6 techniques to improve productivity, according to research

Published 3:05 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2023

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6 techniques to improve productivity, according to research

It’s normal to procrastinate and seek distraction every now and then, but the honest truth is people’s attention spans are shrinking in the digital age. It’s both natural and healthy to let your mind wander on occasion, and it’s hard to bring your mind to heel and focus on necessary tasks.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing burnout—and for reasons yet unexplained—American workers’ productivity has been lagging. Research does show that remote work meaningfully increases productivity, but many employers are calling employees back into the office, which appears to have offset many of those gains.

Maximizing productivity is different for each person. Productivity itself varies by the job, as well as a person’s own psychology and habits for focusing.

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So Nextiva compiled a list of six research-backed strategies to help you improve your productivity or spark ideas for other approaches that might work better for you.

Person's hand writing a to-do list at their desk with a cup of fresh coffee.

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Make to-do lists

Making a to-do list might seem simplistic, but it’s a practice rooted in real human psychology. Recent studies around the Zeigarnik effect have demonstrated that leaving a task incomplete can decrease productivity, especially if that task is the first step to completing others.

Similarly, giving your brain a break from mentally tracking what you need to do—and simply writing it down on paper—can make room for productive thinking on deeper topics.

A to-do list can help you prioritize tasks into urgent and less-urgent categories; they also present opportunities to break down complex or abstract responsibilities into smaller, concrete elements that are easier to conceptualize and accomplish. So when in doubt, try using a list to keep the task load balanced across your various responsibilities, like work, home, and volunteering activities.

Businesspeople arranging sticky notes commenting and brainstorming.

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Identify priorities

No matter how busy your professional life might be, the day can still be full of other responsibilities, too—including family care and scheduling meetings. Figuring out how best to prioritize the day’s tasks is often an exercise in finding a structure that matches your brain’s natural tendencies.

For instance, visual and concrete thinkers might find the pickle jar theory useful, which can help you sort out crucial and wish list tasks from distractions. Those in leadership positions might find the Eisenhower matrix useful, placing tasks in one of four quadrants ranging from important and urgent to not important and not urgent.

No matter which method works best for you, having some means by which to intentionally and concretely approach the way you spend your energy during the day is a surefire way to make more efficient use of your time.

Person using pen to mark on calendar date.

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Set deadlines

The science is clear: Deadlines increase productivity. The famous quip, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” is called Parkinson’s law after its creator, historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson.

It’s really less of a law and more of an approach—but a deeper understanding of this particular quirk of human psychology could help you develop a more honest relationship with time management, allowing you to structure your time more productively.

This could look like giving yourself only 20 minutes to respond to emails at the start of a day, scheduling a meeting at a specific time, or working without a computer charger to create a time limit artificially.

And though self-imposed deadlines are indeed effective at increasing efficiency, research has shown that externally imposed deadlines are more efficient—so a place of work, or structured plans that involve others, could help even more.

Person holding a time blocking weekly calendar.

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Create working time blocks

Beyond setting deadlines around specific tasks, structuring your entire day into discrete blocks of time is another strategy that can help with productivity.

The time blocking method suggests assigning tasks to every hour of your day, leaving room for adjustment, and including activities such as eating breakfast. The Pomodoro Technique works for short deliverable tasks and is structured around 25 minutes of work, followed by five minutes of break, with longer 15- to 30-minute breaks taken every four intervals.

Woman in glasses working with multiple electronic internet devices.

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Avoid multitasking

It might be tempting to try and maximize your efficiency by working on a multitude of tasks at the same time. But 97.5% of humans’ brains are not wired to make the practice an efficient one. Research has shown that switching frequently between tasks can decrease productivity by as much as 40%.

For most people, remaining focused on one action at a time allows the brain to sink more fully into the activity and complete it faster than if they were multitasking. This practice involves fully reading source material before writing about it, putting notifications on Do Not Disturb for a concrete period of time, constraining emailing to certain hours of the day, or batching similar tasks together to stay in a productive flow.

Young businesswoman working at home while having breakfast.

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Automate repetitive tasks

Perhaps one of the clearest ways to increase productivity is to automate repetitive tasks, which frees up time. Setting up email automations such as responses or topic sorting, adopting workflow tools that automate specific functions, or writing a script to make a computing process quicker are a few ways to give yourself more time. Doing so will allow you to focus longer on urgent tasks and could, over the span of years, save you days or weeks of time.

The role of artificial intelligence and machine learning is sure to affect productivity in the near future, but most human workers are not fully replaceable. Rather, it will likely be important to understand how to use automation to help accomplish whatever your work requires.

This story originally appeared on Nextiva and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.