7 productivity hacks that are really just myths

If there’s one thing I learned growing up in the 1980s, it’s that more is more. More money, more cars, more scratch n’ sniff stickers for my collection. Although I’ve since freed myself from such a materialistic mindset (mostly), the pressure for more still reigns supreme – especially when it comes to working. Deliver more. Produce more. Succeed more.

If only there were more hours in the day, too. No wonder we’ve all become productivity junkies.

Gotta do more, gotta be more.

Charles Dalton, Dead Poets Society

But how many of the productivity hacks we’ve come to know and love actually hold up? I set out to uncover the truth on behalf of my fellow office dwellers. My quest quickly morphed from a fact-finding mission into full-blown myth-busting. 

Hack #1: Just keep pushing through

Common sense, right? Don’t stop to check Facebook “real quick” every 10 minutes. But there’s a catch: the longer and more continuously you work, the smaller return you’ll see on each additional hour worked. Furthermore, if you push through when you’re already spent you’re likely to miss seeing opportunities and/or risks. Your tired brain will gloss over details and fail to connect dots.

You’re better off in the long run working at a sustainable pace. Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of “Emotional Intelligence”, recommends working for one hour, then taking a 15-minute break. And don’t cheat yourself by treating email as a break. That’s still work. Taking a real rest will get you ready for the next round and prime your brain for creative thinking. 

Hack #2: Stay busy

The idea that “busy = productive” is seductive because time spent working on something – anything – feels like productive time. But are you working on the right things? Just because you’re furiously crossing items off your list doesn’t mean they’re worthwhile. 

In fact, being busy is often counter-productive. When we’re too busy, we tend to deliver work that is half-baked just for the sake of shoving it to the done column and getting on with the next task. As soon as you catch yourself doing that, pause and reassess. If you were forced to trim your workload by 20% this week, what would drop off? Whatever that is, drop it or delay it in the name of doing your best work on the 80% that will add real value.

Hack #3: Apply some pressure

Actually, humans are crap under pressure. When we’re stressed, our prefrontal cortex (the area of our brains responsible for creativity and logical reasoning) shuts down. Meanwhile, our cortisol and adrenaline levels shoot up, sending us into panic mode. The result is rushed, incomplete, and generally disappointing work. That’ll sound familiar if you’re at a company with a culture of high pressure and cut-throat competition. 

On the other hand, positive work environments are demonstrably better for productivity. They are characterized by strong personal connections between employees, forgiveness for honest mistakes, a shared sense of purpose, as well as high levels of trust, respect, and gratitude. 

Of course, if you’re under pressure because you procrastinated, you may be interested in this next myth…

Hack #4: Eat the frog first

There’s a quote credited to Mark Twain about getting the most odious task over with first. Ok, I see what Uncle Mark was getting at. And yes, some people are disciplined enough to “eat the frog”, then move on to something more appetizing as a reward. But if you’re prone to procrastination, this approach may backfire: you’ll procrastinate even more and waste time that you could’ve spent on a task that was actually exciting.

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.

Mark Twain

Procrastinators are better off using the “big rocks” approach: work on the most important thing first, then tackle lesser tasks with the time you have left. If you go the opposite way, you’ll never fit that big rock into your day. Productivity coach Kimberly Medlock recommends blocking out 90 minutes for the most important thing on your list, which is just 20% of your workday.

Hack #5: Multitask, multitask, multitask

Turns out, human brains can’t multitask the way computers do. We don’t process disparate streams of information in parallel, we just toggle between them. Whenever we attempt to multitask, our brains have to spend a ton of energy going back through each train of thought and finding where it left off before it can make any progress. Clearly, that’s inefficient. But hang on: it gets worse. The toggling also induces brain fatigue, which slows us down even more! Talk about a downward spiral. 

We’re better off focusing on one thing for a significant chunk of time with periodic breaks (see Dr. Bradberry’s 1-hour-on-15-minutes-off recommendation, above). That’s enough time to get into a flow state and do some deep work. If your schedule won’t accommodate that, I recommend de-fragging your calendar

Hack #6: Decline all meeting invitations

If meetings are killing your productivity, you’re doing them wrong. Thoughtfully-crafted meetings can accomplish a lot quickly. A group can discuss options and come to a decision, provided they’ve all read the background material. Five people bouncing ideas off each other in real time will produce more viable solutions than if you’d kicked off an email thread – plus, the solutions will be more creative and robust, to boot. 

Make sure your meetings have a stated outcome and drive toward it relentlessly. If you can’t rely on your attendees to do the pre-reading, schedule an extra 15 minutes at the beginning of the meeting to review background material.

Hack #7: Install the perfect productivity app on your phone

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of productivity apps available in Apple’s App Store and on Google Play. We’re talking about a $50+ billion industry here. So you’d think at least one of them would be the perfect app for you, right? Well, maybe. But probably not.

Chances are, you’re better off shutting down your phone entirely, or at least muting notifications. In a 2015 report published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers from Florida State University found that even if you don’t look at your phone when it buzzes, the sound makes your mind wander.

Better yet, remove your phone from sight. “Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting,” says Kelly McGonigal, a psychology lecturer at Stanford and author of “The Willpower Instinct”. Oh, and if you have a secondary monitor, turn it off or remove it unless you’re actively using it to do your work. Ditto the stack of invoices you’ll be reviewing later and that book your co-worker lent you. Distraction-free FTW!

Myth… busted!

Just like Adam and Jamie, I love busting a good myth. It’s so satisfying! The key is to put all this un-learning into practice. Just because you know these hacks don’t work, doesn’t mean you won’t get suckered into trying them.

And on that note, I’ve been working on this for well over an hour. Time to go for a short walk to get some sunshine and give my brain a break.

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