Productivity

Seven Productivity Myths Debunked By Science

The end goal of productivity tips is to spend less time doing the things you have to do so you gain more time for the things you want to do. But if you follow every morsel of productivity advice you encounter, you’ll end spend more time moving papers and emails around than actually getting anything done. Need to simplify your routine? Let’s put an end to some common productivity myths once and for all.

Title photo made using lafotografica (Shutterstock)

Myth #1: You Have to Get Up Early

The idea that you can miraculously solve all your productivity problems by forcing yourself to be a morning person is a long-standing belief. It all started when biologist Christopher Randler published a study that pointed out early risers are indeed more productive. He subsequently defended the study in the Harvard Business Review. A lot of the “early riser = more productive” talk came from this, but in reality Randler only concluded that people who wake up earlier are in a more proactive mindset, and thus willing to tackle more throughout the day. His results can easily be accounted for by considering how most of us are socialised to believe that waking up early results having a whole day to get things done. Photo by David Dávila Vilanova.

A 2011 study published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning points out what we should really remember: the key to being productive and creative (which the study breaks into two different types of activity) is to work the hours that are best for you. If you’re an early bird (or someone forced into an early schedule because of your job), get your difficult and most troublesome tasks out of the way first thing, when you’re most productive. Then in the afternoon, when you start to wane, it’s time to throttle back and spend time brainstorming and being creative instead. The inverse applies to late risers or people who work best in the afternoon or evening. Put simply, you’ll have more time if you get up early or work late when no one’s around to distract you, but that doesn’t necessarily make you more productive.

Myth #2: Power Through Your Slumps

Another popular productivity myth is that the best way to get through a slump is to power through it. Put your nose to the grindstone and try and press through your creative or productive blocks and you’ll be OK — or so the myth goes. The truth is quite the opposite: a 1972 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology debunked this idea a long time ago, pointing out that your willpower is limited, so use it wisely. Photo by stuartpilbrow.

To use an analogy, whipping a horse gets you less speed and distance every time you do it. Trying to push yourself forward produces diminishing returns after a certain point. Instead, you should switch gears regularly, and take real breaks where you disengage completely and give yourself an opportunity to recharge. Unfortunately, most work environments aren’t terribly conducive to this, but it’s not impossible to work on a side project for a while, or just get out of the office and take a walk before coming back to what you were doing. A 2009 study by the Society for Human Resource Management published in the Harvard Business Review took the idea a step further, and proposed making time off and away from the office mandatory for employees.

Myth #3: Multiple Monitors Increase/Decrease Productivity

We’re arguing both sides of this myth for a reason: whether multiple displays enhances your productivity depends entirely on what you do and how you work. A number of articles have promoted the idea that multiple displays make us more productive, but the studies they were based on weren’t so one-sided. Here’s what they actually said:

The marketing push following these studies promoted multiple displays instead of a larger display because larger screens either didn’t exist or were prohibitively expensive. It was simply more realistic to suggest two 24-inch displays. We’ve covered both sides of this argument before, but the debate still simmers regularly. Photo by Sean MacEntee.

So what’s the truth? Simple: for most people who do text or spreadsheet-based tasks in a small number open applications, real estate matters more than number of displays. For people who need delineation between running applications, windows or workspaces, number of displays matters more than real estate. Figure out your needs and buy accordingly.

Myth #4: The Internet Is Dumbing Us Down

You’ll hear this refrain from a number of people, very often in order to sell books. Nicholas Carr and Clay Johnson both argue that the internet is changing the way we think and absorb information, resulting in us absorbing less, turning to the internet for research instead of learning to think critically, and being bombarded with more data than is actually useful. Photo by BuzzFarmers.

There is some truth to this theory, and we took a closer look at it to separate fact from fiction earlier this year. However, it isn’t the internet that’s making us stupid, and information overload is a failure to filter the firehose of data we all drink from.

A 2011 Columbia University study, published in the journal Science, examined Google’s effects on memory and concluded that many of us do choose to research information we need instead of commit it to memory. What the study didn’t do is draw doom-and-gloom conclusions about what that means for human intelligence.

The real myth here lies in the interpretation of scientific data, not the data itself. When asked to recall the speed of sound offhand, Albert Einstein declared that he did not “carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books.” The internet has the same effect: we learn to be careful about the information we memorise because we know we can access details when we need them. The downside is that we can drown in details when we do seek them out. But it’s up to us to manage that process, rather than dismissing a useful resource outright.

Myth #5: It’s Impossible To Get Real Work Done Outside The Office

If you’re a regular Lifehacker reader, you’ll know we’re huge advocates for remote work. However, the myth that remote workers are less productive still persists, especially in the minds of managers and HR staff who argue: “if I can’t see them, they’re not working.” Luckily, science is on our side.

Researchers at Stanford University examined 500 employees at a 12,000-person travel agency in China. After just a few weeks, employees who were allowed to work from home showed definitive signs of increased productivity. Photo by antony_mayfield.

Another study, published in the December edition of Journal of Consumer Research underlines a different benefit: mild, ambient noise such as the din of a cafe can makes us more productive, while excessive noise (such as an overcrowded office) can be a productivity killer. Working from home brings its own challenges, but the benefits often outweigh the drawbacks. As with myth #1, you should do what works best for you. If you work best in an office, head in every day. If you work best at home, convince your boss to let you try it.

Myth #6: Sorting Is The Solution To Email Overload

If you’re looking to get to Inbox Zero, spending all day sorting and organising your email into folders may be one way to do it, but that’s not really being productive, is it? Remember: the goal of any productivity method or tip is to give you more time to do the things you need to do, not to whittle hours away in the name of productivity. One University of California Santa Cruz study (commissioned by IBM) concluded that email technologies have reached the stage where filing messages may actually make them harder to find. Photo by Jason Rogers.

We’ve examined the usefulness of filing email before, and suggested that you should search for messages when you want to find them instead. The study notes that opportunistic access methods are the best for retrieving emails you need.

So what should you do? Reduce your email volume by unsubscribing from crap, automate and filter everything possible (services like Unroll.me and Boomerang can help here); manually organise key emails; archive/delete the rest; and then rely on search. A few filters will go a long way, and they won’t take much time to set up.

Myth #7: [Insert Productivity Technique] Will Fix Everything

This one’s about logic more than hard science, but we can’t stress it enough: no single productivity technique will work for everyone. Some methods are favoured by specific professions: many coders and creative typess prefer The Pomodoro Technique, I’ve known project managers and directors that prefer GTD, and sysadmins and technicians often prefer Personal Kanban. If you can’t find a single method that works on its own, we’ve shown you how to remix productivity methods to build a system that works for you. Photo by Dennis Hamilton.

The productivity method that works for you is the one you’ll actually use. Don’t try to shoehorn a method into your workflow because someone else thinks it’s the way to go. If you’re a project manager and you think GTD is too cumbersome, try Kanban on for size. If you want to take elements from both and mash them together so they work for you, you can do that too. If your system is out of control, go back to basics and give yourself a fresh start. The important thing to remember is that your productivity method should save you time and energy so you can focus on the task at hand. If you spend more time organising than you do doing the thing you’re organising, you’re wasting time. Productivity is about getting to work so you can stop working and do the things you want to do, not about spending all day moving papers from one box to another.

Productivity isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s highly individual, and every bit of advice you read — including ours — should be considered in that light.