But most of these are missing the crucial first link in the chain: your brain.
Before anything else, your brain has to be ready to be productive. But how do you make sure your brain is helping you achieve maximum productivity? Here’s what neuroscience says.
Establish a System of Rewards
When you feel rewarded, you brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter. It’s the same chemical that’s released when you feel pleasure — it’s related to things like eating, love, risk taking, and sex. Dopamine-related problems have also been implicated in addiction and depression. Interestingly, it also has an important job before we receive a reward in that it’s linked strongly to motivation.
Taking advantage of dopamine’s connection to motivation can have big benefits to your productivity. Having a system of rewards that you use regularly is a great way to get dopamine released into your system. The Pomodoro technique is a perfect example — after every 25-minute sprint of productivity, you’re rewarded with a 5-minute break. That 5-minute break isn’t much, and probably isn’t enough to rest your brain. But it could be enough to activate the reward system.
Your reward doesn’t have to be anything major; you don’t need to buy yourself a new set of golf clubs for completing a project. Even just being able to check something off a task list and hear the satisfying “ding” your task management app makes could be enough.
Psychologist Leslie Sherlin recently told Fast Company that even the simple act of saying “done” when you complete a task could signal a shift in your brain’s activity and help you prepare for your next task.
So break your tasks down into small chunks and give yourself a small reward after each — a quick break to check Facebook (just don’t get sidetracked!), a walk outside, a small snack, or just saying “done!” with a surreptitious fistpump.
Make a List
We’re big on lists here, both traditional and otherwise. And it turns out that there’s actually a good psychological reason to use them. Your brain’s working memory is used to store things on a short-term basis, and can be very important in helping you successfully deal with the things you’re working on. But working memory can only hold so many items at once, and if you ask it to store more than is optimal, your performance can suffer.
That’s where making a list comes in: when you write things down, you don’t need to keep them in working memory, and that frees up space for your brain to use on your current project.
You may not be “the list-making type,” but it’s a habit worth getting into! Even if you use a very minimal list-making app to record things you need to remember, that’ll help you use your working memory more efficiently. And if you decide that you want to go all out and use something like Evernote to keep track of everything in your life, that’s even better.
And, of course, crossing things off a list helps trigger the reward centers of your brain.
A fascinating study recently reported in Cerebral Cortex looked at a process called social facilitation in which performance on tasks is improved when another person is nearby. The other person doesn’t have to be engaged in the process or even known to the person in question. And while you probably don’t want to arrange for another person to sit and watch you do your work, you can take advantage of this phenomenon in a couple ways.
If you’re the kind of person who works well in a shared coworking space, spending more time there could be helpful; you’ll (consciously or subconsciously) want others to think that you’re being highly productive, and that will help you keep your attention on the task at hand.
Similarly, you can ask someone to hold you accountable for the amount of work you do. You could arrange to meet with a mentor on a regular basis and have them ask you about how your work is going. You could agree with a few friends or colleagues to keep a public log of how much work you get done in a day and check in on each other. Making yourself accountable to others can go a long way toward helping you stay motivated and attentive.
Spend Time on Your Hobbies
This may seem a bit counterintuitive, but spending time on your own hobbies and interests can actually help make you more productive. An interesting post at the iNform Health blog discusses the role of the amygdala in productivity:
Your amygdala is your autopilot for emotional responses and subsequent physiological states. It is stimulated by external factors, and fires off a pre-wired series of chemical signals depending upon the nature of stimulus to produce a holistic state of mood.
Busy lives can leave us denying our personal pursuits in favour of keeping others happy, in various shapes and forms. The result of this is stimuli of similar nature repeatedly triggering the same internal responses.
When this response is one of stress, grumpiness, exhaustion, etc, we are logically compelled to work harder at the same stuff to make it go away.
The blog goes on to say that spending time on things that you love helps disrupt the pattern of stress, give you “some space from [your] dominant automated state, thanks to a shift in both conscious and subconscious focus,” and send “an altered feed of feelings, emotions and mood through your automatic control panel.”
Giving your brain this variety helps break you out of the stress-inducing, productivity-killing state that’s so often associated with our modern productivity-centric society. So take some time to get into electronics, learn the basics of programming, do some woodworking, or do whatever it is you love to do. It helps in all sorts of ways!
Do Some Daydreaming
Spending time on your hobbies makes a kind of intuitive — or at least semi-intuitive — sense when you’re trying to get your brain into a state that’s optimal for productivity. But daydreaming? How could that possibly help?
Turns out that a number of famously successful people — including Mark Twain, Richard Feynman, JK Rowling, and (supposedly) Albert Einstein — have had their most famous ideas while their brains were idle. And there’s evidence that the brain connects disparate ideas and thoughts when it’s in a relaxed state; it’s these unorthodox connections that result in truly creative, innovative ideas.
So don’t let productivity take over your life. Make sure that you not only take enough time to indulge in your hobbies, but also to just sit and let your mind wander. Even if it’s only for 20 minutes on a nice Sunday in a park, remember that time spent daydreaming with no particular goal can be very beneficial for your productivity (not to mention your mental health).
Use Your Brain!
You can use all of the technology you want, create all the systems and routines that you’d like, but if you’re neglecting the basics of psychology and neuroscience, you won’t reach your maximum productivity potential. Use the above strategies to keep your mind and brain in the right mode for getting a lot done, and you’ll find that productivity comes easier.
Have you used any of these strategies? What other techniques do you find useful for maximizing productivity? Share your thoughts below!
Explore more about: Habits.