Productivity – the grim reality of how our brains work and what you can do about it
Chasing information online about productivity hacks can lead you down a rabbit hole of distraction. I’ve been chasing that pesky productivity rabbit for years. Like Alice, my many adventures in productivity wonderland have left my confidence in my productivity swinging like a pendulum between being too tall or far too small. In Alice in Wonderland, the Caterpillar teaches Alice that she can control her size by eating one side of the mushroom to grow and the other side to shrink. He asks her what size she most wants to be, and she replies that she would like to be a ‘little larger’. We all want to be that bit more productive. You’re probably reading this article because you are looking for that mushroom of knowledge to nibble on to make you just the right you. What you are about to read may feel as welcome as a slap in the face, but I’m afraid it’s backed by science.
The inevitability of distraction
This quest for improving our productivity can easily take us tumbling down the rabbit hole of distraction, always believing that being productive must surely be easier for everyone else. Science tells us that the grass isn’t always greener in your neighbour’s brain.
According to David Rock, the Executive Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, “The mind likes to wander, like a young puppy sniffing around here and there. As frustrating as this tendency can be, it’s normal and it tends to stay this way through life.” Psychology Today
Nuts! Just read that again. “The mind likes to wander…it’s normal…stays this way through life.“
You might be resisting this, your brain pushing back with examples of that better-than-you colleague who effortlessly crushes her to do list or flashbacks of you wasting an afternoon playing Candy Crush despite having an impending deadline. It seems like others can control their minds from wandering and be productive. The truth is that your candy-crushing brain is much more similar to that better-than-you-colleague than you think. The similarities of how your brains work is both the source of both hope and frustration.
Let’s first explore what science tells us our brains have in common.
According to the Microsoft attention span study of 2015, our attention span dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 down to 8 seconds in 2015 which is below the level of a gold fish.
How long is our attention span in seconds?
Human attention span in the year 2000
Gold fish attention span
Human attention span in the year 2015
This research gained a lot of media, with smug parents everywhere feeling vindicated by their complaints that this younger generation can’t concentrate. It surely must be all of those video games they play.
Sorry old farts, researchers at the University of Illinois found that gamers “track objects moving at greater speeds, better detected changes to objects stored in visual short-term memory, switched more quickly from one task to another, and mentally rotated objects more efficiently.” These benefits show that we can’t blame playing video games, as this technology clearly develops some useful skills. There’s further research claiming that video games help with children’s cognitive development and can even ‘reverse the mental decline that comes with aging’ – Psychology Today. Wowza. Who doesn’t like the idea of that?
Hmmm so we can’t blame video games for why we feel so unproductive and distracted. If your brain is like mine, it’s working really hard to come up with something else external to blame instead of accepting that “The mind likes to wander…it’s normal…stays this way through life.“
Before you start blaming your goldfish brain on your smartphone, take a second to remember your finger is and always will be more powerful than the ‘on’ button on your smartphone. You have always had the power to turn off your push notifications or remove the apps that distract you from your phone. It’s not your phone’s fault.
One of my favorite descriptions of why our phones drain so much of our concentration comes from a TED Talk by Tristan Harris: How better tech could protect us from distraction.
He sets out the problem with a question. “What do you think makes more money in the United States than movies, game parks, and baseball combined? Slot machines.” Wow. That’s a whole lot of change and a whole lot of spins. How on earth can we value spinning fruit that much? Why is it so hard to resist looking at notifications on our phones? You may not care for playing slot machines, but as Tristan describes in the video, you’re probably guilty of scrolling through your phone, emails, newsfeed or social media wondering, ‘What am I going to get?’
I love this tech-slot machine metaphor, and I hope it helps you catch yourself sometimes when you’re scrolling without purpose to see what you’re going to get. That moment of awareness is your chance to step away from the bright lights of distraction and walk toward the natural light of focus, purpose, and productivity. If you are particularly vulnerable to email distractions, have a read of ‘Email Russian Roulette the Deadly Time Killer‘
There may be times that we feel like slaves to our technology, but as Tristan describes in his TED Talk, technology can be better designed to support our productivity instead of chip away at it. Many of us benefit from digital calendar reminders and task notifications. There are so many ways that technology enriches our lives. We can’t blame our tech.
Productivity – Let’s not lose focus on what’s important
Let’s return to that Microsoft study claiming that since 2000 our attention spans have declined to less than a goldfish. That feels a bit depressing, and it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that our average attention span has reduced from 12 seconds to 8 seconds.
Stop right there.
I’d hazard a guess that there’s not a single person on the planet who plans out their day in 12-second blocks. In fact, plenty of people follow the Pomodoro Technique® of working in 25-minute blocks with planned breaks. I’ve read that many people choose to make a 90-minute block the maximum time they’ll go without a break. That doesn’t mean their thoughts don’t wander at all. See, it really doesn’t matter whether your attention span is 8 or 12 seconds. That’s not what’s holding you back. The problem arises when our concentration breaks, and we allow distractions to take over the work we are doing.
When people are first taught meditation or mindfulness techniques, they are surprised how challenging it is to be still with a quiet mind. All of us have a limited capacity to quiet our thoughts. This is how our brains work.
That better-than-you colleague doesn’t have a better brain than you. At most, she can concentrate for 4 seconds longer than you, but who cares about 4 seconds? Her output will likely be more productive than yours for different reasons than your attention span. There are so many variables to performance. Maybe that person grew up with a parent in the military and was taught better self-discipline as a child, maybe you had a glass of wine too many last night and are feeling it, maybe she eats more nutrients than you, maybe you’re dehydrated, maybe she simply enjoys her job more than you and puts more effort into her work. The list of differences that can separate your performance from someone else’s is infinite, so let’s not focus on comparing ourselves to others.
Another brain limitation that we all share
The “average person may only be able to hold 3 or 4 things in mind at once” (Live Science). D’oh. Even people who are able to hold impressively large amounts of information in competitions usually start with the same ability to hold 4 things in the mind at once and practice memory tricks to be able to expand the number of things they can remember. To be more productive, we don’t need to learn extensive memory tricks. We will be far more productive if we stop kidding ourselves that we’re going to remember everything we need to do. Have one place where you write down what you need to do. We’re not productive when we forget important tasks. We’re not productive when we’re searching through email for details about a task or scrabbling around for our meeting notes or a phone number on a bit of paper. We need a simple system for remembering important ideas, tasks, and information.
If you feel disorganized, you might check out some of these options:
- Bullet Journal http://bulletjournal.com/
- Microsoft One Note https://www.onenote.com/ (If you use Windows you might already have it on your computer!)
- Evernote https://evernote.com/
- Trello https://trello.com/
- Podio https://podio.com
- Todoist https://en.todoist.com/
- Streak (for Gmail users) https://www.streak.com/
- Quickbooks (for your bookkeeping & invoicing) https://www.quickbooks.co.uk/accounting-software/
Whatever you choose, remember that you can only remember 3 to 4 things at a time. Give your brain a break and develop a simple system to record the important stuff that you want to remember.
Acceptance – the simplest path to increasing your productivity
The next time you compare yourself to others or get frustrated with yourself for wasting an hour, an afternoon or a day, remember we all have a similar attention span. Accept that your brain is looking for that slot machine distraction several times each minute. Acceptance and awareness can lead you to make better choices. Go ahead; glance at the bright light notifying you of a new message on your phone. But bring awareness to what you’re doing, as often as you can, as many times throughout the day as you can. If it’s too late, and you’ve already read your Facebook notification or email, stop yourself as soon as you notice you’re scrolling through your timeline or inbox. Awareness delivers the hope that maybe next time, you’ll stop yourself before you check the notification. Have realistic expectations, or you’ll make yourself miserable. There will not be a day that you resist every distraction. In an average workday, your attention will slip at least 52 times. Accept it. You will increase your productivity by getting better at bringing yourself back to the task at hand as quickly as you can.
As you become more aware of your distractions, you may discover some other deficiencies that hold you back from being more productive. For example, most people consistently underestimate the time tasks take. Their poor time estimation skills lead to an incredible amount of disappointment and stress because they perpetually feel everything is taking longer than it should. Another problem that plagues many of us is the need to be more decisive about priorities. Not being decisive about what is most important for us to work on is like setting our own failure trap. When we sit down to ‘work,’ we’ll rely on the rush of “what am I going to get” from our email inboxes. Giving ourselves some time and space to think and decide our priorities makes it easier for us to avoid those traps.
There are many contributing factors that make it hard to be consistently productive. Each day we may be more or less productive for entirely different reasons, but there is one stubborn fact that we all encounter daily. All of us face multiple distractions throughout the day. All of us have short attention spans. We can become more productive by reducing the amount of time we spend on our priorities instead of distractions.
Simple tips for increasing productivity and reducing distractions
- Turn off push notifications on your phone
- If you can, remove email from your phone. If you absolutely must have it, turn off the push notifications.
- Remove distracting apps from your phone.
- I suggest removing social media from your phone. You can still take photos and upload them to Facebook or Instagram later.
- Stop looking at your phone when people are talking to you IRL (in real life). Seriously, it’s rude and disrespectful.
- Never start your day by looking at email first.
- Handwrite your top 3 priorities each morning. When you catch yourself in a distraction, look at your 3 priorities to help you get back to doing what matters.
Try this for at least 2 full days (do it for longer if it brings more awareness and productivity to your workday) – When you start checking your email, write down the time you start and the time you stop. You’ll be surprised how frequently you check your emails throughout the day and how much time you waste each time you check it. This activity is a great way to evaluate how bad your email habit is. If you dive in and out of your email so frequently and mindlessly that you don’t come close to recording the time, you have a problem. I suggest you try a free tool called TimeCamp to help you bring more awareness to how you’re spending your time throughout the day. It has a timer that rests on top of the program you are working in. In the background, it also records every action you take on your computer. Even if you don’t use this all of the time, it’s illuminating to see how frequently you jump from one thing to another.
The best tip to increase productivity and decrease distractions
My final top tip is painfully simple and effective. What is so darn frustrating is how often we need to use it throughout the day. This idea comes from Mel Robbins book, The 5 Second Rule – Transform your life, work, and confidence with everyday courage. https://melrobbins.com/, or you can watch her TED talk.
In her book, Mel reinforces the science behind why her simple rule works. It’s a worthwhile read, but let me give you a crash course into why her simple rule is so effective.
The 5 Second Rule
“The moment you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must 5-4-3-2-1 and physically move or your brain will stop you.”
Mel described in her book how she discovered the rule in a difficult period of her life when she was suffering from anxiety and kept hitting the snooze button in the morning. She counted down 5-4-3-2-1 launch and imagined herself like a rocket launching out of bed. It worked. She discovered it worked for all sorts of tasks, too. Whether you are a chronic procrastinator or the better-than-everyone-else-colleague, this simple technique is helpful because, as we’ve already learned, our brains only hold attention for less than 10 seconds. We are perpetually on the lookout for distractions. The 5 Second Rule can increase your productivity immediately every time you remember to use it. When you use this technique, remember to physically move after you countdown 5-4-3-2-1. Figure out a movement that works for you. Maybe stretch your fingers, look at the ceiling or tap your foot. I suggest that you pick something discreet, so you can use it consistently everywhere without excuses.
When using the 5 Second Rule, accept that you will get distracted. Accept that each time you shorten the length of time you are distracted or resist the temptation to pull that slot machine lever of distraction in the first place, you are increasing your productivity.
Increasing your productivity is as simple as accepting the true nature of how our brains work. When we place harsh judgments on ourselves for not being productive enough throughout the day, we create unnecessary stress, and stress makes us even less productive. As Alice says, ‘being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’ The caterpillar taught her how to control her size by nibbling on different ends of a mushroom, but as he watched her grow and shrink, he wisely asked her a question, ‘Are you content now?’ She replied she would like to be a ‘little bigger’ because her current size was a ‘wretched height to be’. She dismissed the caterpillar and carried on with her adventure. Her adventure in wonderland ends when Alice sees the injustice of the Queen screaming, ‘off with her head’ when she delivers the sentence before the verdict. Alice rejects the unfairness of the Queen and grows and matures to her proper size naturally without the need for drinking potions or nibbling on mushrooms. Just like Alice, if we want to grow our productivity, we must mature. Rather than constantly chasing after the latest productivity hack, mobile app, or software, we must seek contentment and acceptance of ourselves as we truly are.
Approximately every 10 seconds, we have a fresh opportunity to be more productive. Acceptance of this simple truth can calm that stressful feeling of not being enough. Releasing the shackles of inadequate feelings alone is not enough to make you more productive, but when you combine that with a commitment to spending time clarifying your priorities and spending less time on distractions, you will feel more content and be more productive.