Most of us have a ton of work to get done every single day. But our default response — trying to intersperse several different tasks, all while keeping track of an overwhelming barrage of notifications and emails — is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.
Scientists have conducted a fair bit of research on the factors that can make people more (or less) focused, productive, and creative. The bottom line of all this work: Stop trying to multitask. Slow down. In the long run, you'll get way more done.
1) Stop trying to multitask
It can be tempting to try balancing multiple work tasks at once. And even worse, the design of many of the tools we use for work nowadays divide our attention between different tasks even when we do intend to focus. In all likelihood, your day is filled with constant email pings and push notifications.
There's an obvious problem with all this: When we try to complete several tasks at once, we do them all more slowly — and commit more errors. This has been shown in several different studies. And it can lead to a vicious cycle: Research has shown that people who multitask more become more susceptible to being distracted by environmental stimuli.
Why doesn't multitasking work? Researchers believe that the human brain only has so much processing capacity — so in trying to carry out several different tasks at once, you're creating a bottleneck, rather than maximizing your efficiency.
There are a few ways to fix this problem. One is self-control: Ignore the temptation to constantly check your email or look at Facebook. Make a list of things to do, pick one thing to work on, and ignore everything else while you're doing it, if possible.
But you can also tweak your working environment to make this easier. Apps like Freedom and Focus can lock your computer out of the internet (or specific websites) for a set period of time. Turning off your phone and desktop notifications can prevent every new email from disrupting your workflow.
2) Take breaks
Taking a nonproductive break instead of getting work done might seem like a waste of time. But there's evidence that taking occasional short breaks can help you focus more effectively upon returning to work, especially if you're having trouble concentrating. Some research has also shown that taking a break when you're dealing with a particularly difficult problem can also help you get more creative in finding solutions to it.
Note that this is different from frequently checking Facebook or Twitter for 20 seconds, then going back to work. Like multitasking, doing this puts more demand on your limited ability to pay attention to things, ultimately distracting you from work.
An effective break involves intentionally (and, ideally, physically) separating yourself from your work for a set period of time — at least 10 minutes or so. Talk to people, eat a snack, get up and walk around, and get your mind off work.
Why would this make you more productive? An apt analogy for your ability to concentrate, researchers say, is a muscle. Use it excessively, and it gets tired out. Give it a break when it's exhausted, and it'll rebound. There's also evidence that the type of unfocused, free-form thinking that you do when you take breaks (neuroscientists call this using your default mode network) helps recharge your brain and is crucial for long-term thinking and planning.
An occasional break might cost you 10 minutes of work time, but the benefits — in terms of focus and creativity — are easily worth it.
3) Go for walks
One type of break is particularly effective: a walk.
One reason is that getting a bit of physical exercise can further increase your creatively upon returning to work. Several different studies have shown that brief periods of walking or other moderate exercise increase people's problem-solving skills, leading them to approach problems in alternate ways.
If you have access to any sort of green space for a walk, use it. It might seem obvious, but is still worth stating: Research shows that people who take brief walks in green areas enjoy tangible benefits, in terms of mood, compared with people who walk in crowded urban areas.
Another benefits of taking walks has nothing to do with productivity but everything to do your long-term health. There's plenty of evidence that sitting all day is really, really bad for your cardiovascular system, but recent research suggests that taking a few short walks (of five minutes or less) daily can help alleviate it.
4) Take naps
Unfortunately, social norms — along with most modern office environments — don't really allow for most of us to take a nap during the middle of the day. But there's also lots of evidence that a brief nap can make you feel a bit sharper when you wake up.
In experiments, people who take naps outperform those who don't on tasks that involve paying close attention to a screen for a long time and reacting quickly to stimuli. Emergency room nurses and doctors who take naps before shifts are more alert and better at completing simple tasks, like inserting an IV into a patient. Drivers who nap before a night shift are less likely to get into accidents. And over and over, nappers report feeling more alert and rested in experiments than people who stay awake.
Naps don't work this way for everyone — some of us are conditioned to sleep only at night, for long periods of time. And if you're going to take a nap during the day, one key is to keep it short. Sleep for longer than 30 minutes or so and you're more likely to enter the deeper stages of sleep, which'll cause you to feel groggy when you wake up. Some doctors also say that the mid-afternoon (say, between 1 and 3 pm) is the best time for a short nap to boost your awareness.
Bonus tip: the coffee nap. Quickly drink coffee (or another caffeinated substance), nap for 20 minutes or so, and set an alarm so you wake up right as it's kicking in. Seriously. Try it.
5) Try to get some natural light
This is another tip that's easier for some people to follow than others. But a whole body of research shows that regular exposure to natural light makes people more productive in an indoor office setting. Studies have also indicated that office workers who sit near windows are less likely to suffer from headaches and seasonal affective disorder, and have lower rates of absenteeism.
It's not clear exactly how this works, but a number of factors may be involved. Regular exposure to natural light cycles helps regulate your body's internal clock, increasing your quality of sleep at night and your alertness during the day. Prolonged exposure to harsh artificial light — from both overhead fixtures and your monitor — can increase eye fatigue over time.
Of course, many people don't have a ton of flexibility in where they work: If your desk isn't near a window, that's that. But there are still some things you can do. Using full-spectrum lightbulbs (which mimic the wavelengths of light naturally present in sunlight) can help, and there's also evidence that using indirect lighting can increase productivity, by decreasing eye strain. If you can't sit near a window or use one of these bulbs, it's yet another reason to try to get outside for a walk during your day.
When it comes to your monitor light in particular, there are a few other things you can do. Making sure to look away from your computer screen every so often — doctors recommend looking at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes — can help prevent eye strain. Additionally, you can use the app F.lux, which automatically adjusts your monitor's color and brightness to more closely resemble sunlight in the evening hours.
6) Go to a coffee shop
Again, this isn't a tip that can work for everyone. But if you have the freedom to work where you like, you might benefit from occasionally heading to a bustling environment like a coffee shop. (If you can't leave your office, you can also use the website Coffitivity, which provides a coffee shop-like soundtrack.)
That's because studies have shown that for some people, some level of background noise can enhance creativity. People asked to engage in word-association tests and devise solutions to hypothetical scenarios, for instance, were found to be more creative when surrounded by a moderate level of noise — 70 decibels, about the volume you might experience in the average coffee shop. Louder levels of noise, however, diminished creativity.
The researchers involved in this study suggest that moderate noise increases creativity by actually making it a little harder to process information. This actually encourages abstract thinking, leading people to take alternate routes to solve a problem at hand.
This doesn't mean you should constantly surround yourself with noise whenever you're working. But if you're stuck on a problem and want a bit of help in thinking creatively, heading to a moderately noisy environment could be a good idea.