Name a person whose life isn’t busy… I’ll wait. However, being busy and being productive are not the same thing; just because you have a lot to do, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are using your time wisely. Here are some of my top science-backed tips to help you improve your productivity and get the most out of your day.
Improve Your Sleep Quality & Duration
Improving sleep hygiene and making it a priority can help improve productivity substantially. Poor sleep has been shown to dramatically reduce performance in activities ranging from athletics to study to work (1). Research has shown that a lack of sleep impairs cognitive abilities; in particular, memory capacity and problem-solving abilities. Studies have also shown that quality sleep can help to improve our ability to store memories for later retrieval (2). Below are some key strategies to help improve sleep quality:
- Limit screen-time 1 hour before bedtime,
- Create a night-time unwinding routine, such as meditation, listening to soft music or taking a warm shower/bath,
- Eliminate caffeine in the latter half of the day, and
- Reduce exposure to bright lights (including daylight) to help with natural melatonin levels.
##Minimise Decision Fatigue Have you ever had one of those days where you had 100 things to decide on or one huge, extremely important, and potentially life-changing decision to make? Those days leave you exhausted and incapable of getting much work done! This is called decision fatigue; it is the emotional and mental strain resulting from a burden of choices. Although some decisions are just a part of everyday life, reducing the number, complexity and/or magnitude of decisions where possible can significantly decrease our stress levels and cognitive demand. This helps to reserve more cognitive capacity for other tasks, which can help to improve productivity (3). Establishing a routine and planning can help to reduce the number of decisions that need to be made each day. For example, you could:
- Schedule lunches and dinners for the week on a Sunday,
- Plan when you will complete your workouts,
- Create systems and automate processes, and
- Delegate or outsource tasks where possible.
Don't Try to Multi-Task - It Doesn't Exist!
We all like to think that we can simultaneously cook dinner, keep an eye on the kids, talk on the phone, and crunch some numbers, but the reality is that the pot boils over, or a child climbs up somewhere they shouldn't be, or you forget what you were talking about. It may seem like we can multi-task but what we’re actually doing is splitting our attention up between tasks and processing them in sequence as opposed to simultaneously.
The brain is a single-channel processor, which means that it can only consider one problem at a time and one set of data at a time. Therefore, decisions and data processing are prioritised and attended to accordingly – some things don’t ever make it to conscious processing, which is why we sometimes don’t notice something right in front of our face when we’re under pressure and stress!
Not only can we not process multiple things simultaneously, but it also requires significant mental capacity to swap between different sets of data and problems. Studies have shown that trying to complete too many tasks at once has a wide range of negative impacts on the human mind and negatively impacts productivity. Our short-term memory can only store about 7 pieces of information at once and for about 10-20 seconds (4). This means that for every task you try to attend to, you likely replace/lose some/all of the information retained from the previous task with the new task. Consequently, when you return to the previous task, your brain may need to work harder as it mightn't be able to recall the information you once had and must process it again. Instead of trying to tackle multiple tasks/problems at once, learn to prioritise and dedicate specific time to complete each of them in sequence – do not jump back and forth between them. By doing so, you will help to improve your brain’s ability to process the task/problem and improve your productivity.
Introduce Essential Oils
Essential oils are used most aromatherapy. Inhaling the aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, which is a part of your brain that plays a role in emotions, behaviours, sense of smell, and long-term memory (5). Certain oils can be stimulating, and others can be more relaxing in nature. Rosemary oil diffusion could help with increasing productivity in several ways. It has been shown to:
- Increase short-term memory and cognitive function (6),
- Increase concentration and information recall (7), and
- Increase brain activity, alertness and attention span (8). Aromatherapy using Rosemary oil might have favourable effects on productivity levels and having some burning or sprayed in your working space is an easy and affordable way to reap the benefits!
Listen to Music - That is of the Right Kind
Music can help in several ways. Firstly, it can help to drown out background noise in a busy place, which can often be distracting. Secondly, when a task is clearly defined and repetitive in nature, research consistently suggests that music is helpful (9). However, the type of music and the nature of the task is important. If the task is physical in nature, music with lyrics can boost productivity. On the other hand, if the task requires a high degree of focus and concentration, classical or music of the same genre is best. Lyrics can be detrimental to focus-orientated tasks (10). If you do prefer to listen to music with lyrics, it may be beneficial to listen to songs you are familiar with as they require less attention and cognitive capacity to listen to.
Other Tips You Can Implement Right Away
There many other effective strategies to help boost productivity, including:
- Getting exposure to natural daylight.
- Using a website/app blocker or set time limits for screen-time each day
- Schedule breaks periodically - even during the busiest days.
- Learn to say “no” to tasks that don’t specifically need your attention to complete.
- Include some exercise each day
- Include scheduled breaks into your day
- Batch your tasks into groups. This allows you to maintain concentration on the task at hand and be most efficient at completing it.
It's not easy to juggle so many things in the day but by implementing easy strategies such as improving sleep quality/duration, minimising the need to make decisions, avoiding attending to too many tasks at once, using aromatherapy and listening to music, you can significantly help to improve your productivity and get more done!
- Fortier-Brochu E, Beaulieu-Bonneau S, Ivers H, Morin C. (2012) Insomnia and daytime cognitive performance: A meta-analysis, Sleep Medicine Reviews, 16 (1), 83-94.
- Leong RLF, Cheng GHL, Chee MWL, Lo JC. (2019) The effects of sleep on prospective memory: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 47, 18-27.
- Stewart AF, Ferriero DM, Josephson SA, Lowenstein DH, Messing RO, Oksenberg JR, Johnston SC, Hauser SL. (2012) Fighting decision fatigue. Ann Neurol., 71(1): A5-A15.
- Miller, G. A. (1956). "The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information". Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97.
- Rajmohan V, Mohandas E (2007) The Limbic System, Indian Journal Psychiatry, 49(2): 132-139.
- Moss M, Oliver L. (2012) Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma. Ther Adv Psychopharmacol., 2(3):103-13.
- McCaffrey R, Thomas DJ, Kinzelman AO. (2009) The effects of lavender and rosemary essential oils on test-taking anxiety among graduate nursing students. Holist Nurs Pract., 23(2):88-93.
- Sayorwan W, Ruangrungsi N, Piriyapunyporn T, Hongratanaworakit T, Kotchabhakdi N, Siripornpanich V. (2013) Effects of Inhaled Rosemary Oil on Subjective Feelings and Activities of the Nervous System. Scientia Pharmaceutica., 81(2):531-542.
- Venetjoki N, Kaarlela-Tuomaala A, Keskinen E, Hongisto V. (2006) The effect of speech and speech intelligibility on task performance. Ergonomics., 49(11):1068-91.
- Fox JG, Embrey ED (1972) Music — an aid to productivity, Applied Ergonomics, 3 (4): 202-205,