5 ways to boost your productivity that are backed by science [Updated]

Originally published December 15, 2015. Updated January 20, 2017.

The internet is full of articles claiming to provide the secret to limitless personal productivity. If only we got out of bed earlier, organized our email more often, or divided our day into 25-minute bursts of activity followed by tiny little breaks. There’s even one study out there that says that the secret is to pause to look at pictures of kittens every few hours…

What do these mostly have in common? They’re generally based on very little in the way of solid evidence and, often, simply cite another dodgy news article rather than anything even approaching a scientific study.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some great scientific research on productivity out there, though. There is. Here are the top five ways to boost your productivity that I’ve been reading into over the past weeks with an eye on optimizing the One Legal office environment for maximum productivity.

I’d love to know what you think works for you in your office. Share your views in the comments.

#1. List, prioritize, and implement

Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, is reputed to have said that “for every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned.” The clever chaps at popular science magazine Psychology Today certainly seem to agree.

Based on their understanding of how the brain is wired, they’ve come up with a kind of “super to-do list”.

Step one, they say, is to break larger tasks down in very specific tasks, and then to create a sense of priority and urgency by designating tasks as “must do,” “should do,” or “could do,” and then to review at the end of each working day.

Step two is to get specific about when and where you’ll complete the task. It’s called if-then planning. The trick is to not only decide what you need to do, but to also decide when and where you will do it, in advance. The general format of an if-then plan looks like this:

If (or When) ___________ occurs, then I will ________________.

For example:

When it’s 3pm today, then I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and work on that project.

If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I’ll go to the gym before work.

Studies show that when tasks are clearly broken down into achievable subtasks and a specific time and place is specified for their completion, productivity soars. Why not give it a go?

Read more: The ultimate to-do list for busy legal professionals >>

#2. Optimize your working environment

You probably have a gut sense that certain environments lend themselves better to productivity than others. There is, though, a huge wealth of science out there to support the idea that some office conditions are simply more productive than others.

Take lighting for example. Studies have found that those exposed to natural daylight, as opposed to artificial light, were much more alert in the afternoon and early evening. There also seems to be a correlation between artificial lighting and low cortisol levels (that’s the hormone that helps to balance our wake and sleep cycles), resulting in higher stress levels and more irritation.

It isn’t just lighting, though. There’s evidence that slightly warmer temperatures may be best, that certain colors may negatively affect mood and productivity (avoid too much red, basically), and that having just a few indoor plants around the place can markedly improve mood and morale.

Read more: Simple changes to make your office space more inspiring >>

#3. Take regular breaks (but don’t restrict yourself to 25-minute chunks)

The most productive people are rarely those who work the longest hours overall. That’s because, no matter how hard we think we’re working, the human brain can only concentrate for so long — just like a runner who starts to flag after a few miles, our ability to perform tasks has diminishing returns over time.

The answer is obvious: regular short breaks. But what is the optimum length for a break? 17 minutes according to a recent study. DeskTime — a productivity tracking app — analyzed all of their data, and found that the highest performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes, followed by a 17-minute break.

Crucially, however, those 17 minutes were spent away from the computer, by walking, stretching, or talking to coworkers. So, if you spend your breaks browsing Facebook, it may not really be a break at all.

#4. Exercise regularly

Most people, when they think about the benefits of regular exercise, consider the positive consequences for our health: lower blood pressure, a healthier heart, a reduced risk of certain cancers.

Fewer people would think of improved concentration, faster learning, and prolonged mental stamina. But over the last ten years, scientists have amassed compelling evidence the amount of mental firepower we possess is strongly correlated with the frequency and intensity with which we exercise.

A study by Leeds Metropolitan University in Britain found that on days when employees visited the gym, their experience changed. As described in HBR, “they reported managing their time more effectively, being more productive, and having smoother interactions with their colleagues.”

So, as HBR suggests, it may be time to stop considering exercise as something we’d do if only we had time after work and, instead, considering it to be a crucial component of the working day.

Read more: Quick yoga poses to make any break count >>

#5. Listen to your favorite music

Offices are generally fairly noisy, distraction-filled places. Someone is usually jabbering away on the phone, aggressively tapping on their keyboard, or violently thumping the photocopier after yet another paper jam.

The answer? Either tough it out or pop in your earphones and drown out the background noise with your favorite music. Listening to music in the office may have much broader benefits, however.

For example, Teresa Lesiuk, a professor in music therapy at the University of Miami, found in a study of computer programmers that those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly, came up with better ideas than those who didn’t and had improved moods overall.

What’s going on? Dopamine, the chemical responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being, is being released in response to the melodious or familiar sounds, reducing stress and increasing focus.

Have you tried out any of these tips? What did you think? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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3 Comments

  1. Barbara Holbert Reply

    Love these helpful tips! I’m going to add plants to my work area, and may try the music as well. I just started adding a walk at lunch time and it really helps.

  2. Maureen Reply

    These are excellent thoughts. Years ago when I was a trainee in retail management, I spent two weeks dogging the footsteps of one very successful manager. I asked Jack how he remained calm and always accomplished everything by the end of his day. He made lists in his head and as he accomplished each task, he erased it from his memory bank. I still use his system but I use pen and paper. The other tips that you mentioned were things that my dad imparted to my brother and me because as a 30 year US Army veteran, he learned to cultivate those other attributes.

    1. Lisa Eggers Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Maureen! I definitely find that starting the day with a prioritized to-do list makes a huge difference to my productivity.

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