Feeling Lazy? 5 Ways to Be More Productive at Work

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

Staring at a computer screen, helping clients, or trying to think of the next big idea for hours on end tends to have a very unfortunate effect: These factors can cause your brain to slow to a sluggish pace. And while the brain is an organ, too much repetition can make it feel just like a tired muscle. Science tells us that adding variety to an exercise routine is essential because your muscles otherwise become used to the activity and your fitness plateaus rather than improves. Over the course of a workday, the same can be said of your brain; if you keep pushing it through the same tasks, your productivity will drop off.

Tony Schwartz, CEO and founder of The Energy Project, a firm that helps companies improve performance by better meeting the needs of their employees, argued in a February 2015 piece for the New York Times that working fewer hours per day and taking time to rest makes for a far more successful business. Research on expert violinists conducted by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson suggests that practicing, and by extension working, in short but intense intervals earlier in the day is the best solution for high productivity.

So then, what do you need to do to avoid getting stuck in a mental rut over the course of the day? How can you optimize your short breaks from the daily grind? While the seemingly obvious conclusion is rest, that’s not always an option. Here is a look at five suggestions from some very creative entrepreneurs, writers, and artists.

1. Stick to a schedule

Source: Thinkstock

This may sound a little bit boring, but Willa Cather, author of My Ántonia, kept to a strict schedule of writing three hours per day. “I don’t hold myself to longer hours; if I did, I wouldn’t gain by it,” Cather once said. Not many of us have the leisure to set such a schedule, yet, even if you have to work an eight- or nine-hour day, it’s valuable to organize your time at work into manageable chunks, according to Ted contributing author Jessica Gross.

The other benefit of creating a schedule is that it provides a framework to keep you on track. For example, if you check your emails compulsively, setting up a morning, afternoon, and evening time slot to handle your inbox eliminates a major distraction.

2. Go for a walk

Walking, park, exercise, fitness

Source: iStock

“Walking clears your brain and fills your soul, and makes you quite happy,” Artist and author Maira Kalman told Ted Talks. “A lot of what my work is is waiting for the unexpected and to be surprised, to be walking down the street and to not know what I’m going to see, and then go, ‘Oh, aha!’”

A walk gives your brain a moment to process, a moment to think organically. Walking makes the heart pump faster, circulating more blood and oxygen to the brain. Scientific research has proven that even very mild exercise helps people perform better on tests of memory and attention, and walking on a regular basis also creates new connections between brain cells. Or, for the more poetically inclined, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

3. Seek inspiration

It is always helpful to get another perspective; seeing another person’s creative process can help you find a solution you had not yet considered.

4. Don’t overdo it

Source: Thinkstock

Henry Miller — author of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn — famously wrote until noon, and spent his afternoons relaxing and allowing his creativity to rejuvenate. “I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, do you see? I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say,” Miller once said, according to a Harvard Business Review analysis of the “daily habits of geniuses.”

Another way to look at this concept is the so-called “80-20″ rule, which stipulates that 20% of all that you do in a day produces 80% of your results. As Forbes explained, “Eliminate the things that don’t matter during your workday — they have a minimal effect on your overall productivity. For example, break your next project down into steps and systematically remove tasks until you end up with the 20 percent that gets the 80 percent of results.”

5. Take a mini-sabbatical

Source: Thinkstock

In his TED Book, The Art of Stillness, essayist and novelist Pico Iyer described a concept known as the secular sabbath, an equivalent to the idea of the mini-sabbatical. “The more facts come streaming in on us, the less time we have to process any one of them,” he wrote. “It’s easy to feel as if we’re standing two inches away from a huge canvas that’s noisy and crowded and changing with every microsecond. It’s only by stepping farther back and standing still that we can begin to see what that canvas (which is our life) really means, and to take in the larger picture.”

Iyer acknowledges that it can hard for many workers to arrange breaks. In the excerpt of his book, he told the story of a women who had pressed him on just that point. But he maintained that the busiest people are also the most in need of a break, even if it is only 30 minutes.

The payoff is high. According to Iyer, after General Mills tried giving its employees a daily thinking time, free of technology and other work-related tasks, during a seven-week program, 80% of senior executives reported improvements in their ability to make decisions. Not only does taking even a moment of stillness boost productivity, but it lowers stress, and therefore improves your health.

For those of you who can take the time, check out graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s talk on the  power of time off:

And don’t forget, getting enough sleep helps too.

More from Life Cheat Sheet:

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS