The rumors are true - there are very few short-term solutions to hacking your productivity, no matter how many lists on the internet insist otherwise. Many of these low-effort brain hacks promise to boost your productivity faster in the same way that get rich quick schemes guarantee to make you a millionaire overnight. And the reasoning makes sense: productivity, like anything cognitive, should be thought of as a muscle that must be strengthened overtime.
Willpower is rarely formed in a vacuum, and even so, has to be exercised often to become more efficacious. And we’ve heard the science behind the proven long-term tactics: the importance of meditation to help improve focus and willpower; the necessity to set intentions and think about the long-term when being tempted by distractions in the short-term. But does this mean that distracted workers who lack the productivity to overcome their distractions are doomed to be stuck in a productivity catch-22?
Not necessarily. While there may be no effective hacks to solving your focus issues in a pinch, there are ways to get there faster; much faster, in fact, if you’re willing to learn a little bit about your brain.
Allow me to break it down for anyone who snoozed through twelfth grade anatomy. The frontal lobe of your brain is the workhorse, responsible for your emotions, self-control, planning, and so-on. Your parietal lobe is the one that interprets all of the sensory information around you in your environment; your thalamus funnels that information deeper into your brain. Your reticular formation is the part of your brain that keeps it on guard to various threats. All of those parts of the brain are constantly working together - and at times, at odds with each other - which is why it’s easy to become mentally overloaded, and fast. It’s also why meditation works so well; even five minutes a day has been proven to slow down overactivity in the frontal and parietal lobe, both during meditation and after.
Now what does all this have to do with your productivity? By knowing how the brain can become overloaded, you can start to identify ways to deload your brain when everything's going just a little bit too haywire. Ultimately, your best bets are to train your willpower muscles of the frontal lobe - meditation, breathing, and intention setting are all good ways to get there - to build long-term productivity skills.
But if you’re looking for solutions that you can incorporate into your work day now, get to know your brain - and then try these proven productivity brain exercises instead.
Lighten Your Cognitive Load
By knowing how many parts of the brain are working together just to perform simple tasks, it’s easy to see how multitasking can take over the brain, making it hard to focus on anything else. It’s easy enough to be told to slow down and take a step back (though if that worked, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article) - but what does that really mean?
Think about your brain in terms of cognitive load. When you’re distracted and attempting to multitask at work - like when you’re working on a task that requires complex analysis, while also waiting on hold for a customer service representative to answer your call - it’s safe to say that your brain is straining under a significant cognitive load. Lightening the load is a way to reduce that strain by focusing on what matters, instead of letting yourself be pulled in multiple directions.
But before you axe items from that list, it’s important to know what your cognitive load can tolerate. For example, a noisy coworker may be a fairly universal distraction, but music can affect people differently. For some people, listening to their favorite songs is a proven way to stay attuned to work. For others? It puts their brain on autopilot and acts as a distraction, making it easier to give in to further strains on cognitive load. By knowing your own triggers, you can find specific ways to keep your focus sharp, instead of just feeling frantic.
Start with the ABCs
To get your productivity back in check, you need to find a way to quiet the rapidly firing neurons pulling your attention in many different directions. The quickest way to do that? Remember your ABCs. As cited in the Harvard Business Review, when you’re getting overloaded by distractions and the desire to multitask, take a moment to become aware of your choices in that moment. By acknowledging your options - give in to the distraction, or stay the course - you can either address the distraction or move on. Then, breathe deeply while weighing your options, before choosing mindfully which path you’re taking.
Photo by Luca Mascaro/Flickr
(Actually) Take a Break
You may have heard of the Pomodoro technique - a productivity system that’s based on working in short bursts of 25 minutes, with a short break in between each burst. Every two hours, you reward yourself with a larger break. The Pomodoro technique was pioneered in the 1980s, well before neuroscience came to agree that taking breaks was incredibly important to a worker’s productivity and creativity. Since then, many studies have floated around about the perfect length of a break - 25 minutes on, five off; 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off - and each seems to vary in length. But the consensus that seems to be universal? The necessity of actually taking the break itself.
As pointed out in The Atlantic, ultimately there may never be a single numerical answer on the perfect break. Instead, it’s the employee who knows how important breaks are to maintaining a steady cognitive load that’s cracked the formula. “It seems unlikely that there is one number representing the ideal amount of time for every employee in every industry to break from work. Rather than set your stop-watch for 17:00 when you get up from your desk, the more important reminder might be to get up, at all.”
Tame the Negative Emotions with the 3:1 Rule
Your brain tends to view negative emotions as a threat, which means it’s working significantly harder to try to mitigate the perceived threat - a complete productivity killer. Even if you didn’t know the neurological science behind it, pretty straightforward stuff, right? But psychology professor Barb Fredrickson learned that maintaining a specific balance of positive to negative emotions - at a ratio of at least three positive emotions per each negative emotion - didn’t just help mitigate negative emotions; it was also the point where individual focus and productivity flourished the most.
While Fredrickson did devise a mathematically-proven “positivity calculator” that can help you calculate your ratio and improve it over time, the quicker path to taming your negative emotions in the moment is just by noticing when they happen, and taking a short break when they do. Rather than fight the emotion (and expend more brain power on taming the threat), counter it with something that brings you back to a positive state: chatting with a coworker, taking a walk around the block, grabbing some snacks. Not only will it boost your mood, it’ll improve your brain function as well.
Photo by Phil Roeder/Flickr
Short Bursts of Exercise
In her book The Willpower Instinct, Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal explores the various ways the brain can be trained to develop willpower over time, especially later in life. One of the first exercises she assigns to her students is incorporating “short bursts of exercise” into their day. Rather than forcing 20 to 30 minute exercise sessions into a busy day, McGonigal advocates for stretching one’s legs for about five minutes, ideally outdoors. Doing so gets blood and oxygen pumping directly to your pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of self-control. By taking a five-minute lap around the block, you’re effectively recharging your willpower reserves at a time when your brain needs it the most.
Slow Your Breathing
Yes, you’ve already heard this - meditation can do wonders for your productivity. But building a meditation practice can be daunting, especially when all you need is a little help to polish off this Powerpoint before tomorrow morning’s presentation.
Taking five minutes to clear your head can do wonders for your short-term productivity, but if five-minute meditations even feel daunting, try slowing your breathing. As McGonigal explains in The Willpower Instinct, slowing your breathing to a rate of about four to six breaths per minute (she suggests controlling your exhale, rather than your inhale) activates your parasympathetic nervous system, increases your heart rate variability, and activates your pre-frontal cortex. By slowing your breath down, all these benefits combine to take your brain from what McGonigal calls “stress mode” and moves it into self-control mode instead.
Eat the Elephant One Bite at a Time
As the old adage goes, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Which means at some point, you just have to start. While studies will often advocate against the keeping of to-do lists, new research on to-do lists like the Bullet Journal show the calming benefits of maintaining a running tally of tasks that need to be completed, even if it does lead to more tracking than actually necessary. But turn that panic-soothing tracking into productive procrastination by eating the elephant one bite at a time - just pick something off the list and start from there. It’s not just telling your brain to buck up, it’s reducing the cognitive load of over thinking everything by picking a place to start and simply embarking.