9 scientifically proven ways to be more productive

No matter how you cut it, we only have 24 hours in a day—and far fewer working hours. While a great deal can be achieved during your business day, there always seems to be more things to do and less time to do them.

Here are nine scientifically-backed hacks to help you be more productive.

1. Retrain your reward system

The Marshmallow Test is getting more attention as a way to retrain your reward system. In the 1960s, Stanford researchers led by social psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an odd little experiment involving 4-year-olds and marshmallows in an effort to study delayed gratification, or the ability to wait for a larger reward despite the temptation of a smaller but more immediate reward. They put a marshmallow in front of a child participant and told him that if he could resist eating the marshmallow for about 15 minutes, he would receive two marshmallows. The researchers then left the child to his own devices, and the fun began.

Some children gobbled up the marshmallow right after the adults left, and others squirmed in their seats, trying not to even look at the marshmallow. In a follow-up study in the late ‘80s, the scientists discovered that the children who were able to resist the marshmallow tended to have higher attention spans, develop healthy emotional regulation and performed better in school than the children who ate the marshmallow immediately.

But what does this mean for us? If we adults can train ourselves to exercise willpower and resist a small reward, like listening to one more episode of Serial before finishing a big report, then we will be able to push through our assignments quicker and more effectively, resulting in bigger returns later, like a feeling of accomplishment and maybe listening to two episodes of Serial.

2. Make new habits and change your instincts

In his new book, Mischel identified other ways to hack your reward system to be more productive based on his years of research. He suggests adopting a set of “if-then” statements to help make resisting a small reward easier, thus creating new habits around approaching and completing your work.

He writes, “If x temptation occurs, then I’ll embark on y strategy … It sounds simple, and it is.”

By engaging in self-talk when you have a moment of temptation, you instead behave in a way that does not involve giving in. Eventually, this method will become like second nature and you’ll be able to focus on getting things done with ease.

3. Leverage your wandering mind and manage your time

Perhaps you are incredibly dedicated to the work that you do, but you get so distracted by new ideas and concepts that you lose sight of your original goal. In a review by physician Elias Sarkis, folks who suffer from symptoms of ADHD like inattention and hyperactivity can also utilize those traits to be more creative, free-spirited thinkers.

To combat the more negative effects of having a wandering mind on assignments that don’t necessarily require creative thinking, psychologist Kevin Murphy suggests splitting up bigger, more arduous tasks into smaller chunks with manageable steps which each have time limits. That way, you get a sense of achievement with every phase completed and more motivation to move forward.

4. Invest in a standing desk

Though these seem like a gimmicky trend in a sea of productivity tools, there is evidence that standing desks do indeed increase productivity. In a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University, participants who alternated between using the sitting and standing positions of height-adjustable desks reported reduced musculoskeletal discomfort and increased productivity at a statistically significant level. As an added bonus, the long-term health benefits were enormous; working at a standing desk may combat risks of cardiovascular disease and obesity, which have been associated with sitting down on the job.

5. Get a raise

Research by Harvard, the University of Virginia, and Yale has officially confirmed what we all thought was true: money increases productivity. By utilizing different econometrics models on field data, researchers found that, “(1) Bonuses enhance productivity across all segments; (2) overachievement commissions help sustain the high productivity of the best performers, even after attaining quotas; and (3) quarterly bonuses help improve performance of the weak performers by serving as pacers to keep the sales force on track in achieving its annual sales quotas.”

Thus, giving more money to both high- and low-achieving employees will serve to make them more productive. So here’s a little nudge to all of your folks in leadership: if you want your employees to perform better, give them an incentive.

6. Take a break or switch tasks

While it seems counterproductive, it has been proven that taking breaks will not only increase your productivity but also your accuracy. In a study by Cornell in 1999, typists were given cues by their computers to stop typing and take short breaks, which resulted in a 40% more accurate output and a marked improvement in the volume of output produced. Proving that these effects are consistent over time, a report by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that switching tasks while trying to complete a longer-term project results in better performance towards goal achievement.

7. Meditate

While you’re taking that break or if you’re simply relaxing after a hard day’s work, you might want to think about meditation. There are tons of research on the benefits of meditative practice, but one study in particular concluded that engaging in Transcendental Meditation, which focuses on settling down the mind and calming the body, not only increases productivity but also improves job performance, job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships more generally.

Next time you think about using your break to check your Facebook or take a short BuzzFeed quiz, consider meditating instead to prepare for your upcoming task.

8. Work from home

Sure, the stereotype that you don’t work as hard when you work from home exists. However, a team from Stanford revealed that there isn’t much truth to the myth. In a survey involving call center employees, the team found that participants who telecommuted experienced a 13% boost in performance. Surprisingly, productivity-related items including work time and efficiency increased. Furthermore, job satisfaction improved and the company’s overall turnover rate fell over the course of the study.

While the landscape of leadership and management shifts, so should your attitudes about working from home.

9. Prioritize happiness

Being happier more generally seems to affect your performance at work, according to one investigation by the University of Warwick. In the experiment, one group of participants was exposed to a short video clip of a British comedian’s performance, thus creating an environment of “happiness,” while the control group was not. Both groups then had to complete math questions and were told they would be paid more money for each correct answer as an incentive for participants to perform as well as possible. The researchers found that the “happy” group’s mean performance was higher by about 10% and the finding was statistically significant.

Thus, it seems that if you are in a better mood before you start your tasks, you will be able to complete your projects better, too.

What are some ways you enhance your productivity?

Post by Danny Wong

Danny Wong is an entrepreneur, marketer, and writer. He is the co-founder of Blank Label (an award winning menswear company focusing on luxury made-to-measure garments) and does marketing at Grapevine (a platform that drives eCommerce, helping retailers partner with YouTube celebrities). Tweet him @dannywong1190

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