I started this blog to summarize real research being done related to personal productivity. What actually makes typical people more or less productive? What influences our potential for productivity? What can we do to help ourselves concentrate better, work efficiently, not procrastinate? My goal has always been to synthesize real science as well as informed theories based on the science, and turn the information into something that ordinary individuals can use. In addition, my goal has been to educate people on why the feel-good fluff of productivity, such as life hacks and tips made by self-important people about how they became so successful, is neither useful nor evidence-based.
The more I have analyzed and written about personal productivity, the more a pattern has emerged. Generally speaking, everything I’ve learned about how one can affect one’s personal productivity can be grouped into four categories:
I’ve written quite a lot about how sleep affects productivity. Sleep is fundamentally a health issue, therefore making it intimately tied to the body. To improve our productivity through better sleep, we need to focus on bodily changes. Having even a small sleep deficit over just two weeks can leave us performing as badly as if we hadn’t slept at all the night before. Another issue related to the body is obesity. Studies show that obese people are more likely to need more time off work due to health-related issues. Additionally, obese people are more likely to be less productive at work due to health problems that are not severe enough to keep them at home. It’s worth noting that these productivity decreases do not show up in a statistically significant way for people who are merely overweight.
The mind is a tricky category, but in analyzing different ways we can become more productivity, the mind comes up over and over again as a main pillar. Whether we can focus on a task or are prone to distraction is a matter of the mind. Whether we are drawn to work harder by incentives is a matter of the mind. Motivation and will power are matters of the mind. Mental exhaustion and burnout, while also related to the body, ultimately start in the mind and can be mitigated by how and how much we use our minds.
Like the mind, time is a tricky category. Time is an independent force that marches on with or without us. The measurement of time in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, is nothing more than a system we created and overlaid onto time to help us make sense of history, the world, and our lives. So if we want to be our most productive self, we need to understand not only our perception of time, but also whether we sequence tasks appropriately so that we use our seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and so forth, efficiently. We know that constantly checking email, for example, is inefficient[]. It’s a “waste of time” because we end up repeating the same actions later, re-reading messages long after the first time we checked them because we don’t recall anything about them from the first time around. Any action that’s a “waste of time” results in little to no payoff. They are inefficiencies. To change that behavior and focus on increasing our productivity, we have to address when we do actions (e.g., when we are most awake, when we are likely to be tired, just after a meal, etc.), for how long, and in what sequence with other actions?
The spaces in which we live and work undeniably affect our ability to be productive. Working in a beautiful space really does allow productivity to flourish. Noisy environments can hinder our ability to focus. Offices with poor air circulation and fumes that emanate from carpeting and furniture can make us feel ill and therefore decrease our productivity. Having plants or other types of nature within view, as well as natural light, tend to affect people’s productivity in positive ways.
Many factors that influence personal productivity fit into more than one category. For example, sleep is a body issue, but sometimes it’s also a time issue. There’s only so much we can do to influence our body’s ability to sleep. Night owls cannot force themselves to sleep too early, just as most people cannot force themselves to fall asleep at 2:00 in the afternoon. If the body is not producing melatonin and the mind doesn’t feel sleepy, one cannot sleep. Our influence can only go so far. But a night owl can rearrange her schedule and change how she uses time to better accommodate her lifestyle, get sufficient sleep, and improve her potential for productivity as a result.
Body and environment tend to overlap as well. Anything related to the environment necessarily has to do with the body, too, because the body is in the environment. Thermal comfort is a prime example. When a work environment feels too warm or too cool to someone, productivity can be affected. Researchers use the subjective term “thermal comfort” instead of talking in degrees because 68F may feel comfortable to you but cold to me. So temperature is an environmental condition, but thermal comfort is a bodily issue. The environment and the body often cannot be separated from one another.
We can’t reach optimal personal productivity without addressing all four of these pillars. Too much personal productivity advice encourages people to home in on one area of improvement, such as not obsessively checking email. While it’s fine to focus on one aspect at a time until a change in habit sticks, we must eventually address other dimensions, too, or else risk losing out on the big-picture improvements. Having a clear understanding of the four pillars—body, mind, time, and environment—and addressing areas of improvement in each of them can steer us toward real changes in personal productivity, rather than just short-term gains.