Busy Being Busy? Try These 4 Productivity Hacks Backed by Science

How often do you find yourself at the end of a seemingly long and busy workday only to realize you haven’t really accomplished anything of meaning? Sure, you answered lots of emails and attended a bunch of meetings, but did you move the ball forward on any major activity or tackle a truly monumental initiative?

In today’s workplace, where so many of us sit behind desks, in front of computers, and with smartphones in our pockets, we are all very busy. But being busy at work without getting anything done is proving to be a huge paradox – not only for organizations because of the opportunity cost of busyness, but also for employees hungry to drive tangible outcomes but inundated with activity. For far too many of us, we have become busy being busy.

To personally break free of this bog of busyness, I have read countless books and research articles on the topic (please ask me for recommendations if you are interested). This reading journey highlighted tips on how to boost performance at work. It included details how to increase one’s focus despite being surrounded by distractions. It covered time management concepts. And much more. Based on the gamut of ideas, I decided to experiment with several of the concepts I learned. Below, I suggest four practices that I have applied to my work life with (some) success that I think anyone can try out.

#1 – Eat a Frog for Breakfast

Mark Twain offers us so many brilliant, often head-scratching quotes. One that is apropos for this article is “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”  Self-help expert Brian Tracy ran with Twain’s quote and posited a simple idea – do the hardest and most important thing as early in the day as possible. It is a time-sensitive twist on the Eisenhower Principle – balancing the urgent with the important.

“Eating the frog” acknowledges that the urgent invariably comes up during the day – there is no way you can avoid it. Therefore, it is best to take on the highest priority, most important stuff first, before the noise of the work day comes at you. Take on your highest priority item before replying to email, and responding to meeting requests, and dealing with the people-related fires. Those things can consume both your day and your energy.

Instead, focus on the one thing – just one concrete thing – that will really move the needle. Ask yourself – if you only had 2 hours to work today, what would you work on? What can you do today that will help achieve your goals for the quarter, for the year, for the decade? That’s your frog.

So why eat the frog for breakfast? Research suggests that our self-control diminishes throughout the day. Indeed, research published in Psychological Science suggests that our capacity for self-control is finite. Much like the gas in our car, it runs out. Unfortunately, we are confronted with choices that sap our self-control from the minute we wake up. As a result, our ability to actually eat the frog becomes harder and harder as the hours of the day pass.  Indeed, try as you might, you may not be able to eat a frog for dinner.

#2 – It’s Tomato Time

Most people hate working against a clock. But the constraint of time, when properly used, can be a tremendous ally in combating busyness. Enter the Pomodoro Technique. Named after the Italian word for tomato, the Pomodoro Technique builds on the concepts of both breaking larger activities into smaller bite-sized chunks (incrementalism) and time-boxing one’s effort. The idea is that totally focusing on a small but critical task for a specific period maximizes output. In addition, by breaking down a larger task into several smaller ones, the job in question seems more digestible, less daunting, and more doable.

Traditionally, the technique advocates 25-minutes of total focus using a timer (ideally a red one that looks like a tomato) with 5 minutes of rest. Thirty minutes total. Then repeat this pattern 3-4 times throughout the day. When I tried the Pomodoro Technique for the first time, I found it amazingly painful – 25 minutes of total focus on a single task. No checking email, no social media, no CNN, no interruptions.

Of course, you can choose the duration that works best for you (e.g., 45 minutes on, 10 minutes off). However, brain science suggests this on/off dynamic should align with your natural rhythms. The recommendation is to not go too long or too short with your focus period. After all, it takes time to get into a mental groove to begin with but the brain fatigues quickly. Thus, you don’t want to hit a break before you have the chance to get real work done but also shouldn’t tire of the work. Similarly, you also don’t want to let your break be too lengthy. You will lose your flow state due to your brain’s re-calibration once you restart. Remember: the purpose of the break is to allow your mind to partially disengage and quickly refuel before getting started again.

#3 – Just Say “No” to Notifications

A research study by customer-research firm DScout found that the average person touches their phone an average of 2,617 time per day. Two thousand, six hundred, and seventeen times a day. A key driver of all this touching is the infamous notification. Notifications typically show up on our phone’s lock screen, generate some sort of vibration or flash, and typically provide a melodious tune upon receipt. There is no way you can miss a notification.

Notifications serve as the bait to hook us to at a minimum look at, but often engage with whatever app initiated the notification. Just watch your colleagues during a meeting when a notification pops up on their phone. Try as they might, the allure of looking at their phone, if not unlocking it, is so incredibly powerful. It is a dopamine hit analogous to hitting a jackpot on a slot machine. We simply must look at whatever notification lands on our screen. Easy fishing.

The fix is just as easy. Turn off all notifications on your phone. Text messages, Facebook, CNN, weather, and email. That’s it. A study from Carnegie Mellon indicated that turning off the notifications for just 24-hours can noticeably improve concentration as well as reduce stress levels. It’s a win-win. Once you turn off your notifications, you will realize you really don’t need them. All of your apps are still there waiting – they just aren’t calling out for you.

To take it a step further, turn off all notifications on your computer as well. All of those notifications on your office messaging platform – disable them. Same thing with email notifications. You don’t really need to know you have a new email sitting in your inbox, do you? Just say no.

#4 – A Phone Free Zone

Quick – where is your phone right now? If you are like most of us, you are either reading this article on your phone or your phone is within three feet of you. Our phones are our new safety blankets. If you feel like really challenging yourself to overcome busyness, forget notifications. Leave your phone behind when you go for a meeting. Put it in your desk drawer while you are sitting in front of the computer. Drop it off in your car and get it at lunchtime. Trembling at the mere thought of being separated from your phone – don’t worry, you are not alone. Maybe just try it a couple of hours at a time?

Research from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas suggests that phones make us stupid – even when we aren’t using them. That’s right, the mere presence of a phone nearby – even if it is on silent – reduces cognitive capacity. The research suggests that the process of forcing yourself NOT to think about that nearby phone uses up one’s limited cognitive resources. That is, a nearby phone essentially sucks your brain power without you even knowing it. Out of sight, out of mind indeed.

Getting things done at work (as with most things in life) boils down to ruthless prioritization, doing what you don’t want to do even when you don’t want to do it, and blocking out distractions to allow for total focused effort. The four practices listed herein may be driven by brain science, but they aren’t silver bullets. They won’t cure busyness outright. But done together, I believe they will unlock greater productivity at work and ultimately, greater satisfaction for our work each and every day.

Wagish Bhartiya is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is a Senior Director at REI Systems where he leads the company’s Software-as-a-Service Business Unit. He created and is responsible for leading a team of more than 100 staff focused on applying software technologies to improve how government operates. Wagish leads a broad-based team that includes product development, R&D, project delivery, and customer success across State, local, Federal, and international government customers. Wagish is a regular contributor to a number of government-centric publications and has been on numerous government IT-related television programs including The Bridge which airs on WJLA-Channel 7. You can read his posts here.

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Maddie Willis

Wagish, this is a great article! I love your first tip of doing the hardest and most important thing first. I have practiced this before and I really see the benefits of it. I also love the idea of turning off your notifications. Its so easy to just check on that ONE text or check ONE email which turns into 10 minutes on nonsense. I actually turn my phone on do not disturb during periods throughout the day and have found I get so much more work done!

Wagish Bhartiya

Thanks! Using DND is fantastic Maddie. I struggle with letting phone calls come through though. If someone takes the time to actually call me on my mobile (instead of texting), I am generally open to picking it up.

Isaac Constans

Really, really enjoyed reading this. And dang, some of those hit home. By the time I hit #3, I already turned my phone’s Do Not Disturb feature on. Putting it in the drawer – that could take a little bit more willpower. But I’m going to try to work up to it!

Jacob Hege

This is such a good article! The notifications point was a big one for me. I try to check on my notifications about once every hour or so and only really respond to the important things. Thanks for sharing!