Let’s face it – as a small business owner, there are never going to be enough hours in the day. Whether you’re a solopreneur or you’ve got a small team pitching in, the “to-do” list sometimes feels a thousand miles long. Next thing you know, you’re pulling 14 hour days, drowning yourself in coffee and scratching your head trying to remember what “sleep” means, all in the name of getting things done.
How’s that working out for you?
Instead of working harder – why not work smarter? Improving your personal productivity is like cheating the universe and adding more minutes to every hour. If you want to up your output, we’ve compiled a list of tried, tested and proven ways to improve your productivity. From common sense that isn’t so common to downright weird tricks with surprising results, here’s how to take back your hours, shorten up the to-do list and bring balance back to your life.
1. Get a Full Night’s Rest
Those late nights burning the midnight oil at your desk are probably doing you more harm than good. 50 – 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders and it’s absolutely tanking their productivity (to the tune of at least $63.2 billion in the USA alone).
Studies show that just one night of sleep loss impairs innovative thinking and flexible decision-making – both critical to staying productive when confronted with new or difficult challenges. Two days of sleep restriction leads to a whopping 300% reduction in your attentiveness and ability to react.
We work slower when we don’t get enough sleep – and it actually makes easy tasks seem much harder! While sleep-deprived, your perceived exertion level for the exact same tasks done while fully awake increases by 17 – 19%.
And not all sleep is created equal – cut down your sleep by as little as 1.5 hours for one night and you may reduce your daytime alertness by as much as 32%, impairing your ability to remember and process information. Still think you’ll get more done with an all-nighter? Sleep loss contributes to an 11% reduction in the time it takes you to feel exhausted the next day – so it’ll come back to bite you anyhow.
One of the root causes for all of this is that a lack of sleep causes a 30 – 40% loss in glucose metabolism – a system crucial to your ability to concentrate and focus.
As it turns out, your greatest productivity tool might just be a pillow!
2. Take Naps
Just when you thought sleep couldn’t get any better, naps show up and take the gold medal. Multiple studies show that a 20 – 30 minute nap can lead to a 34% improvement in performance and a 100% increase in mental alertness. Berkeley found that napping boosts the brain’s learning capacity. When is it time to hit the couch for a quick snooze? Science tells us a mid-day nap is best – somewhere around 2:00. Just don’t sleep too long, or you’ll accomplish the opposite of what you intended – waking up groggy and disorientated. Next time someone hassles you for your afternoon siesta, you can truthfully tell ‘em it makes you better at your job.
3. Eat a Banana (Or Something Like It)
You’ve probably got enough people hassling you about your diet– but as it turns out, what we eat has an enormous impact on how productive we are – specifically, how our brains work. In fact, the World Health Organization cites that adequate nutrition can raise your productivity levels by an average of 20%.
But what can you eat to give your brain a quick boost? A balanced diet is essential, but for a practical tip, Researchers from UCLA found that the brain works best when there’s about 25 grams of glucose in the blood stream; that’s about as much as what’s in a banana. Glucose is responsible for keeping the brain alert and focused; when levels get too low, we become easy to distract.
Hate bananas? Don’t worry – there’s lots of ways to get that glucose – you could scarf down junk food, too. The problem is, that will cause a glucose spike – temporarily improving alertness before you crash and burn. Instead, choose a food with a very low glycemic index and snack throughout the day to keep your brain fueled up.
4. Double Down on Monitors
For a 9 – 50% boost in productivity, plop down another monitor on your desk. Multiple studies have shown the positive improvements in productivity that come when you hook yourself up with another screen. The reasons behind this are hard to pin down – but the most obvious is that more screen space allows you to keep from flipping between applications and makes transferring information from one place to another much more efficient.
5. Buy Some Houseplants
Chalk this one up under “weird but true” – for years, people in cubicles have put photos of nature up on the walls or brought in little green friends to help spruce the place up a bit. As it turns out, the impact is more than just aesthetic.
If your office space looks like a beige cube of misery, adding a plant or two can boost your productivity by 38% – or more. Scientists at the University of Exeter conducted 90 experiments that found houseplants not only improve creativity (45%) and overall wellbeing (47%), they also give your ability to concentrate and focus a boost, spurring greater productivity. As an added bonus, rooms filled with plants have an average of 50% to 60% less bacteria, so you may not need to take as many sick days.
6. Work By a Window
If your office is shoved away in some abysmal dark corner, you should consider moving closer to a window. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that natural light increases your energy, creativity – and ultimately, your productivity. Workers in natural lighting stayed on-task for 15% longer on average. Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago found the same – but also noted that a lack of light exposure during the day led to losing an average of 46 minutes of sleep at night (and we already know how important sleep is!)
Why? Mirjam Muench from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology discovered that exposure to natural light improved alertness, while artificial light left people sleepy and stressed. Under poor lighting conditions, cortisol levels drop, leaving you more stressed and less able to stabilize your energy levels.
So if you’ve been monitor-tanning in some back room, it’s time you and the sun got reacquainted.
7. Slice Up Some Lemons
This is another “strange but true” hack – environmental smells appear to impact how productive we are. As the most powerful of our senses, it makes sense that smell might have an impact. But how can you sniff your way to a more productive workday? The Takasago Corporation thinks they’ve solved it: chop up some lemons. In studies, workers made 54% less errors when they smelled lemons, 33% fewer mistakes with jasmine, and 20% fewer with lavender.
If the only smells in your office are microwaved fish or decaying apple cores in the trash bin, think about calling in an air freshener.
8. Control Your Temperature
Is your office an icebox? It could be costing you. A study from Cornell tested the impact of temperature on productivity, finding that when working in temperatures below 68 degrees, employees made 44% more mistakes than at an optimal room temperature of 77 degrees. More than discomfort, the cold becomes a distraction that pulls you out of your workflow. Other research has shown that temperatures outside of a comfortable range (somewhere between 70 and 77) causes at least a 5% drop in overall productivity.
9. C’mon, Feel the (White) Noise
Too much noise is one of the most common productivity stealers – and part of what makes open-concept offices a bad idea. But while too much noise is a nuisance, just the right amount might actually improve your productivity.
A study by researchers Mehta et. al found that a moderate level of ambient noise actually improves the brain’s cognitive and creative abilities. They found that while performing creative tasks, a level of ambient noise of about 70 decibels (about what you’d find in a typical coffee shop or living room with the TV on) enhanced work output and performance. The same cannot be said for tasks that require close attention to detail, though – in those cases, relative quiet is best.
10. Crank Up the (Soft) Tunes
There’s white noise – and then there’s music. Most people know about the so-called “Mozart Effect”; the idea that some music helps boost our ability to think of long-term, abstract solutions to logical problems. But is that a bunch of hooey, or can music actually help you work more efficiently?
A study published by the journal of Neuroscience of Behavior and Physiology showed that your ability to recognize images, letters and numbers is faster when classical or rock music is being played.
Teresa Lesiuk of the University of Miami determined that listening to music had an impact on worker creativity and speed, while another study found that assembly line workers were not only more efficient when music was playing – they made fewer mistakes and reported being happier. Yet another study, published by the American Medical Association showed that surgeons were more accurate when listening to music they liked.
Don’t be ashamed to throw on your headphones – if it’s something you like, chances are, it’s helping you get your job done.
11. Limit Your E-mail Use
According to research, e-mail is the single biggest time-stealer out of most people’s day. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, most knowledge/interaction workers spend a whopping 28% of their work week reading and responding to e-mail. That is a HUGE time-suck. McKinsey ventures that
“Improved communication and collaboration through social technologies could raise productivity by 20 – 25%”.
What that means for you is finding better ways to manage your e-mail:
- Unsubscribe from every non-essential mailing list, service or distraction. If you don’t need it to learn or get your job done, pitch it. You won’t miss it.
- If you can, nab up a virtual assistant or create automated replies to frequent, systematic e-mails using a tool like Zapier. The more of your time you can free up, the better.
- Limit checking e-mail to just once or twice a day, and when you do, give it your full attention. Reply to everything you can at once, without procrastinating.
- Keep it brief. Nobody wants to read a sermon in an e-mail; just get to the point and drop the formalities whenever circumstance allows.
- Empty your e-mail nightly whenever possible – and go to bed with inbox zero. The longer e-mails pile up, the more they’ll nag at you and stress you out.
12. Cut Off Your Social Media Addiction
This one is a bit of a paradox. In their study, big data firm Evolv found that hourly workers who accessed four social networking sites on a weekly basis not only stayed in their jobs longer – they actually racked up more sales. And another study by the University of Melbourne found that short breaks surfing the web actually boosted productivity as well.
But before you go thinking that your Facebook habit is good for your productivity, you should know that according to haron.ie, 57% of all work interruptions involve social tools like e-mail, social networks, text messaging or switching windows between them. We’re interrupted, on average, once every 10.5 minutes (or less). Indeed, 22% of all time online is spent on social networking – which can be a big boom for your business, but a huge drawback for the task at hand.
If you want to save time and stay focused, the best thing to do is force yourself off of social media while trying to get a job done. Luckily, there are tools that can help!
Self-Control, Freedom (for Mac) and Anti-Social are all apps that will block out specified sites for a determined length of time to keep you on-task and away from those online rabbit holes. Putting away your phone, though, will be up to you.
13. Don’t Try to Multi-Task
To those small-business superheroes trying to do it all at once – science says you can’t. Multiple studies show that multi-tasking is a terrible idea when trying to be productive. It’s not necessarily that the brain can’t handle multiple tasks, but that you lose enormous amounts of time switching between them.
A 2001 study by Rubinstein et. al found that participants lost tremendous amounts of time switching between multiple tasks, and even more time as those tasks got more complex. Another study by Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell showed participants were slower when they had to switch tasks than when they repeated them.
The net loss? As high as 40% of your productivity.
14. Chew Some Gum
Yes, really. Researchers from Cardiff University in Wales discovered that chewing gum not only reduces levels of occupational stress, but those who chew gum are able to complete a greater load of work. The culprit? Increased cortisol, which brings on lower levels of perceived stress and improved arousal and alertness.
15. Wake Up Early. Like, Really Early.
It’s may seem anecdotal – but several famous and prominent thinkers swear by one simple productivity rule: Get up before anyone else. That includes the likes of Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, William Wegman, Ernest Hemmingway and Toni Morrison.
At its simplest, the idea is that if you wake up before anyone else, nobody is there to distract you. Your mindset will be more proactive – and thus, more productive. You can set the tone for the day and capitalize on your booming willpower.
A study by researcher Christoph Randler at the University of Education at Heidelburg and published in the Harvard Business Review confirmed the idea that early risers get more accomplished. He studied 367 students, asking them when they felt most energetic, alert and willing to change a situation. The data clearly showed early mornings as performance peaks.
Just make sure you’re getting enough sleep.
16. Get Started
Researcher Kenneth McGraw has shown that procrastination and putting off the beginning of a project is a huge destroyer of productivity. Psychology shows that when we procrastinate, we imagine the worst parts of a project, delaying us longer and longer from getting started. According to John Bargh, what our brains do instead is try to “simulate” real work by doing small, mindless and simple tasks to fill time.
But when we get started and stop along the way we experience what is called the “Zeigarnik Effect” a discomfort that lingers until we’ve completed the task, pushing us to get more done. Sometimes, being productive is just about getting going.
17. Plan to Relax
Short breaks between bouts of work aren’t just welcome escapes – they can actually make the work you do more productive, too. Research by Peretz Lavie showed that 90 minute work sessions with short, 15 – 20 minute breaks in between are actually in better sync with our mind’s natural energy cycles, giving us the opportunity to better focus and stay at a higher energy level. A study by the Federal Aviation Administration also found that taking short breaks between longer working sessions brought about a 16% improvement in focus and awareness.
A similar hack is the Pomodoro technique – spending 25 minutes working intently (called a pomodoro), followed by a very short five minute break. After four “pomodoros”, you take a longer 15 – 20 minute break. Throughout the process, you use a timer to keep you on track (and add a bit of pressure). The important component here is to track your progress, marking down every pomodoro with an “X” and noting the number of times you were tempted to procrastinate or switch tasks.
18. Track Your Time
Writing down how productive you’ve been is tough, because it forces you to take a hard look in the mirror and admit when you’ve been… well, slacking off. But tracking our time can contribute significantly to self-control, according to research.
Whether it’s an app like Toggl or a good old fashioned pen and paper, keeping track of your time makes you more likely to value that time and gives you an improved ability to manage your tasks – all of that totaling up to improved productivity.
19. Ditch Your Perfectionism
It’s one thing to expect great work – but it’s entirely another to demand perfection. Studies at Dalhousie University, University of British Columbia, and York University found that perfectionist professors got far less work done and were less likely to produce publications, earn citations or publish their work in a high-impact journal. That’s because perfectionists either do things perfectly – or, typically, not at all. Perfectionism also underpins doubts, which can lead to repeating tasks unnecessarily or checking in on things that just don’t need it.
Keep in mind: Done is better than perfect – and work on letting go of your need for utter perfection.
20. Look at Cute Animals
This is about as wacky as we can get – but researcher Hiroshi Nittono from Japan (of course) conducted a study called “The Power of Kawaii” that showed that looking at pictures of cute puppies, pandas, kittens and cats won’t just improve your mood – it actually makes you more productive. Students looked at photos of food, adult animals and other neutral objects – but the results were not the same, with those who looked at cute animals outperforming their peers by a significant margin.
21. Get Up Out of That Chair
Researchers in Sweden found that physical activity can lead to higher productivity. That research was confirmed by another study by Jim McKenna of the Leeds Metropolitan University, who found that those who exercised during work hours turned in consistently higher quality work and had a higher tolerance for their peers. This appears to be true even if regular work hours are used for that exercise. Dr. John Ratey agrees. He found that exercise improves focus for up to three hours afterwards.
Get up, move around, work out and take care of yourself – your productivity will thank you.
22. Say “No” The Right Way
A big part of productivity is learning what tasks to say no to and learning not to allow yourself to agree to every disruption that comes your way. But there’s actually a better way to say “no” than you might be using now.
A study published in the Journal Of Consumer Research found that saying “I don’t” when declining an offer (“I don’t have time, I don’t miss workouts, I don’t get distracted, etc.) was far more effective than saying “I can’t”.
Students who said “I can’t” succumbed to temptation 61% of the time – while those who said “I don’t” gave in only 36% of the time. In fact, “I don’t” was even more powerful than just saying “No” by nearly a 50% margin. The reason is because saying “I don’t” is psychologically empowering, while saying “I can’t” is psychologically draining. Words matter!
Go Forth And Get ‘Er Done
You now have 22 new productivity tools in your arsenal – the question is, what will you do with them? From improving your diet and nutrition to managing your time or taking planned breaks, there are a myriad of ways to milk more time out of your day.
What favorite productivity hack did we miss? Let us know in the comments!