking as effective, even when it isn’t
However, researcher Zhen Wang was able to show that on average, multitaskers are actually less likely to be productive, yet they feel more “emotionally satisfied” with their work–creating an illusion of productivity.
Worse yet, Stanford researcher Clifford Nass examined the work patterns of multitaskers and analyzed their ability to:
- Filter information
- Switch between tasks
- Maintain a high working memory
He found that they were terrible at all three.
According to Nass:
“We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”
When working on the computer, the best thing you can do is turn on Airplane Mode; no need for temptation when you can’t even access the web. If you’re unable, help yourself with tools like and StayFocusd to block distracting sites.
The next best strategy is to create an evening planning ritual where you select a few priority tasks to accomplish the next day.
The reason this method works far better than planning your daily tasks in the morning is because research from the Kellogg School has shown that we miscalculate the amount of focus we’ll be able to maintain in the future. We strongly believe that we’ll be able to quickly plan our day the next morning, but when tomorrow rolls we stumble off track.
You can create an evening planning ritual with a simple pen & paper or use an online tool like TeuxDeux each night. List only priority tasks (the “big 5”) for the day.
Instead of listing “Work on research project” as a daily goal, try something like “Finish introduction” or “Find additional sources” as a task you can actually complete.
The Instant Replay
Let’s play that all back real quick:
Willpower alone is not enough: Your productivity shouldn’t be reliant on your sheer force of will alone. Mental toughness will go a long way, but in order to stay disciplined you’re better off relying on systems.
Give yourself the ability to go “all-in”: Working harder on the stuff that matters is going to drain you mentally & physically. Don’t be afraid of giving yourself multiple breaks throughout the day. It’s better to “chunk” productivity sessions into 90 minute periods (in order to keep yourself sharp and to alleviate the stress of pacing your energy throughout the entire day.
If it’s not worth measuring, it’s not worth doing: Tracking has been proven to be the best way to stay diligent about your progress. Create an accountability chart to list what productive things you’ve gotten done throughout the day. You’ll see how much you’re really accomplishing.
Multitasking is your enemy: Treat it as such. Block out unwanted distractions and as Ron Swanson would say, “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” Plan your day the night before so you won’t get consumed with the wonderful distractions of the internet when you start your day.