It's not just willpower and self-control that help you to get things done. You can pull little tricks on your brain to make it work harder, such as adjusting the temperature or looking at cute pictures of animals. Here are a few scientifically supported ways to boost your productivity without even trying.
Our brains are mysterious things. We enjoy hot chocolate from orange-coloured cups, http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2008/01/trick_yourself_into_eating_les/, and we can potentially reduce stress with a simple smile. These weird magic tricks our brain play are simple enough to perform on yourself, and a few of them can be used make yourself more productive.
Use Your Procrastination to Your Advantage
We all have dreaded tasks on our to-do lists. While science suggests the best way to power through those awful tasks is to just get started, you can also take another approach and trick your brain into making those tasks less dreadful. This is called productive procrastination. Creativity site 99U explains how it works:
[T]he mental trick is to regard other tasks as more important in order to make Very Important Task an easier choice.
Rank projects that seem quite significant yet have more flexible deadlines at the top instead, like reorganising your workspace or learning a new technique. You'll probably also find that there are newer Very Important Tasks that have joined your list, making that original one look all the more alluring.
Essentially, you're performing a mental trick that makes the task you're dreading less substantial by moving it down on your priority list. When you complete each smaller task, the bigger one seems like less of a pain. Productive procrastination isn't going to work every time, but it's certainly helpful now and again on those days where you're having trouble getting started. Picture: Fabio Bruna
Use Your Office Lighting and Temperature to Boost Productivity
It probably comes as no surprise that your environment has a lot to do with your productivity. While we've talked about triggers in your workspace before, and temperature and lighting are big ones. In fact, as Leo Widrich points out at the Buffer blog, regulating both can provide a boon to your productivity, and you hardly have to lift a finger. Widrich points to one study from Cornell that examined temperature and productivity:
When temperatures were low (68 degrees or 20 degrees Celsius) employees made 44% more mistakes than at optimal room temperature (77 degrees or 25 degrees Celsius).
Essentially, you want to regulate the temperature in your office. That means grabbing a space heater (or air conditioner in the summer), or at least keeping yourself warm with a jumper. It's not just temperature either. Lighting plays a role in productivity too. While direct research on lighting is still fresh, we do know that more exposure to daylight can improve productivity. While we've debunked the myth that getting up early makes you more productive, one big benefit of waking up earlier is that you get more time in the natural light of the sun.
That said, the wrong kind of lighting can cause eye fatigue and have a negative effect on your productivity. So if your computer screen is getting a lot of glare, or you're forced to work under a direct light, it's important to prevent eyestrain by taking breaks, wearing computer glasses, or using an app like F.lux that changes the colour temperature of your screen based on the time of the day. The less fatigue you have, the more likely you'll remain productive. Picture: Nicholas Todd/Flickr
Take Your Work to a Cafe
If you're the type who likes to focus in on a job, cut yourself off from the world and power through work, it might sound counterintuitive that the ambient noise of a cafe can actually help you focus. As odd as it sounds, studies do show that the ambient buzz of a cafe makes us more productive. As the Wall Street Journal points out, it's all about hitting the right level of distraction to get that productive boost:
[This] adds to research suggesting that small doses of distraction — including hard-to-read fonts — prompt the mind to work at a more abstract level, which is also a more creative level. [...]There's a sweet spot between silence and din.
Of course, everyone is a little different, and your results may vary. If you're stuck in the middle of an unproductive day, getting out of the office and into a noisy cafe is one way to trick your brain into working a little harder, no willpower required. Picture: dailylifeofmojo/Flickr
Take a Nap
It's not exactly easy to take a nap in the middle of the day, but it turns out a perfectly timed nap boosts your productivity more than you'd think. The best time for a power nap is between 1pm and 3pm in the afternoon, and you should keep it at about 15 to 20 minutes for maximum benefit.
Our own Adam Dachis gave this a shot himself and found that it worked well for him. A perfectly timed nap has all types of benefits, including boosting your memory, your cognitive ability and enhancing your overall performance.
Timing the perfect nap is dependent on when you wake up in the morning, but this interactive nap wheel helps you nail down the right time. The perfect nap may be the laziest way to boost your productivity, but it's certainly one of the most effective.
Play Unfamiliar Music While You're Working
The direct effect of listening to music to boost productivity is still inconclusive, but we do know that music can increase your mood by releasing dopamine. To anyone who has cranked up their favourite song to power through a day of monotonous work this sounds like common sense, but it's possible that listening to unfamiliar music is actually better for focus. The music service Focus at Will describes it like so:
[T]he single most important factor to consider when choosing a genre is what kind of music you usually listen to for fun and entertainment when you are not trying to be productive. And then, counter-intuitively, it's best to select the very opposite kind of music.... Why? Because your brain gets pleasure, releasing dopamine when it hears music you like and listen to a lot, and music that is associated with good times or strong memories of any kind will reduce the focus enhancing effects when used as a productivity tool. So if you never listen to classical music, try it for this, and the opposite is true, if you always listen to jazz, then try the ambient channel.
This approach doesn't necessarily work if you're a musician or you listen to music critically, but if you're the type to just throw something on in the background, playing music you don't know might be all you need to concentrate on the task at hand.
Look at Photos of Cute Baby Animals
We'll end with one of the stranger research findings we've seen: looking at cute baby animals can actually improve your concentration and productivity. The study, conducted by Hiroshima University in Japan, found that looking at pleasent and cute images increases concentration. After looking at cute animals, participants in the study increased their performance in concentration tasks by an astounding 44 per cent. Researchers were unclear of exactly why the pictures increased concentration, but they have a theory:
Caring for babies (nurturance) not only involves tender treatments but also requires careful attention to the targets' physical and mental states as well as vigilance against possible threats to the targets. If viewing cute things makes the viewer more attentive, the performance of a non-motor perceptual task would also be improved.
While it's by no means a definitive study, it echoes similar theories that temptations like reality TV and cute YouTube videos are beneficial for productivity as well. Next time you're feeling a little zapped of concentration, tune into some adorable animals for a couple minutes and see what happens. Picture: sunsets_for_you/Flickr
As with any little brain hack and power-up, overuse of these techniques will likely make them stop working. They're also not a replacement for a good productivity system and an optimised schedule. That said if you're stuck one day and you can't seem to get things done, a change of location, a break to look at adorable animals or some new music might be all you need.