New Research on What Really Works for Improving Productivity by

Whether it’s a technique for how to set priorities or tricks for managing your inbox, there’s no shortage of ideas for how to better spend your time. Some of those tips work great for a few people. Then they flop for others.

In the spirit of data-driven marketing, I thought I might explore data-driven productivity with you. I can’t promise any of these productivity tips will be your magic solution, but these are all data-driven.

They also all make practical sense, and they support many of the other productivity tips you’ve been hearing for so long. Most of them will appeal to your intuition, too. For example, you always thought you worked better by a window. Now you’ll know why.

Actual scientists from major universities and research centers did the studies summarized here. They drew their conclusions based on statistically valid sample sizes. That doesn’t necessarily mean these productivity tips are really any better than any other ones. But hopefully a couple of them will stick, and you’ll get that extra little edge you need.

I specifically picked productivity tips for “knowledge workers” – people who tend to work at a desk, in an office, with other coworkers near them. All these tips actually focus on improving your workspace. They don’t require any special equipment or conditions. But they should help you get far more work done, and be happier, too.

 

Turn your phone off

Having your phone beep, chirp and buzz while you work is distracting – even if you never touch your phone. Just hearing the notification blunts your focus. It also sets you up to make three to four times as many mistakes.

That’s according to a study from Florida State University done by Cary Stothart, Ainsley Mitchum, and Courtney Yehnert. The researchers noticed how the notifications from their own cell phones kept disrupting their focus. So they decided to run an experiment to verify if cell phone activity – even when we don’t respond to it – affects how people complete tasks.

The research team rounded up 212 university students, asking each one of them for their phone number, email address, and other information. Then they asked them to do a fairly simple task for 10 minutes. The task was specifically designed to test how well the students could focus. To complete it, they just had to press a key any time a number showed up on their computer screen – unless that number was 3. Then they weren’t supposed to press the key. (Gotta keep it interesting, right?)

After ten minutes of this, the students got a 1-minute break. Then they started another 10-minute block of number checking. That’s when the notifications started.

A computer randomly broke the students into three groups – one that got phone calls, one that got text messages, and one that got no notifications. As the notifications went out, the researchers watched for who actually stopped the task and interacted with their phone. Anyone who picked up their phone was not included in the study results. The researchers only wanted to include people who got the notifications but ignored them.

So how did the different groups do?

  • The students who got phone call notifications made 28% more mistakes.
  • The students who got text message notifications made 23% more mistakes.
  • The people who got no notifications made 7% more mistakes.

Why 7% more mistakes from people who didn’t get any notifications? Fatigue. The longer we work, the more likely we are to make mistakes. More about this in a moment.

There wasn’t any statistically valid difference in mistakes made between the people who got phone calls or texts. But there was definitely a statistically valid increase for the people who got notifications versus those who got none.

So there you have it. Next time you’ve got a detail-oriented task that requires a lot of focus, ditch your phone. Keeping it with you – even if you ignore it – will cause you to make 3-4 times more mistakes.

 

Consider wearing headphones and listening to natural sounds

If the idea of no noise and no cellphone makes you uncomfortable, I have a suggestion: Listen to natural sounds as background music. You know, sounds like rain, wind through leaves, a campfire… even a distant thunderstorm.

This works best if you use the natural sounds like white noise – to muffle the noise from general office activity. The background sound of a typical office makes it harder for many employees to focus. That’s why some companies actually play “white noise” in their offices.

Ends up, they might do better playing natural sounds instead. That’s what a study released last year from The Acoustical Society of America suggests. They found that sound masking systems that play natural sounds affect workers far more positively than traditional white noise. The natural sounds improve cognitive function and the ability to concentrate. They also boost overall worker satisfaction.

If you can’t get your entire office to switch over, don’t worry. There are plenty of good options to create natural sounds in your own space.

First, there are apps. Try Rain, Rain Sleep Sounds if you’ve got an iOS device . For Android users, there’s Nature Sounds Relax and Sleep.

If you’d like to avoid using your phone entirely, try this website: Noisli. It’s free and has plenty of background noises to choose from. My favorite is the crickets.

Noisli

Noisli is a free website that lets you choose from a number of natural sounds.

 

Sit near a slightly open window and buy a plant 

Or better yet, improve the ventilation system at your workspace. Or not. Unfortunately, most of us probably can’t get our bosses to install a new ventilation system. So sitting near a slightly opened window may be the next best thing.

Here’s why you want the window in the first place: According to researchers at Harvard University and SUNY Upstate Medical, doubling the ventilation in offices can result in up to $6,500 in increased productivity per employee per year. The researchers estimate it would cost between $14- $40 per employee to get the ventilation improvements needed for the productivity boost.

Even at a cost of $40 per employee, that works out to a 16150% ROI. Wow.

This wasn’t just one isolated test, either. The study was run in seven different U.S. states, with three different types of indoor environments and four different ventilation (HVAC) systems.

VentilationForProductivity

Why the plant? According to NASA, plants significantly improve air quality. So if you can’t get near a window or can’t get near an open window, a plant might help you breathe better. And thus work better.

But wait, there’s more: Sitting near the window may boost your productivity in other ways, too. Even if the window is closed. Several studies (like this one and this one) done in the last few years show that natural daylight or bright artificial light with a blue hue can help us sleep more soundly, and perform our work more efficiently.

SleepQuality

Take a break

Feel like you need a break sometimes? You do. It might even help you get more work done.

That’s what a study by Emily M. Hunter and Cindy Wu found. In Give Me a Better Break: Choosing Workday Break Activities to Maximize Resource Recovery, Hunter and Wu outline how longer, more frequent breaks can boost productivity more than shorter, less frequent breaks will.

Hunter and Wu studied 95 employees. They looked at how those employees responded to breaks of different lengths at different times across a five day workweek. Not only did longer breaks boost employees’ productivity more than short ones, but breaks taken earlier helped more than breaks taken after employees had been working for several hours non-stop.

Key takeaway: It’s just like you suspected. You do your best work when you’re fresh. And you get more work done if you stay fresh. What’s more, once you’re feeling a bit burned out, even a long break won’t help you as much as if you’d had a break earlier, before you got worn out.

 

Conclusion

Here’s the key takeaways of each of these studies:

  • Even if you ignore it, a buzzing phone is still a distraction.
  • Natural sounds are better for noise masking than traditional white noise.
  • Fresher air boosts cognitive function. That allows us to make better, faster decisions that result in higher productivity.
  • Exposure to natural light will help you sleep deeper, and thus feel sharper during the day.
  • Long, frequent breaks help you work more efficiently. Especially if you take them before you start to feel worn out.

What do you think? How do these studies line up with your personal experience? Do you think they’re valid, or bunk? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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