Productivity is everywhere. We all want to get more done. But the question is — with all the hacks and strategies out there for getting more done, why are we all seeking more and more ways to be most productive?
Shouldn’t we all be at peak productivity by now?
But of course, we’re not — because most of the time, these hacks and strategies we see don’t actually help. They sound ingenious, and they may even work for a couple of weeks, but inevitably, for most of us, they fall away after a few short days or weeks when things get rough and old habits slide back in.
And that happens so often because productivity hacks are just band-aids on a bigger problem. They’re like trying to fix up a falling down house with a new coat of paint.
A mind that is tired, distracted, or out of sync won’t be able to handle a new productivity hack any better than it can handle the huge workload you’re trying to get done better and faster by trying a new productivity hack. If your brain isn’t working at peak form, then trying to tweak and perfect your productivity is missing the point.
So instead of trying to put a new coat of paint on a house whose foundation is crumbling, you’ve got to fix the problem at the source. You need to rewire your brain for productivity by training out bad habits and tuning in good ones — only then can you start doing the tweaking and perfecting that most productivity hacks encourage.
Today, I want to share some of the best scientific strategies for rewiring your brain and becoming more productive.
We studied the people who study the science of our brains, our productivity, and our work. Here are the best strategies we learned, plus why they work and how you can make them work for you (and keep working for you, even when the going gets tough).
You’re probably wondering how taking time out of your day is going to help you get more done. Seems counter-intuitive, right?
Here’s how meditation super-charges your brain and improves your ability to come back to work even more amazing.
- Focus. Meditation makes you more productive because it’s essentially a practice in focusing your attention. If you’re used to looking at your work, then your phone, then Facebook, then your coworker, then back at your work every couple of minutes, your mind forgets how to focus for long stretches of time. You have to re-train it to engage with itself in order to make productivity possible. Focus takes practice; you can’t just make it happen when you need it if your mind doesn’t know how to do it.
The effects of meditation last long beyond just the 5 or 10 minutes you spend actually mediating. Just like exercise strengthens your muscles, meditation strengthens your mental muscle! So when you go back to work after your mediation session, your brain is actually more attuned to what is going on, allowing you to do more work and focus on important things longer.
Plus, meditation allows the parts of your brain that process massive amounts of information (your frontal lobe, parietal lobe, and thalamus) to take a break.
- Less anxiety. During this time that your brain is resting, you also decrease your anxiety levels, by strengthening the neural connection that deals with stressful sensations and your brain’s assessment center. Meditating prepares your assessment center to calmly deal with situations that might otherwise stress you out or cause you to snap. Neither of which is productive for anyone.☺
- Memory. Mindful mediation is to shown increase the brains ability to filter out distractions, which means your brain is able to synthesize new information and recall old information more effectively.
And before you make excuses —you don’t have to be in an organized yoga class to mediate. Just sit down on the floor in a quiet space and close your eyes. Focus on deeply breathing in and out or being mindful of a specific sensation in your body. Count your breaths, to help focus your mind on what is happening in the present —not what is stressing you out from earlier. If your mind drifts back to work, don’t quit or punish yourself; just try again to breathe deep and clear your thoughts.
It’ll take some practice, so start with a 2-minute session (set a timer on your phone!) and work your way up 20 minutes. Your mind will thank you for the downtime.
Figure out your optimal work times
Even though early birds can get work done at night and vice versa, you will undoubtedly be more productive if you are in sync with your brain’s natural sleep pattern.
- Do your hardest work when you’re most alert. This means: do your analytic work during the morning if you’re an early riser, and in the evening if you’re a night owl. Pretty intuitive, but may of us fight our natural rhythms in order to be on a schedule we think is “right”. However, if you do your hardest strategic work when your mind is most alert, you’ll do it faster and more effectively. This means you’ll have more time in your day (since you won’t be dragging through the big stuff) and you’ll do your best work on the stuff that really matters.
- When it comes to creative work: do the opposite. Do it when you’re tired!
When you’re tired, your brain isn’t as effective at remembering connections you’ve formed between ideas, which means you’re less constrained by rules and expectations. This is really important for the creative process, which is all about forming new connections between existing elements in your mind.
That’s why some of our best ideas come to us after we’ve exhausted our mental battery and given up. Suddenly something will just click!
Early birds should schedule their creative hours for the evening and night owls should wake up a tad earlier than usual if they want to take advantage of their fuzzy state of mind.
If you need to execute on creative work, consider scheduling the actual work for a high-energy time; however, for brainstorming, taking advantage of looser mental connections can help you see innovations and opportunities you might otherwise have passed right by.
This one might be a bit harder for those of you that work standard hours in an office but perhaps still doable if you have an hour lunch break.
Naps literally alter your brain’s functioning in a number of ways:
- Numerous studies show that napping improves your recall abilities. During an average day most of your new memories are recorded in the hippocampus. It can be thought of as temporary storage. Sleep (including napping) helps move memories from your hippocampus into “permanent storage” in your neocortex.You’re more likely to remember all the important details of your morning if you take a mid-day nap!
- Similarly, napping also clears out irrelevant information so that the temporary storage areas in your brain are better able to absorb new information after your nap. Hello, afternoon meeting —you may actually remember the things that you would normally forget in that post-lunch haze.
If any of us needed an additional incentive to take a 30 minute nap midday, I think we just found it!
Exercise is amazing for our bodies, but it’s also good for our brains.
- When you exercise, it activates a “stress mode” in your brain and tells it to produce a protein that has reparative element for your memory neurons. In terms of a “flight or fight” scenario, exercise is optimizing your ability to do either by “resetting” your memory to only remember what is most important.
- Exercise also increases your sensory input and prepares your brain (and body) to deal with the stress it is experiencing. That’s why exercise is linked to mental alertness!
This one is hard for busy people to give up. It feels good to multitask (if you’re doing eight things at once, you must be really important right?), but multi-tasking actually makes your brain less productive and efficient!
- Multi-tasking divides up your mental resources between tasks and requires your brain to switch contexts for each tasking you’re juggling. Instead of getting more done, your error rate increases while our performance quality decreases for every single task you try to do at the same time. Instead of doing it all, do it all one at a time and you’ll make fewer mistakes while improving the quality of your work. It’s a good lesson in prioritization —if you would normally multitask these 8 tasks, but have to do them all one at a time, which ones must get done today and which ones would it be okay to not get done until tomorrow or after lunch?
Stress rewires your brain in negative ways. In order to keep your brain functioning optimally (and productively), avoiding extreme stress is a must!
- Exercise and mediation help immensely with stress but you might have to seek out additional techniques to keep your stress levels at bay if they aren’t enough.
- Stress, especially in prolonged periods, leads to cortisol dominance, a bodily state that is proven to diminish learning, attention span, and memory functioning. These three important cognitive functions can help increase productivity if they are aren’t being impaired!
Understanding how your brain works can give you the power to lead a healthier, productive, and optimized life! We tend to neglect research when we’re figuring out how to be productive, and instead with go with the quick-and-easy hack we find on a blog. While testing out every productivity hack out there can be fun, it isn’t necessarily efficient. In fact, you’re going to waste a lot of time if you don’t click into what really makes your brain work and how you can optimize that work.
Try out these strategies and report back! Did any of them work for you? Do you have another science-based strategy to share with us?
Share your thoughts in the comments!