Back to Work: Simple Tips to Increase Productivity

Many of us are returning to work this week after the summer. As getting back in the swing of things can be tricky, I thought I’d share some simple tips to increase productivity at work.

The next two blogs are for anyone who does "deep work", a concept popularised by Cal Newport. In Cal’s words, deep work is “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” I don't know about you, but that's the kind of work I want to do.

I’m by no means claiming to be a workplace productivity guru (I get distracted more often than I’d like). However, I'm a closet productivity nerd, I have some experience helping people be more efficient, and I'm keen for you to free your time so you have plenty left for other important aspects of your life.

If that sounds good, let's get to it.



Key takeaways

  • Identify your values and goals and then prioritise the work that is most important to you.
  • At the end of each day, make a to-do list for the next day. Be specific about the times of day at which you’ll complete tasks, and don’t hesitate to block time in your diary for your most meaningful work.
  • If you’ve been doing a cognitively-demanding work bout for some time, your performance will tend to deteriorate over time. To address this, try chunking your work into blocks of 25 to 90 mins. Prioritise real rest during downtime between work bouts.
  • Try to avoid scheduling taxing work in the middle of your waking day (i.e., during the so-called “post-lunch slump”). Experiment with the time(s) of day at which you do your hardest work to find a daily pattern that suits you.
  • At work, avoid switching between tasks and minimise distractions. Put your phone on airplane mode, disable notifications on your computer, and use website-blocking software to keep you from mindlessly scrolling websites.
  • Consider tracking the time you spend doing hard, uninterrupted work each day, with a view to gradually building your capacity for deep work.
  • Create a comfortable, inspirational space that you use for work and work alone. This doesn’t have to only be at home or in your office – experiment with other spaces too (e.g., cafes, libraries, workspaces).


Prioritise the most important and time-sensitive work

Ministry of the obvious, I know, but this is key.

While going into detail is beyond the scope of this blog, to abide by this rule, you need to periodically review your priorities, which entails beginning by identifying your values and the kinds of work you want to contribute or otherwise have to get done. It makes sense to start with an exercise to clarify your goals and values (I use Tobias Lundgren’s Bull’s Eye exercise). Next, proceed with regular assessments of your progress and what you need to get done (i.e., plans for each day, week, quarter/term/semester, and year).


Schedule time for hard work 

If you have a defined schedule each day, it’s easier to stay on track. With this in mind, make a to-do list for the next day at the end of each day. This can be done in a Word file or your computer notes. List what you will do and when you will do it, accounting for anything you didn’t get to on the day you’re making the list. This simple strategy can meaningfully enhance productivity, and it might also have some other positive consequences. For example, as incomplete work tasks can lead to rumination, making a to-do list at the end of the day can quiet your mind and improve sleep during transient bouts of insomnia.

Some jobs are very unpredictable (just ask Ali, CEO of Resilient Nutrition), so if this is true of your work, you might be thinking, “this isn’t relevant to me”. If so, hear me out. Most of us have control over at least some part of each day - often the start of the day. Protect this precious time! To this end, consider scheduling deep work in your calendar at a certain time of day. Doing so shows others that you’re not available at that time, making it easier to avoid less meaningful work displacing the work that’s most important to you.


Account for time-on-task effects 

The time-on-task effect is the well-documented deterioration in performance of cognitively-demanding work as time passes. Specifically, further into tasks, your reaction time slows, you become more prone to errors, and your performance becomes more variable. These effects correlate with time on task and are exacerbated by insufficient sleep and trying to work during your biological night (i.e., during your preferred sleep time each night)... more reasons to not pull an all nighter. Incidentally, smart use of caffeine can help offset time-on-task effects – check out this blog for more!

To minimise time-on-task effects, it makes sense to chunk your work into blocks. It’s not clear how long these blocks should be, and if you get in the zone and want to extend the block of work, crack on. However, if you're struggling to overcome the inertia of the mass of deep work you have planned, you might find the Pomodoro Technique helpful. This entails separating tasks into 25-min bouts of work with 5-min breaks, typically using an alarm to alert you to time.  

On the subject of breaks, make your breaks real breaks! Ideally, skip screens and spend some time letting your mind wander at these times. It’s increasingly clear that this type of “task-negative” state is important to various aspects of mental health and cognition, and prioritising downtime might boost your productivity during time spent working.


Align your work schedule with time-of-day variation in your cognitive function

As alluded to in the previous point, your body’s clock, how long you’ve been awake, and time on task all influence various aspects of how well your brain works. Within the waking day, the most prominent change in cognition is the midday dip in alertness – what some refer to as the “post-lunch slump”. This phenomenon isn’t really related to lunch. Instead, it’s the result of a transient reduction in the wakefulness drive generated by your body’s roughly-24-h (“circadian”) clock. It’s thought that this dip evolved to occur around the hottest time of day to keep our ancestors out of the sun’s damaging heat and radiation. This makes sense when you think about the siesta culture in many countries that have temperate climates.

Unsurprisingly, you’re probably not going to be at your sharpest at this time of day. I’d therefore avoid scheduling your most cognitively demanding work at this time, if possible. Instead, schedule less mentally taxing activities, such as answering emails, exercising, or having a 20-min nap, if you’re a regular napper. As I touched on in this blog, a 20-min nap can be transformative in many ways, especially if you’re short on sleep. However, if you aren’t a regular napper, you might find that even a short nap makes it harder to fall and stay asleep the following evening. 

Thinking now about other times of the waking day, experiment with when you do your hardest work to identify what's best for you. If you’re a morning lark, you might find you do your best work between when you wake and the afternoon dip in alertness. However, some dimensions of cognition tend to peak in the late afternoon, so you might find that doing a morning block of work and a mid-afternoon block of work suits you best. Or if you’re a night owl, you might find you do your best work quite late in your waking day.


Reduce cognitive load by avoiding task switching and minimising distractions

Cognitive load is the demand placed on your learning system during work, and it makes sense to do what you can to reduce cognitive load. Factors such as the complexity and format of your work, quality of instruction you get, and deadlines all affect cognitive load. While you might not have much control over these variables, there’s one determinant of cognitive load that you can influence in your favour: task switching. Constantly switching between tasks kills productivity, so doing what you can to stay on task matters if you want to produce great work. You might well already be doing the following, but in case you aren’t, try the following: 

  • If possible, keep your smartphone in a different room and/or switch it to airplane mode. Obviously this isn’t always practical (maybe you’re awaiting important news from someone), but for many of us, it usually is.
  • If you use Slack, Teams, or similar software, you might want to either quit these applications or disable notifications. And if you have this type of software on your smartphone, consider whether you actually need it – using the web app version alone is probably fine and more conducive to deep work.
  • Use website-blocking software on the device you’re working from (I use a free app named SelfControl for my Mac). To minimise temptation, I typically block social media sites, the news site I visit most often, and I sometimes block access to my emails too.
  • If your work doesn’t require the internet, try keeping your WiFi off during it.


Build your capacity for hard work

We humans are remarkably able to develop physical capacities, and this is true of cognitive abilities too. So, while deep work is necessarily taxing, rest assured that you can increase your tolerance of it over time, in much the same way that you can train to run further or lift heavier weights. Similar to how you can keep an exercise training log, one strategy you might want to try is tracking time spent doing deep work each day (e.g., the number of Pomodoro bouts you complete). As the weeks go by, you can then work to build your daily average up to whatever your target is.



Designate spaces in which you work, and only work

This tip is rooted in a phenomenon known as stimulus control of behaviour. Basically, your brain efficiently creates associations between certain stimuli (e.g., a red traffic light) and behaviours (e.g., braking). Depending on the specifics, this can be adaptive (e.g., braking) or maladaptive (e.g., if you end up associating watching TV with mindlessly snacking on the sofa).

In the case of work, it’s key to save your workspace for work and nothing else, and I think this is more important now than ever, given how many of us are working from home. If, for example, you don’t have a designated office and find yourself working from the kitchen table (as I am right now), this could mean having one seat at the table from which you work, and then eating at a different place.

If you have the luxury of having an office, do what you can to make the space inspiring and comfortable. This might include having a beautiful photo or a thought-provoking quote within your purview, and it also entails making your workstation ergonomically appropriate (more on this in the next blog).

Finally, try working in different environments. If your home working situation isn’t ideal, try spaces in nearby cafes, libraries, museums, shared workspaces, etc. Finding a spot like this that suits you might help you keep work and play separate, and working in a variety of environments can help spark new ideas (I often find walks in the woods catalyses creativity).


Time to move on to the next task...

That’s all for now. In the next blog we’ll focus on how to improve productivity by optimising various aspects of your lifestyle, including physical activity, nutrition, and more.