5 Productivity Myths Debunked by Science
“How would you describe yourself?”
How many times have you been asked that question in job interviews over the years? And how many times have you made the following claim?
“I’m a hardworking multitasker.”
It’s understandable. Being a good multitasker is a sign that you’re productive, right?
There are a lot of aspects of productivity that we take for granted because we have been told over and over that they’re valid. But the truth may surprise you. For example, does being a good multitasker really mean you’re more productive than your single-tasking coworkers?
Science says no.
With that in mind, let’s break down five common myths about productivity. They may be holding you back from getting your best work done.
#1 – Multitasking Makes You Efficient
Multitasking means different things to different people. You might define it as typing an email while talking on the phone. Or rapidly switching back and forth between multiple tasks.
No matter how you multitask, switching is a feature of the process. Even when you are literally doing two things at once, your brain needs to go through two distinct phases: goal shifting and rule activation (turning off rules for one task and turning on rules for another).
Research has shown that switching always carries a cost in terms of time and mental energy. This is something I addressed in my book The 30-Day Productivity Plan (Day 16). The time cost might be measured in a few tenths of a second for many switches. The problem is, multitasking requires so many ongoing switches that over time, those costs stack up. It can eventually deprive you of as much as 40% of your productive time.
#2 – The Early Bird Gets The Worm
This topic is fiercely debated by proponents on both sides. Regardless of which side is the loudest, you’ve probably noticed that our society is structured around early risers. The roots of getting up early date back centuries to our Puritan ancestors.
But does the early bird really get the worm? According to scientists, not always.
For example, this research shows that creative insights may come during “non-optimal” times of the day. Meanwhile, this study by biology professor Christopher Randler is often cited as proof that early risers really do achieve more.
Of course, findings from the latter study may merely be a reflection of cultural norms. Again, society is structured so that early risers are more likely to achieve more. Even Randler says that business leaders need to learn how to “bring out the best from their night owls.”
So does the early bird get the worm or not?
If you’re a morning person, then by all means tackle your tasks in the A.M. If you’re not a morning person, that’s fine. Just realize that you’re playing on an uneven field that favors your early-riser counterparts.
Unfortunately, that means you may have a more difficult time achieving success – e.g. raises, promotions, and praise from your peers – in your field. Them’s the breaks.
But in my opinion, you should still stick to working during times when you’re at your most productive (as much as possible). If that means scheduling your most intense work during the evening, do so.
Give yourself the opportunity to produce your best work by catering to your internal rhythms.
#3 – The Internet Is A Distraction
These days you’ll see a lot of advice to disconnect from the internet so that you can focus on your work and get more done. To be clear, I strongly believe the advice is well-founded. I’m a huge proponent of avoiding online distractions because I know from firsthand experience how seductive they are. My book Digital Detox addresses the topic in detail.
But is the internet always a distraction? Or is the problem related to something else?
An article in Science magazine offers a bit of perspective. The authors found that when it comes to researching items and retaining information, the problem isn’t that people are overly reliant on the internet. The problem is that they’re terrible at finding the information they’re looking for. Consequently, they spend too much time searching for it, and make themselves vulnerable to distractions in the process (I’m looking at you, Facebook!).
Will the internet slow you down when you’re trying to do online research? Will it distract you from getting things done? Sure, if you lack the skills to use it efficiently. But if you build those skills, you’ll be able to leverage the internet as the awesome research tool it is, quickly finding whatever you need.
I’ll give you some tips regarding how to use Google to streamline your online research in the near future. If you’re not on my mailing list, now’s the time to sign up. That way, you won’t miss it.
#4 – Keep Your Nose To The Grindstone To Get Things Done
We’re often encouraged to “power through” when we’re having a difficult time focusing. We’re told that if we just keep our noses to the grindstones, we’ll get the job done faster. We just need to show some willpower.
But science claims that’s untrue.
According to researcher Roy F. Baumeister, willpower is a limited resource, one that we deplete through hard, focused work. He conducted a study involving college students that demonstrated this effect.
One group of students were allowed to eat chocolate chip cookies. A second group was asked to resist eating the cookies (an act of willpower). Both groups were then asked to solve complex math problems.
The first group of students, the ones who heroically resisted the temptation of freshly-baked cookies, performed poorly on the test. Many of them simply gave up. Meanwhile, the students who ate the cookies did fine. Baumeister opined that the first group “used up” their willpower by resisting the cookies, and had little left over to deal with the math problems.
We need to take regular breaks to restore our flagging willpower. That’s how we’re built. It’s how we’re designed. Ignoring that fact will only hurt your productivity in the long run.
Here’s what I recommend…
Spend a few minutes every half-hour or so to give your brain a break and replenish your mental resources. Visit Facebook, email a friend, or play a quick game online. Or get a glass of water. Or just stand up and stretch. You’ll find that taking a short break will help you to perform more efficiently on whatever task you’re working on. (By the way, I cover this strategy in detail in my book The Time Chunking Method.)
#5 – You Should Never Work At Home
A lot of folks disparage the practice of working at home. They claim there are too many distractions – for example, your television, refrigerator, your kids, folks who knock on your front door, etc. They also claim your brain is less focused at home since it associates the environment with a relaxed state.
These cynics advise renting office space, where you can focus on your work without distractions.
But science tells a different story.
This study randomly selected employees from a Chinese firm to work at home and compared their performance with a control group of employees working at the office. There was a 13% performance increase from the work-at-home group, who outperformed their in-office counterparts!
Interestingly, this boost in performance came from two sources: time spent working and performance per minute. The work-at-home group worked more minutes per shift and got more done during each minute worked.
Most of the employees reported they were happier working at home. After the study ended they were allowed to continue doing so if they wanted to. Those who chose that option performed even more efficiently afterward.
None of this is to say that you should work at home if you don’t want to. Some people are more productive in an office environment. Others get more done when they work in coffee shops. Still others prefer to work at their local libraries.
Different strokes for different folks.
But if you do work best at home and have the opportunity to do so, go for it! Science is on your side.
If your boss is on the fence about letting you telecommute, show him or her the research. Who knows? It may convince him or her to give you the option!
Conclusion: Culture and Science Sometimes Clash
It’s hard to say where and when the above productivity myths originated. We tend to think that we’ve designed a culture around our beliefs concerning how we do our best work.
But is that assumption true? Or is it possible that our beliefs about productivity stem from the way our society was organized in the first place?
Don’t worry. That’s as philosophical as I’ll get.
The point is, demanding that people rise early for work, work in an office, and disconnect from the outside world may stem from a number of reasons. And not all of them are based on a pure interest in increased productivity. Remember, the blueprint for our society was created during the industrial revolution. When the assembly line was invented, CEOs started looking at workers like cogs in a machine.
But you’re not a cog in a machine. And importantly, science tells a different story than the one we’ve been told by our bosses regarding how to work effectively and efficiently.
We’re more productive when we stay in touch with the world. We’re more efficient when we give ourselves regular breaks to replenish our willpower. And we’re happier when we work during times and in places that are most comfortable for us.
Don’t wait for social standards to catch up with science. And don’t assume others know what’s best for you concerning how you do your best work. To whatever extent you can, carve your own path – one that complements your daily routines and internal rhythms. You’ll be happier, more engaged with your work, and more productive to boot!
Speaking of being more productive, if you’re having trouble getting through your daily to-do lists, check out my book To-Do List Formula: A Stress-Free Guide To Creating To-Do Lists That Work! It offers a simple blueprint for making sure you get your most important work done.