When it comes to productivity, most people think of systems or practices that help them do more, especially when it comes to fitting even more tasks into the limited time we all have each day. Read just about any article on productivity, and you’ll most likely discover a multitude of ways to get more done in less time. These usually include a variety of time management systems, including making lists and setting goals, which are essentially ways to be even busier.
While it’s certainly true that you can’t be productive without taking action, many of the strategies we currently use to try squeezing an extra hour out of a spare 10 minutes often backfire. More often than not, they can lead to stress, fatigue, and even burnout, all of which are impediments to productivity.
Instead, if you really want to discover the secret to being more productive, you may want to focus on actually doing less. Although it seems counterintuitive, failing to take time off is one of the biggest productivity drains out there. That’s because you only become fully capable of doing your best work when you’re refreshed, relaxed, and recharged.
Imagine that you are a car on a very long road trip. If you the driver never stops for gas, you aren’t going to get very far. The same is true for your human self. If you never stop to “refuel” – physically, mentally, and emotionally – you’re unlikely to get far without burning out, which is not at all helpful for your productivity.
Surprising Productivity Killers to Avoid
If you want to be more productive, avoid these 10 things.
1. Not Getting Enough Sleep
How often do you find yourself nodding off over your morning cup of coffee at work? As a writer, I’ve pulled many a late night to meet a deadline, and I’ve always regretted it the next morning. Even if I get one article written because I’ve been up all night, the lack of sleep will impact my writing the next day, and I won’t be nearly as productive on my second article.
Our brains just don’t function optimally on a lack of sleep.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation
According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, symptoms of sleep deprivation include impaired judgment, mood, and memory. So if you’re trying to be more productive by working longer hours and cutting back on sleep, it won’t work. You’ll actually be more prone to making errors, won’t be able to recall needed information, won’t be as capable of learning and adapting to new material, and you’ll lack the focus, energy, and motivation required to get things done.
In fact, a 2018 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found that individuals with healthy sleep patterns are far more likely than those without them to be more productive the next day. This echoes findings from a 2014 NSF survey in which nearly half of Americans reported that a lack of sleep affected their ability to perform daily tasks at least once per week.
All this means that even if you manage to scrape a few extra hours out of a day by cutting back on your sleep, any gains you make by working late into the night will be offset by your decreased productivity the next day.
Moreover, sleep deprivation can significantly cost both individuals and the economy. A 2016 report by the RAND Corporation found that sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy $411 billion and 1.23 million workdays per year. Some of this is due to employees oversleeping and showing up to work late, while other workers skip days altogether due to illnesses they become more prone to as a result of sleep deprivation. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine found an indisputable link between sleep and the immune system.
How Much Sleep Is Enough?
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults ages 18 to 60 get at least seven hours of sleep per night. The actual amount needed varies based on each person’s genetic makeup and overall sleep quality; the NSF notes that some adults may need up to nine hours of sleep per night to function at their best.
The true test is your own experience. If you find yourself getting drowsy throughout the day, you’re generally fatigued, and you have difficulty focusing on tasks, you may not be getting enough sleep.
2. Working Long Hours
As far back as the 19th century, researchers have known that workers are more productive when they work fewer hours and recommended cutting the length of the average workday. And researchers ever since have consistently found that shorter hours translate to greater productivity. In fact, when work hours are extended, any gains that come as a result of increased time are offset by drops in productivity.
A number of studies continue to show that longer work hours have an inverse effect on productivity. One of these studies found that workers were at their most productive when they worked between 10 and 20 hours per week. Those who worked 35 hours per week were half as productive as those who worked 20, and the least productive were those who worked 60 or more hours per week.
That isn’t great news when you consider that Americans are working longer hours than ever. A 2014 Gallup poll found that the average workweek is 47 hours, putting the daily average at 9.4 hours. Four in 10 adults reported that they worked at least 50 hours per week.
Why More Time Does Not Equal More Productivity
So why are we more productive when we work shorter hours? Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard professor of economics, and Eldar Shafir, a Princeton professor of cognitive science, addressed this in their book “Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives.” They explain that when you’re trying to fill an entire day with work, you drag your feet, procrastinate, and get sidetracked easily. On the other hand, when your time is limited, you’re more driven to accomplish what you can in that time. That drive translates into energy that fuels your first action and then builds momentum. As a result, you end up more productive than if you’d had the entire day to do the same first few tasks.
Unfortunately, there isn’t necessarily much we can do about the length of our workdays since our employers typically set our hours. Even worse, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as many as 82.5% of American workers bring their jobs home with them, extending the workday even further. That’s especially true of salaried employees who must continue working at a task until it’s finished, unlike hourly workers who are assigned to work for only a set amount of time.
How to Avoid Bringing Work Home
Although you may not be able to exert much control over your workday itself, there are at least a few ways to restructure your time that will make you more productive during the day and, thus, less likely to have to bring work home.
1. Prioritize Your Day
Start every day by making a list of all the tasks you need to accomplish, then prioritizing them. Don’t start with the easiest tasks; instead, ask yourself, “What is the most important thing that needs to get done today?” Always do that thing first, then move on to the next most important thing, and so on.
That way, if you don’t finish your whole list, the less important tasks that didn’t get done can be tabled for later. If you started with the less important tasks, you might end up having to take that big one home.
Ohio University (OU) reports that the typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes, yet it takes the average human brain 23 minutes to refocus on a task after being interrupted. So keep your attention on the task at hand. Get rid of “micro-distractions” by turning off push notifications on your phone, logging out of your email, and hanging up the proverbial “do not disturb” sign. Then, stay hyper-focused on the task at hand.
Remember, researchers have found that the main reason why some people can get more done in less time is that they buckle down and don’t let themselves get distracted.
3. Avoid Multitasking
While multitasking may seem like a great way to get more done in less time, research consistently shows the opposite. Our brains are simply not very good at juggling multiple things at once. In fact, some research even suggests that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.
While it may seem like you’re getting more done in less time by multitasking, what you’re actually doing is constantly shifting between activities. In other words, you’re continually interrupting yourself. And as previously mentioned, constant interruptions are not good for productivity.
4. Take Breaks
While focusing exclusively on one task at a time can be extremely helpful for getting things done, forgoing breaks is not. According to OU, the human brain needs 15 minutes off for every hour of work; in fact, the top 10% of most-productive employees take exactly that much. The brain needs time to rest and recharge, and it will only function at its best if given that.
It’s important, though, that your break actually be a rest for your mind, which needs time to detach and wander; reading the news or scrolling through social media, would not be a helpful break. One great thing to do with those 15 minutes is to take a short walk. Studies show that sitting for long periods can have significant negative repercussions on your health, while getting in some exercise can have positive effects on your productivity, including increasing your alertness and energy.
3. Over-Scheduling Yourself
When we’re busy trying to wring every minute out of the day, we often fill our calendars to the max. But research published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that instead of helping us use every spare minute, over-scheduling can result in the sense that our time is shorter than it is. In essence, time “shrinks.”
While having a basic plan for the day can be helpful, when we schedule in too many meetings and appointments, we suddenly feel as if there’s no time to get anything done, even if that’s not the case. For example, in the study, the researchers found that when they gave two groups of participants the same hour to read but told one group they had an appointment at the end of that hour, the “over-scheduled” group perceived they were only given 40 minutes, and not an hour, for reading.
This is not the same thing as the boost in focus you can get from a shortened workday. In that case, you may still have large blocks of time to focus on big projects and do deep work. Rather, what the researchers are talking about here is a day filled with a constant barrage of interruptions.
For example, say you have a total of four hours to work on a big project. If you have a full four-hour block of time, you’ll likely feel able to buckle down and get to work. But if you look at your workday and see meeting after meeting with an hour or two between each, you might not bother starting that big project and stick to smaller tasks instead – even if you have a total of four hours available over the course of the day.
Dealing With Time Famine
Our propensity to over-schedule ourselves has led to a whole new field of inquiry – that of “time famine.” As CNN reports, time famine refers to the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. And while it’s true that we often do have too much to do in too little time, just as often, it’s our perception of time that gets in the way of getting more done.
Contrary to what you may believe, scheduling every minute will actually make you less productive, not more. To combat this, researchers suggest keeping your appointments to a minimum as much as possible. If you work in a job where you must make appointments or attend meetings, try keeping them all in the early morning or late afternoon so you still have large chunks of time to get work done.
4. Managing Your Time Instead of Your Energy
We often approach time as if every hour has the same 60 minutes as every other. This way of thinking is at the heart of over-scheduling. It leads us to believe we just need to find the best calendar, app, or time management hack to get the most out of every second.
Entrepreneur, speaker, and best-selling author Kate Northrup explains in her book “Do Less: A Revolutionary Approach to Time and Energy Management for Busy Moms” that this thinking is erroneous. Every 60 minutes is not, in fact, the same. Our energy levels have peaks and valleys throughout the day, and those highs and lows directly impact our productivity.
For example, as the mom of a young child, I know I can only write when he’s either asleep or at preschool. That means I often take advantage of those few precious hours after he goes to bed and before it’s time for me to do the same. But at the end of a long day, after working for most of it and being a mom for the rest of it, I rarely have the energy to be truly productive at that time. It may take me a few hours to pound out a few hundred words.
On the other hand, my energy peaks in the afternoon. After I get home from teaching all morning and have my lunch, I’m ready to go. In those same few hours it took me at night to get out a few hundred words, I might be able to write a few thousand.
How to Schedule Your Time Using Your Energy Levels
Once you take into account that we won’t be at our most productive every hour of every day, your daily calendar starts to look a bit different. If, for example, you know you’re a morning person, schedule the things that require your top focus during the morning and save tasks that require less focus for your non-peak hours.
For example, I know I’m not great at writing during the evening hours, but it’s a good time for me to do something more passive, such as research for my books and articles. Using my evening hours for reading helps me stay productive instead of “wasting” all that time on trying to squeeze out just a few words.
Even if you don’t work at home as I do, it’s still worth it to observe when you have the most and least amounts of energy and to plan your days less around hours than energy levels. You will always be more productive when your energy is higher, so that’s the time to think about tackling your biggest to-dos.
Similarly, there’s often little point in trying to force yourself to do those bigger tasks during your low-energy times. To get the most out of every hour, use your downtimes for simpler, easier, or even more enjoyable tasks.
5. Failing to Take Time Off From Work
Most of us have heard of the concept of “work-life balance,” but many of us – especially those with demanding jobs – brush it aside as an impossible achievement. Yet as difficult as it may be, failing to take time off from work can have disastrous consequences for your productivity.
The Effects of Poor Work-Life Balance
Poor work-life balance can lead to, among other things, insufficient sleep, poor cognitive recovery, and lower energy to achieve what you need to the next day, according to a 2018 study. That’s especially true for those who bring work home.
The study found that even seemingly “small” tasks such as checking email, texting, or communicating on social media with coworkers can impact your recovery time, making you less likely to feel rejuvenated when you get to work the next day. Failing to recharge unquestionably impacts your energy levels – and, therefore, your productivity – the following day.
Moreover, the study found that so-called “low-effort” activities such as listening to music, reading, or watching TV had the opposite effect; they helped workers feel renewed and re-energized, ready to take on work the next day. In the end, the study concluded that cultivating the ability to turn off your “work brain” helps you both cognitively and emotionally.
But the consequences don’t stop there, especially if you consider a shortened life span to be a detriment to your overall productivity. According to 2015 medical research, failure to achieve a healthy work-life balance can make you 33% more likely to suffer a stroke and 13% more likely to develop heart disease.
Ultimately, it just doesn’t pay off to blur the boundaries between work life and home life.
How to Achieve Work-Life Harmony
How do you go about achieving work-life balance, especially when your job demands long hours or “homework”? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos suggests scrapping the term “balance,” which implies tradeoffs, altogether and using the term “work-life harmony” instead. He says it’s best to exert your energy where you get the most return.
Instead of thinking about equally splitting your hours between work and play, focus on doing what makes you feel happiest and most energized.
After all, the consequences of poor work-life balance stem from work being an energy drain and source of stress. If you’re happy and productive at work, that positive energy will spill over into your home life; if you’re happy at home, that will spill over into your workday. So in the end, achieving work-life harmony is an individual game – it’s about what actually makes you feel energized.
For many of us, though, our best wishes and desires aren’t always the most achievable, especially if we work all day and parent all night. If that’s the case, take heart; the 2018 study found that even engaging in domestic activities that might normally be associated with stress – such as cooking or parenting – led to better sleep quality, which in turn affects productivity.
That said, it’s definitely worth it to create work-life boundaries wherever you can. For example, between teaching and writing, I work 12-hour days Monday through Friday. Because I have to squeeze writing into the “cracks” in my day, I’m rarely off during the week; I’m pretty much always working or on mom duty. But I set a firm boundary on working over the weekends. I don’t even open my email or social media; weekends are family time. You may decide to set similar boundaries in your day or week. If you do, make sure they’re firm boundaries.
Regardless, whatever you do in your off-hours, make sure it’s something that actually helps you relax and unwind. For example, the 2018 study found that watching TV can help you de-stress and unwind, but checking email and social media does not.
6. Skipping Vacations
This one should come as no surprise, given that achieving a good work-life balance is essential to productivity. But it’s equally important to look at the year, as well as the days and weeks, because forgoing a vacation can also negatively impact your overall productivity.
The Effects of Skipping Vacations
As reported by CNBC, numerous studies have proven the negative consequences of failing to take vacations. These include stress, burnout, and illness. Additionally, not taking a vacation can lead to depression, which in turn affects your ability to concentrate, be creative, and complete tasks.
Taking a vacation can help you feel happier and more relaxed. A study published in the Journal of Psychology & Health found that taking vacations reduces the likelihood of burnout.
Further, although a 2018 study from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that the de-stressing effect of vacations doesn’t necessarily last very long, earlier APA research positively concluded that planning a vacation can have an even greater impact on happiness. When we have something to look forward to, the anticipation has an overall effect on our happiness levels. More happiness means more energy and, therefore, the ability to be more productive.
Why Americans Don’t Take More Vacations
Despite the positive benefits, as many as 52% of Americans don’t use their allotted vacation time, according to a 2016 Bankrate survey. The No. 1 reason many workers don’t take their vacation time is a desire to save up days for the next year; closely following is the wish to not appear lazy or unmotivated.
Millennials ages 18 to 25 were most likely to report not using their vacation time, possibly because they’re most focused at this stage of life on laying the foundation for their careers and fear being passed over for promotions.
Bankrate blames the culture of “work, work, work” as being the force behind Americans’ refusal to take time off. In fact, America is one of the hardest working countries in the world with some of the worst work-life balance.
All of this makes it feel somehow wrong to take your well-earned vacation days. Yet the overall positive effects on your career, and your increased productivity, should outweigh this.
7. Trying to Do It All Yourself
When we try to “do it all,” our available time shrinks drastically. When we attempt to do everything ourselves, not only do we lose time in general, but we also lose productive hours.
For example, I mentioned earlier that because I work such long hours, when I’m off the clock, I’m firmly off the clock. In other words, I have no desire to do chores in my downtime. So I hired a home cleaning service, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever spent my money on. Just the mental relief alone of knowing there’s something I don’t have to do makes it money well spent for me.
The Benefits of Buying Time
I’m not the only one who has felt the positive effects of “buying time,” or gaining time in your day for other things by delegating or hiring out tasks that can be done by others.
According to 2017 research published by the National Academy of Sciences, buying time can help offset the feeling of time famine. The study found that spending money to buy time was linked to greater life satisfaction, regardless of income level. The study also found that the negative effects of time famine were lower among those who spent money on time-saving services, such as home cleaning or errand services.
The benefits go beyond just happiness. Hiring out or delegating tasks helps you focus your time and energy in the areas where you will have the most impact. For example, even though I’m perfectly capable of cleaning my own house, having someone else do it gives me more time to focus on writing. And it’s been proven that the more relaxing and recharging your home life is, the more it will spill over into happiness, energy, and productivity at work.
Don’t forget to carry the same time-saving mindset over into your work life as well. Even at work, when you spend your energy on tasks you don’t need to be focusing on, it naturally affects your ability to be productive in other areas. A 2015 paper published in the Journal of Marketing Research, for example, found that when people feel as though their various goals are competing for their time, they experience stress, anxiety, and feelings of time scarcity. All of these have detrimental effects on productivity.
So aside from hiring a home cleaner or having your groceries delivered, it’s also well worth it to look for ways you can delegate at work. Focus your attention and energy where you will have the greatest impact, and anything else that can be delegated or automated should be.
8. Asking for Too Many Opinions
You may think the more people you have in a room, the more ideas you’ll get, thus increasing your work team’s creativity and ability to produce. Research, however, conclusively proves the opposite.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology found that brainstorming exercises can lead to fixating on only one idea. It may seem counterintuitive, but when you gather a lot of people together to brainstorm ideas, you end up with “group think.” Lead researcher Nicholas Kohn explains, “Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners. Thus, you potentially become less creative.”
A second study, published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, found that people are more likely to produce a higher number of original, creative ideas when they don’t interact with others.
Leigh Thompson, author of “Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration” and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, explains that most meetings are dominated by a few “loudmouths,” leaving the opinions of the majority of attendees unheard.
Worse, those early ideas have the greatest influence over the rest of the conversation because they establish the “norms” or expectations for any ideas that come after. That can have a significant effect on productivity. Because brainstorming favors the first few ideas and stops there, many of the truly best and most creative ideas are never pursued.
Try Brainwriting Instead
Instead of brainstorming, or tossing out ideas out loud, Thompson suggests a technique she calls “brainwriting.” The main premise is to separate out the idea-generation phase from the discussion phase. Thompson explains that individuals are best at divergent thinking – thinking that is original and unusual – and groups are best at convergent thinking, or sorting through ideas to discover which ones are most worth pursuing.
So why not take advantage of both? Next time you gather with your coworkers to brainstorm, instead of generating ideas together, have everyone write out their ideas ahead of time. Make sure to set the parameters as quantity, not quality. Not all the ideas will be good, but the more you have, the more you’ll be able to sort out the good from the bad, as well as discover some truly innovative ones.
Only after everyone has brainwritten their own lists should you gather and have everyone share their best ideas. According to Thompson’s research, brainwriting generates 20% more ideas overall and 42% more creative ideas than brainstorming. Thompson has not discovered a single study that proves brainstorming outdoes brainwriting.
While you may think that perfectionism is the key to any worthwhile endeavor, it’s actually an enemy of productivity. Research shows that perfectionism can be counterproductive to getting things done. So if you’re someone who obsesses over every nitpicky detail, keep this in mind. Instead of making something better, you’re likely just wasting valuable time.
Time management gurus the world over espouse something called the Pareto Principle, named after its founder, Vilfredo Pareto, way back in 1895. Today, it’s commonly referred to as the 80/20 Rule because it claims that 20% of our efforts produce 80% of our work. That also means the reverse is true: We spend 80% of our time accomplishing only 20% of our work.
In the end, you have to ask yourself, “Is this really making things better, or is ‘good enough’ really good enough?” Letting go of perfectionism, though not an easy task, can help you reclaim hours of your life that you can put toward other things.
Perfectionism Leads to Procrastination
In addition to eating up chunks of our time, perfectionism can also lead to time waste in another important way. Research has shown that perfectionism can lead to procrastination.
Those of us with perfectionist tendencies often have them because we fear the scrutiny of others; we don’t want to be judged and found lacking. To avoid this, we delay work, putting it off until the last minute out of a kind of performance anxiety.
If this sounds like you, the cure is less a workplace strategy than figuring out ways to manage your anxiety levels. The hardest part in achieving any task is usually getting started, so sometimes it can pay off to push yourself to just start. Once you get going, you’ll often find yourself in a groove that fosters momentum to keep you moving forward.
If that feels too difficult, think about dividing large tasks into smaller ones. Then, tell yourself you’ll do just one of those smaller tasks. Similar to the philosophy of “just do it,” you’ll likely find that once you do that first small part, you’ll have enough motivation and energy to move on to the next part and then the next.
When you’ve finished the task, allow yourself to settle for “good enough.” Stop and ask yourself if your never-ending quest for perfection will really make your work better, keeping in mind that most of your effort to make it better probably won’t do so and that you could put your time to better use elsewhere.
10. Neglecting Self-Care
When you live in a culture of busyness, it can feel difficult to prioritize self-care. For most of us, it’s the first thing to drop off our never-ending to-do lists. According to a 2019 survey conducted by OnePoll, Americans get an average of five hours per week of “me time,” which equates to 43 minutes per day. However, this research uncovered that the average person feels they have time to relax and unwind on only 3.5 days out of the week.
The picture is even bleaker for parents. A 2018 survey conducted by the meal delivery service Munchery found that parents only get an average of 32 minutes of “me time” per day. Another 2018 study, reported in the New York Post and focusing exclusively on moms, concluded that the average mom works 98 hours per week – the equivalent of working 2.5 full-time jobs.
Yet as much as we brush aside time to connect with ourselves, neglecting self-care can quickly lead to burnout, as discovered by a 2017 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Burnout is highly detrimental to productivity, leading to exhaustion, emotional withdrawal, and decreased activity.
What Is Self-Care?
Although you may think of bubble baths and spa days when you hear the term “self-care,” it can be defined as anything you do to connect with yourself, including supporting your mental, emotional, and physical health. So if you’ve ever taken a “mental health day” from work, you were probably doing great things for your overall productivity levels.
Aside from taking a day off now and then and making sure you get enough sleep, self-care can also include eating a healthy diet; getting some exercise, especially if it’s outdoors; meeting a friend or two for coffee; or skipping out on chores so you can curl up with a good book.
Why Self-Care Matters
At its heart, self-care is anything that helps you foster your connection with your whole self. That connection will help you function at your best, which increases your ability to be productive.
But there’s more to it than simply refueling to avoid burnout. Connecting with yourself – who you are and what you want – acts as a compass for your whole life. Though you may neglect yourself in favor of finishing your to-do list or caring for others, when you forget to touch base with yourself, you lose focus on what really matters – in other words, what should actually be on that to-do list.
When you don’t pause to foster your self-connection, you can easily lose sight of the big picture and even your own self-identity. On the other hand, when you take a few moments to renew your relationship with yourself – especially when it comes to figuring out what you really want your life to look like – it’s much easier to prioritize your tasks. Instead of falling prey to the culture of busyness, where you engage in activity for its own sake, what you decide to give your time and attention to takes on meaning and purpose.
Remember, true productivity is often less about doing more than it is about doing what matters. By dropping the things that don’t serve a useful purpose, you’re able to focus your time and energy in ways that move you forward meaningfully, whether your goal is to advance your career or make your home life more enjoyable.
In the end, despite the American cultural preference for being busy, the true secret to being more productive with the time you have may lie in doing less. After all, if your overwork leads to stress, fatigue, and even burnout, you’re not likely to be very productive at all – no matter how many extra minutes or hours you may be able to squeeze out of the day with that fancy new time management technique.
That’s not to say time management isn’t important. Some of those techniques may help you make the most out of the working hours you have. But at the end of the day, if you fail to take a break from working and just keep “going, going, going,” you will eventually run out of gas. It’s an inevitable reality for everyone, from entry-level employees to CEOs.
On the other hand, if you take the time to recharge, you’ll be better able to face the new workday with renewed energy and vigor. And that’s the very source of productivity.
How do you take time to recharge your batteries? Are you able to achieve “work-life harmony,” or do you struggle to take time for yourself?