5 productivity mistakes you’re probably making

We all want to get things done and we want to get them done fast. This is why we actively look for ways to work more effectively. But a lot of “common sense” productivity tips may not work as well as we once thought. Worse, they might actually be detrimental to getting things accomplished. Here are 5 productivity mistakes that many of us make.

1. Avoiding distracting websites throughout the day

If you think looking at LOLcats or other cute images and videos is a time suck, think again. They can actually be good for your productivity if done moderately.

Researchers from Hiroshima University conducted a study that showed participants performing better in tasks requiring focused attention after viewing “cute images” – photos of baby animals.

An earlier study from the University of Virginia also suggests something similar: exposing people to photos of puppies and kittens led them to do better in fine-motor dexterity tasks.

This isn’t just true of LOLcats, though – it’s also true of social networking. According to Evolv, a data analytics firm, employees who use social media networks are more productive. Another study from the University of Melbourne also showed that people who spent at most 20 percent of their work time on social media were more productive than their peers by 9 percent. As long as the workers weren’t addicted, leisurely browsing was helpful as a reward.

So instead of automatically blocking distracting websites, it might actually help to indulge in them a bit – just as long as we don’t spend all day on them.

2. Drinking coffee

Our relationship with coffee is complicated – on one hand, it’s known to better activate working memory and improve reaction time. It’s probably the world’s most popular stimulant.

While most of us are already aware of coffee’s role as a pick-me-up, what’s not commonly known are the nuances of how the caffeine in coffee works. What’s the most surprising is that across a few studies, the positive effects of caffeine are only seen on people who are already taking caffeine regularly in the first place. According to the research, it’s likely that the positive effects of caffeine come from relieving caffeine withdrawals.

So what does this mean? Go ahead and have coffee if you think it helps your process – but it’s also possible that you can get things done even without it.

3. Fantasizing about a positive outcome

We’re often told to “visualize success” or “think positive.” While this can sometimes work, an extensive study from the University of Hamburg shows that there are ways that positive fantasies actually hinder success.

What works are positive expectations – these are visualizations of success based on previous successes. They focus on the likelihood of accomplishing a goal based on past facts or experiences. These types of thoughts lead to higher effort and performance.

However, positive fantasies have the opposite effect. They actually lower motivation. From the paper (emphasis mine):

“As positive expectations reflect past successes, they signal that investment in the future will pay off. Positive fantasies, to the contrary, lead people to mentally enjoy the desired future in the here and now, and thus curb investment and future success.”

As a result, positive fantasies led to weaker effort and lower performance. It’s also important to note that positive fantasies prevent us from foreseeing or expecting the obstacles that might get in our way. We tend to underestimate the effort needed to successfully achieve a goal.

So rather than fantasizing about a happily fulfilled ending, it might be a better idea to think positively of the process – that based on your knowledge of yourself and your skills, your investment in effort will pay off.

For more on this subject, check out our post on the perils of positive thinking.

4. Having a neat, organized desk

We’re often told that a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, but should we really follow this old maxim and clear our minds through our desks?

It depends on what you want. In an experiment from the Carlson School of Management, an orderly environment leads to compliance. This is a good thing if you want to make traditional, conventional decisions.

But if you want creativity, you might benefit from more disorder. The results of the experiment showed that people in disorderly environments showed greater creativity and were more open to new options.

5. Rewarding ourselves for a job well done

We’ve discussed rewarding ourselves as a productivity tip before, but does it really work? In theory, it should – it only makes sense that when you are rewarded for something, you’ll want to do it again.

But a review of 128 psychological studies shows that having an extrinsic motivation – a reward outside of performing the task itself – often leads to lower engagement, completion rates, and performance compared to intrinsic rewards.

Sometimes it’s better to just focus on the task at hand and let the process and its completion be its own reward, rather than relying on something external.

Test first, believe later

Are any of the above mistakes truly mistakes? Maybe not. It all depends on what works for you. What’s really important here is that rather than relying blindly on productivity tips, no matter how sensible they seem, it’s still best to test different approaches until you find out what works for you. There’s just no shortcut or lifehack for that.

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.