Four productivity tips backed by science

There are thousands of tips that claim to help boost your productivity at work, but very few are actually backed by scientific studies.

Here, we show you the top four credible methods for getting more done. 

Take breaks

Are daydreaming, watching cat videos and leaving the office for lunch all signs of laziness?

Not necessarily. Scientists now think of the brain as a little like a muscle – you can exercise it, let it go soft through inactivity, and you can most certainly tire it out.

When you find yourself losing focus, that’s a sign that your brain is tired.

You need to give your brain a rest and refresh it. How?

By stepping away from tiring task and doing something soothing.

Our brains have two modes – ‘focused’, where we can attend to one thing and shut others out, and ‘diffuse’, where we are more relaxed and our minds wander.

The problem is that throughout most of human history, we weren’t required to focus on one thing eight hours a day. We’re bad at it.

That’s why it’s important to move between ‘focused’ and ‘diffuse’ – because the diffuse periods are where we reflect, make connections, and solve problems.


Laptop screen, time for a break

Is your computer telling you something?

If you eat lunch at your desk every day, and rarely get outside, you’re actually worsening the problem.

It’s counterintuitive – but taking proper breaks will make sure you are much more productive when you return, because slipping into diffuse mode will shed new light on a challenge or task.


Chunk tasks and manage your desk time

How do you break the habit of sitting at a desk for eight hours? And how do you avoid bouncing from emails, texts and phone calls?

One effective solution is the Pomodoro technique – where you break a larger task into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Once you’ve done that, you set a timer and work hard at a single task for 25 minutes.

You then take a short break of five minutes and start again.

After every four tasks, take a longer break. To test drive the technique, you can use the web-based Marinara Timer.

If 25 minutes is too short, try a longer timer.

Productivity app Desktime found that the highest-performing staff members worked for 52 minutes – and then took a 17 minute break away from the computer.


Single task rather than multitask

Notifications, email, meetings, phone calls – the modern office is swarming with distractions. And that, as it turns out, is absolutely terrible for productivity.

One influential University of California study found that responding to a single newly-arrived email knocks you off course for 20 minutes.

It’s much harder to get back to your most important tasks if you’re constantly putting out spot-fires or responding to trivial requests.

Science shows us that multitasking is just a buzzword.

An influential Stanford University study found that even young digital natives struggle with multitasking.

The 2009 study found that when we are asked to deal with several streams of information, we find it impossible to pay close attention to any one stream.

Not only that – our memory is worse, and we can’t switch between tasks as easily as we think we can.


Light stream through mountains

Follow one stream of thought.

It turns out what we actually do is task-switch – we bounce between things. And that comes at a cost.

The brain uses huge quantities of energy in the form of glucose.

When we use up our incoming glucose to try to multitask, we exhaust our supplies quickly.

If we keep trying to focus, we feel wooly-headed, vague, and irritable. Sound familiar?

The solution: don’t multitask. If email pings are distracting you, turn them off and try to only check your mail twice a day.

If online distractions are a problem, outsource your self-control to internet-blocking software such as Cold Turkey (PC) or Self Control (Mac).


Go green

Having plants in your workplace isn’t just a way to freshen the place up.

Office plants have been shown to reduce stress and general health issues in a 2011 study.

It makes sense – throughout our history, we’ve been around nature.

Concrete jungles are new. No wonder plants soothe us and help us perform better at our jobs.