The Truth About Productivity
Productivity. It’s something we all strive for in our working lives. And, there’s plenty of advice and tips suggesting how we can boost our efficiency and improve our overall productivity.
So, why is it that many of us still struggle to achieve what we set out to do and get things done? It turns out that many of the tips that “help” organize our working day and get the most out of every hour are actually myths, advice that actually hinders our ability to work as effectively as possible.
From cleanliness, multitasking, and remote working to starting early and working under pressure, we bust open the truth on 13 commonly held misconceptions about productivity.
I can get more done if I multitask
Multitasking is often touted as the best way to get things done quicker. And, you may think you’re great at multitasking, but studies would suggest otherwise.
In reality, multitasking is distracting and can seriously diminish productivity. When we tackle more than one task at a time, we continually switch between them, never fully focusing on one particular thing, and leaving each unfinished as we move onto the next.
Switching your attention between each task may only take a split second, but continually doing so throughout the day can reduce productivity by up to 40%, affect your cognitive ability, and significantly increase the chance of making errors.
I can achieve more by not taking breaks
When you’re in your creative flow or have a deadline to meet, taking a break is often the last thing on your mind. Not only is working continuously without a break detrimental to your health, it also has a serious impact on your productivity.
Taking frequent breaks can help reduce stress, refresh your attention span, and get you ready to throw yourself back into work mode. Including micro, long, and lunch breaks into your working day gives you the chance to reset your energy levels.
Whether you take a stroll, chat with a colleague or watch a hilarious cat video on social media, these short breaks will be hugely beneficial to your productivity.
Working longer hours makes me more productive
There seems to be some logic in the adage “I’ll get more done if I work longer hours.” However, we all have a limit on the hours we can work before exhaustion takes over and our focus dwindles.
Stanford University suggests that working longer than 40-45 hours per week is actually counter-productive, as the extra hours are much less effective and lead to lower performance levels and unhappy workers. This is also backed up by a 2021 study that shows that German workers have a higher productivity rate than their U.S. counterparts, despite the Americans working more than 400 hours extra a year.
Instead of working longer hours, we need to be looking at using our regular hours much more effectively.
It’s better to start my day with easier tasks.
It may feel good to tick a few things off your to-do list before turning your attention to the meatier, more daunting tasks. Until you realize that answering those few emails at the beginning of the day could potentially harm your productivity.
Most people are at their most productive between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m, so it makes sense that these peak performance hours should be used for tackling the most difficult item on your to-do list.
Even the scientists agree that completing more complex tasks before moving onto menial jobs leads to higher productivity. The sense of euphoria and achievement at having completed something challenging will give you an extra boost and help your performance later in the day.
Getting an early start to my day will make me more productive
It’s said “the early bird catches the worm,” and that may be the case for some people–but definitely not for all.
Setting the alarm for 4 a.m. to start work at 5 a.m. is not necessarily the answer to getting more done. You may be up at the crack of dawn and have that presentation finished by lunchtime. However, the early start can leave you burnt out and exhausted for the rest of the day when other essential tasks still require your attention.
With the first hours of the working day proven to be most productive, analyzing when you’re at your peak of alertness should help you identify whether being the early bird will be of benefit.
People are less productive when they work remotely
Many consider the home environment to have too many distractions for people to work efficiently, leading to the common misconception that remote working has a negative impact on productivity.
In reality, working from home can actually improve productivity by up to 13%. Home workers have no commuting time and tend to take much shorter lunch breaks meaning they actually spend more time working than when they’re in the office. And, with a better work-life balance their overall well-being is greatly improved leading to them taking less days off through sickness.
I’m most productive when I’m stressed or under pressure
If you leave projects as close to the deadline as possible under the impression that you’re most productive under pressure, you could be doing yourself a disservice. Although being under pressure increases the speed at which we do things, it also increases stress levels, having a detrimental effect on the quality of our work.
A small amount of stress can help motivate us. But, too much stress can be overwhelming, causing us to lose focus and waste time as we try to work out how to best handle the task ahead.
Having a clear plan of how to manage your workload can help you progress efficiently through your to-do list and not end up piling the pressure on as deadlines approach.
Delegation takes time; it’s easier to do things myself
Delegating can feel like a waste of time, especially when it’s handing off a small task you’ve done a hundred times before. Having to explain exactly what needs to be done can take time. However, in the long-term, it will actually save you time and increase you—and your team’s—productivity, especially when done effectively.
Relying on others to complete tasks you could do yourself is not a weakness. Smart workers should delegate jobs to colleagues or subordinates when they can, freeing them up to focus on more important tasks. We all have a limited amount of time at work and delegation makes the most of the time we have.
I’m most productive when working at my desk
Whether working in the office or from home, a designated workspace draws a line between relaxing time and work time. However, sitting at your desk for the whole working day could actually be affecting your productivity.
Although no scientific evidence exists on this myth, changing location to tackle different tasks is a strategy being talked about and one that is making a difference to productivity. Shift to comfy sofa to check your emails, head to the library to draft a report, or move to the office common area to create something new. Altering your surroundings and the environment to match the task helps stimulate your mind and re-energize you throughout the day.
Background noise hurts my productivity
It’s often thought that complete silence is required for people to fully focus on the job at hand. While this may be true for the more introverted among us, background noise, such as that found in coffee bars and other public spaces, can benefit many of us.
Being exposed to ambient noise can boost creativity and help us focus. Some studies even suggest that listening to music could also help increase productivity. We’re not saying you should be pumping out rock music while you work. But, listening to softer music could increase dopamine levels, stimulating the part of the brain responsible for organization and planning.
A clean workspace helps me be more organized and productive
A clean workspace may help focus the mind and promote a sense of order and organization. However, it doesn’t necessarily improve your productivity. Messy workspaces can actually aid the creative process by encouraging us to consider new ideas.
We’re not talking about cluttering your desk with random knick knacks, tons of photos, and every file associated with work. In fact, we’d encourage you to limit the amount of paper on your desk by digitizing what you can. It’s about having what you need close at hand and everything else out of reach—but handy just in case it’s needed. Creating an ordered mess could help you remain focused and also boost creativity at the same time.
Daydreaming kills productivity
We all aim to be totally focused and busy throughout the work day, thinking that if we take our foot off the gas for even a second, our productivity will be hurt.
The truth is that excessive amounts of focus and concentration can actually be a drain on our mental well-being. Allowing yourself the occasional daydream, especially positive constructive daydreaming, could be good for your mental health and your productivity. This effective daydreaming method allows your mind to re-energize while it moves through memories and ideas, potentially coming up with creative solutions along the way.
I need to be available to react instantly when plans change
Being notified as soon as an email pops into your inbox may sound like a good idea. You’ll instantly be aware that a colleague or client needs something and can adjust your schedule accordingly.
This practice is, however, very counterproductive. Every notification interrupts you and moves your focus away from whatever you were doing. It’s been calculated that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover and regain your concentration after each interruption. So, when you consider the average employee receives 121 emails per day, that’s 7,744 seconds—or over 2 hours—per day spent on recovering from notifications instead of doing more important tasks.
Reading and responding to messages is a vital part of everyone's working day. Set aside a specific time during the day for checking emails and switching off notifications when in deep work mode. Two hours a day is a substantial amount of time to lose!
These productivity myths are frequently touted as excellent ways to help you achieve your goals and improve efficiency. However, they’re just not as helpful as you might think. Trying to incorporate every tip you read into your daily routine can often lead to disappointment—and even a feeling of failure—when they don’t have the desired effect.
Everyone is different and what boosts your productivity may not be the right technique for someone else. Being aware of when you’re at your peak and organizing and managing your time more efficiently should ultimately result in you becoming much more productive.