10 Myths and Realities about Productivity + How to Boost It At Your Startup
When did we (as a community) get so obsessed with productivity?
We get bombarded with daily ads about getting more work done. Software companies tell us their tools help us work faster. We even attend workshops and seminars to increase our productivity. And now you’re here to learn about the myths and realities of it to see if what you’ve been doing makes sense.
But is this pursuit of productivity actually good for your startup?
Regardless of our obsession with moving faster and doing more, productivity growth rates have stalled over the last decade.
Bureau of Labor Statistics says we’re only getting about 1.4% more productive per year, which is the slowest growth rate in 30 years.
We’re producing more productivity tools than ever, but we have less and less to show for it.
In a survey of American knowledge workers conducted by Dropbox, 61% of people say they want to “slow down to get things right,” while only 41%* say they want to “go fast to achieve more.”
*The respondents were asked how much they agreed with each statement separately, which is why the figures don't add up to exactly 100%.
So why are so many companies so focused on increasing productivity at all costs?
One major problem is the measurement of efficiency and unalignment of priorities.
Traditionally, if you can “produce more goods over time with fewer resources, you’ve increased your productivity.” This mindset is a tempting blueprint for any modern-day business says Ben Tayler.
But obviously, this becomes murkier with tech or knowledge-based startups.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics cautions that productivity stats “for nonmanufacturing industries are often difficult to measure” and that “customers should be cautious when interpreting the data.”
Do more lines of code per hour lead to better products? Would doubling the number of brainstorms per week make designers more creative?
Increasing your productivity is easy, right?. It’s just a matter of making a few simple changes to your routine, behaviour, or thinking, and your productivity will soar.
At least, that’s what countless online articles claim. The actual science tells a different story.
A modest amount of research by Dr. Dean Burnett, a neuroscience write, reveals that some of the most commonly touted claims about how to boost productivity fall apart in the face of the evidence.
So, here are 10 of the most common myths about boosting productivity, along with a number of approaches that have a more robust scientific basis, based on Your Productive Brain.
Table of Contents:
“WAKING UP AT 4AM WILL MAKE YOU MORE PRODUCTIVE!” (FALSE)
It’s regularly claimed that you’ll be more productive if you get up early. Very early.
According to a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, the most successful (and therefore productive) people typically rise at 4am.
And there's some logic to it. For example, if you're awake while everyone else is still asleep, they won't distract you, so you'll be more productive — in theory.
But there are many reasons why waking up at 4am could be actively unproductive.
An important one stems from our own biology; sleep is crucial for our ability to function, and depriving yourself of it does more harm than good.
As Burnett states, a typically healthy amount of sleep for adults is around seven to nine hours. Less than that quickly has negative health effects, compromising focus, mood, memory, stress tolerance, and more.
"Forcing yourself to wake at 4am means you’re losing sleep, and will be less productive as a result." — Dean Burnett.
A study by the National Sleep Foundation stated that “Individuals who habitually sleep outside the normal range may be exhibiting signs or symptoms of serious health problems or, if done volitionally, may be compromising their health and wellbeing”.
Another study claims sleeping far fewer hours than average is more likely to be self-imposed than anything natural, and will incur a significant sleep debt, harming health.
Overall, while there may be some productive advantages to waking up in the early hours, these can easily be cancelled out by the consequences of lost sleep.
“JUST GET INTO YOUR ‘ZONE’” (TRUE)
With everything discussed so far, it’s important to consider one important caveat; everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another.
It's the same for when we are managing different personalities types.
Individual differences play a considerable role in how we end up being productive.
So similarly to understanding your DISC personality type, it would be wise to understand what factors work best for you and exploit that awareness, because it will help you achieve that cognitive "flow," also known as being "in the zone."
Regardless of how much time and effort people dedicate to achieve this flow, it's a tricky thing to do. Likely because our brains are actually doing dozens of things at once, and most times, our attention system gets in the way of other things.
Sometimes, though, all of the scattered bits of our consciousness join forces and focus on one specific task, and so we enter a flow state, explains Burnett. The issue is, what effectively occupies the myriad parts of your brain will vary from person to person. So the particular setup that allows you to be most productive will likely be unique to you.
The point is, reading articles and advice columns on how to be more productive is all well and good, but nobody is going to know the best way to boost your own productivity better than you.
“BACKGROUND MUSIC IS BENEFICIAL” (TRUE)
There’s a lot of debate at present regarding what’s more productive. Is it working from home, or working in the office? And both sides regularly argue that the other offers more distractions from work.
However, one thing that rarely gets mentioned is the fact that certain distractions can be helpful for productivity. Weird, I know.
Some people prefer to work in relative silence, but a great many find they’re more productive with some sort of background noise.
Usually this shows up as background music. Rather than than distracting, it actually helps some people focus because of how our attention works.
Basically, we have two attention systems: the conscious one, which we direct and control, and the unconscious one, which alerts us to anything significant that our senses pick up and diverts our focus towards it.
When we try to focus on a task, our conscious attention is occupied, but can still be diverted by the unconscious system.
And if we’re in complete silence, any creaks or sighs or murmurs or other random sounds stand out more, meaning our unconscious attention is more likely to be distracted, which hinders our productivity.
So, if we play music in the background, it masks obtrusive noises and occupies our unconscious attention.
Obviously, the type of music will make a difference.
Things with lyrics aren’t as good because "our brains are more stimulated by linguistic information, and music that has a negative impact on mood can sap motivation," writes Burnett.
Weirdly, one type of music that seems to readily boost productivity and focus is video game soundtracks. It makes logical sense, really; it’s music designed to be stimulating while you’re focusing on something else.
In any case, there are many situations where background noise and music can actually enhance productivity and not disrupt it.
“WAKING UP WHEN YOU’VE HAD ENOUGH SLEEP IS BETTER THAN WAKING AT 4AM” (TRUE)
We previously mention how forcing yourself to wake before dawn in order to be more productive can become self-defeating.
However, in truth, any wake-up time can be productive, if you’ve had enough sleep.
So if you wake at 4am after going to bed at 8pm, you’ve almost certainly had enough slumbering time.
There are many health benefits of sufficient sleep: it boosts memory retention, aids focus, improves general health, elevates mood and reduces irritability — all of which increase your capacity to be productive.
Sleep can aid productivity in other ways.
When we sleep, our brains process all the memories and thoughts we’ve accrued during the day, and integrates them into our existing neural networks.
This is why ‘sleeping on it’ is a legitimate approach to problem-solving.
If we can’t get our head around an issue, sleeping on it means more of our brain is connected to our experience of it, opening up new approaches, while staying up all night trying to figure it out is less effective.
So yes, sleep is important for productivity – more so than waking up at certain times.
“WE ALL HAVE THE SAME 24 HOURS!” (FALSE)
The most successful people experience 24-hour days just like anyone else. Much ‘advice’ on increasing productivity includes this observation.
Implying that you, the "less" successful person, could do the same as them if only you used your time better.
This is, presumably, meant to motivate you to be more productive.
Yes, we all experience 24 hours in a day, but the ability to use those hours productively differs tremendously from person to person.
Context is everything. For example, someone who is working nights to pay for their studies during the day will not have the same ability to use their time ‘productively’ as, say, someone who was born a millionaire thanks to their parent's lucrative diamond mine. Hypothetically.
Similarly, there’s the impact of societal gender roles and other unhelpful factors. Obviously, it’s far easier to use time productively when you have the money and resources, or individuals taking care of the ‘unproductive’ tasks of everyday life. And the reality is, the vast majority of people lack these things.
Also, the idea that you should use 24 whole hours productively is objectively nonsensical, and as someone who loves work, I totally agree with this. Psychology has repeatedly emphasised the importance to wellbeing (and thus maintaining productivity) of a healthy work-life balance. Dedicating every possible hour to ‘being productive’ actively goes against this.
The ‘we all have the same 24 hours’ claim actively downplays the fact that few people have the option to use that time 100% productively.
“KEEPING BUSY MEANS YOU’RE BEING MORE PRODUCTIVE” (FALSE)
Speaking of needing to be 100% productive, and the claim of ‘we all have the same 24 hours’ claim from earlier, when a boss appears in the workplace, you need to ‘look busy’, because if you aren’t visibly in the middle of several tasks, you aren’t being productive.
But why do we do this?
The idea that constantly being busy is the only way to be truly productive is the default assumption for many people — it's this whole idea of producing high quantities as we mentioned at the beginning.
Those who take on many tasks and roles at once are often looked up to and feted as the productive ideal. But the science tells a very different story.
Burnett explains multitasking or ‘task switching’ actually erodes productivity.
Impressive as it is, the human brain has limited resources when it comes to attention and working memory — the ability to focus on and think about things. Essentially, if you overwhelm your attention and working memory with too many demands at once, then you will compromise your ability to do even the most straightforward tasks effectively.
It turns out a “do more, faster” mindset isn’t actually how people want to work...61% say they want to “slow down to get things right.”
This approach can then have knock-on effects on the productivity of other people too.
Everybody will have experienced an increased workload because a colleague didn’t do their job right, meaning others have to fix their mess.
Leading to workplace burnout.
Productivity should be more about quality rather than quantity.
“GO FOR WALKS AND DECORATE YOUR WORKPLACE WITH PLANTS” (TRUE)
It’s not just for aesthetic reasons; it turns out that plants, foliage, and other types of greenery are actually good for productivity.
Many reports show an increase in productivity when plants are introduced into the workplace.
In part is thanks to the process of attention restoration, which is sometimes called ‘fascination’.
The problem is, in most modern human environments, there are things that ‘actively’ attract our attention: screens, billboards, writing, numerous colours and shapes.
Our brains like all these things, sure, but they invariably have to work hard to pay attention to them all, to decipher the sensory information they’re providing, and so on.
But, as we saw earlier, our brains only have finite resources to do all this, so eventually they’ll just become depleted.
However, when we look at natural greenery, it seems our brains are occupied without being taxed. It’s the cognitive equivalent of putting your feet up with a good book; it’s doing something, but something restorative, rather than demanding.
This is why greenery is helpful for productivity. It replenishes your brain’s resources.
So, if you feel that you need to go for a walk to ‘clear your head’, you’re probably being more literal than you realise.
“YOU SHOULD BE HAPPY IN YOUR WORK” (FALSE)
According to many people, productivity is linked to happiness. As in, the happier you are, the more productive you’ll be. And there's logic to this.
People are usually motivated to do things when the reward make us happy.
Also, scientific studies reveal that happy workers are around 12 per cent more productive. So, if you’ve got a workforce of 100 employees, and they’re all happy, you’ll get the productivity of 112 employees, at no extra cost! It’s therefore unsurprising that so many organisations are fixated on employee happiness.
However, thinking ‘happiness = productivity’ overlooks considerable evidence to the contrary.
For instance, other studies reveal that persistently happy employees can have negative effects on productivity in the workplace. They go to pieces quicker during difficult periods, are more easily exhausted (constant happiness is draining), and can even be more selfish.
Also, there are productive benefits of more negative emotions. Fear, anger, stress and envy have been shown to make people more productive in various situations — break ups, job loss.
Studies reveal that if people believe they must be happy, it’s harder for them to achieve that. It’s like your hobby becoming your job; you stop enjoying it.
This feeds into the whole ‘Toxic Positivity’ issue of insisting that people must be happy at all times, and it’s entirely their responsibility to be so (because we can all choose our emotional state, apparently). This can quickly lead to the exact opposite outcome.
Even if being happy does make you more productive, efforts to force this outcome can easily backfire.
“DIET AND EXERCISE IMPROVE PRODUCTIVITY, AS LONG AS YOU IGNORE THE FADS” (TRUE)
It’s fair to say that diet and exercise can be a big help with productivity.
Regular exercise has been shown, countless times, to have many benefits for your body and brain.
After all, our brain is ultimately another organ, which means the better shape your body is in, the more resources it can dedicate to the brain, improving functionality and productivity.
Diet can also have a direct impact on the brain.
While the indirect health consequences of ‘junk’ foods are worth keeping in mind, recent studies show that such foods can have rapid negative effects on the brain’s workings, affecting our ability to focus and stay motivated on the tasks at hand.
So, even thought you don't need to fill your fridge with the latest superfoods, improving your diet and exercise can boost productivity.
Our body parts are not exclusive to each other, they are part of one big puzzle.
“HARD WORK ALWAYS PAYS OFF” (FALSE)
If you want to be productive, to achieve something, you just need to work hard, and you’ll get it. Because hard work always pays off.
That’s the mantra adopted by many —including me.
Unfortunately, reality is rarely as formulaic.
Life is a mix of working hard and plain old luck, especially in a world and an environment where countless people are working equally as hard for the same goal.
Our brains are sensitive to the balance between effort and reward.
Our subconscious systems are constantly assessing how much work a task will involve and the likely outcome from putting that effort in, and asking ‘is it worth it?’
When the effort we put in is not rewarded as expected, it causes stress and negative emotions.
This is believed to be a key factor in workplace stress, because modern jobs often mean the person putting the effort in to something is far removed from the eventual outcome.
At your startup, do employees feel valued and rewarded for their work? If not, to show your team members the importance of their contribution, you need to create a team recognition system.
How to Boost Productivity At Your Startup
As we’ve mentioned before, productivity is far all subjective and depends on your own company’s objectives and goals.
However, there are still a few ways to keep track of your employee’s deliverables in a manner that doesn’t feel rushed and will satisfy you with results.
One efficient way is by using the famous “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs).
OKRs effectively help organizations stay aligned through connections made between the company, team, and personal goals.
The process of OKRs starts with executives setting company objectives, usually done by an annual, quarterly, or monthly timeline.
According to a Gallup study, only 15% of employees around the world are engaged in their work.
Yes, you read that right. It turns out, that engaged employees are rare.
Not only are these disengaged employees unhappy at work, but they act on this unhappiness.
And sisengaged employees cost your business millions of dollars.
Because whatever engaged employees do - such as solving problems, innovating, and creating new customers - disengaged employees ruin.