The actions we take at work can directly affect how well we perform on any given day. Unlike psychological and physiological influences which can be difficult to apprehend and manage, productive and unproductive behaviors are much easier to identify and control. Here are just five actions everyone can take each day to support their work productivity – from making progress on long-term goals, to processing and encoding new skills faster.
Not all tasks are created equal. Those who can grasp how individual pieces of work fit into a wider hierarchy of importance will thrive. In practice, that involves separating what’s important from what’s urgent, knowing which tasks produce value and which just syphon off mental energy. It means being able to spot the low-value shallow tasks in your workflow and outsource or contain them. It also means structuring and prioritizing time for deep work on those which actually advance you towards your goals.
Cognitive processing is expensive for the brain, so our attentional system reserves it for reacting to new information in our environment. We are more likely to respond and encode novel, unpredictable situations than repetitive, predictable ones. As such, when it comes to learning, variety and novelty go a long way. Research has found that people learn new skills twice as fast when they modify their practice sessions. While not every work day will require you to learn new things, it makes good sense to try and shake up our automated behaviors and habits to attain new perspective and stir creative thinking.
We know that short, frequent breaks are requisite for staying productive – research suggests they can help you learn new skills more effectively. But the content of your rest is just as important as its length. Many people misunderstand the point of breaks, and accidentally use them to introduce unproductive stresses and tangential thoughts into their day. Those who take productive deep breaks – which disengage you from your work without tearing you away from it – are more likely to sustain their mental energy across their day.
Another trope, but an important one since body and mind will never exist in a vacuum. Exercise helps to reduce stress hormones which can hamper our ability to focus at work, and studies suggest that doing just 15 minutes of moderate exercise can return immediate cognitive benefits. Using your lunch hour to exercise, or working activity into your commute are both good options, since research suggest that exercising during work hours can lead to an increased sense of productivity and overall satisfaction.
As an alternative to a gym day at work, perhaps you should try meditation instead. An overwhelming body of evidence shows that meditation can help reduce psychological stress, putting you in a more productive frame of mind. What’s more, one study suggested that mindfulness-based stress reduction can actually increase gray matter in brain regions involved with memory and learning processes, as well as emotion regulation and perspective taking. All in all, a welcome aid to deep concentration and keeping what’s important in focus.