Setting Off Is Hard to Do
Getting down to work is the most difficult part – and it has a scientific explanation. John Bargh, a professor of social psychology at Yale University, found that as soon as we try to undertake a difficult or important task, our brain appears to fake work, focusing on unimportant things and minor details. As a result, we occupy ourselves with anything but the thing that we're supposed to be doing. Students, for example, suddenly find themselves cleaning their room or organising folders on their desktop in the midst of their final exams or while writing their dissertation.
Just pushing yourself to sit down and work, scientists say, will guarantee that everything will run like clockwork. Natural incentives kick in, helping us to finish the job because people remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. It will hang as a reminder for a while, causing unease. In psychology this is called the Zeigarnik effect.
Take a Break Every Hour and a Half
Changing biological rhythms is one of the fundamental natural processes, essential to all living creatured. Rhythmic patterns are divided into several categories depending on their duration and frequency. The phases of the shortest ones, known as ultradian, are repeated several times a day. They are defined by periods of light and deep sleep, each lasting for 90-120 minutes. This discovery belongs to the American psychologist Nathaniel Kleitman. He also observed that our bodies operate at the same 90 minute rhythm during the day: periods of high performance alternate with slumps of low concentration.
Kleitman found that after one and a half hours of intensive work, we start to replenish our brain energy with stress hormones, and as a result, alertness and productivity are significantly reduced. Therefore, taking a break every 90 minutes, rather than pumping yourself full of caffeine, will contribute well towards solving hard tasks.
The Perfectionist Paradox
Scientists from Canada's Dalhousie University claim that striving for perfection can actually be harmful. In an experiment, carried out with the participation of the teaching staff, it turned out that professors on the perfectionist side of the scale were far less productive than their colleagues who didn't pursue unattainable goals. This is explained by several factors. Firstly, perfectionists spend more time on the job. Secondly, they tend to wait for the perfect moment to begin a task. Thirdly, they are too focused on smaller details, and will therefore often miss the big picture.
Another argument against perfectionism is Google’s policy of hiring employees who were not considered high achievers at school. Life shows that perfection has no limits, and the pursuit of imaginary ideals hinders productivity.
Will Power Is Finite
It may seem that will power is a deep-rooted personal characteristic. However, in fact, scientists say that it’s a finite resource. If you use up a huge amount of willpower to complete one task, you may be too drained to complete your next one. This principle has been proven by scientists from Case Western Reserve, a private research university.
In an experiment, people had to first force themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolate. Then they had to complete a complex task, requiring considerable mental effort, concentration and will power. In the end, it emerged that the participants who had exerted self-control over eating, quit faster during the second stage.
On another occasion, before solving a puzzle, the participants were asked to write an article that was contrary to their personal beliefs. One half was given the choice whether to write it or not, the other was ordered to. It turned out that the people who were given a choice regarding the article performed worse on the puzzle. As a result of this, the researchers concluded that the participants' efficiency decreased not simply due to sticking to an unwanted activity, but through exercising their own free choice.
So the next time you sit down to a new task, first consider whether you really ought to be saving your mental resources for completing a more important job in the future.
Multitasking Is a Myth
Multitasking has, it seems, become inseparable from modern work culture, and unless you’re a office superstar, you run the risk of not completing anything at all. Research nonetheless points to the opposite: people who work on multiple tasks at one time perform them all equally poorly. They get distracted easily, do not absorb new information and are slow to switch between tasks. Multitasking especially affects concentration. According to scientific findings, your productivity and the quality of your work benefit most from focussing on a single task.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Tips for boosting your positive thinking can sometimes seem meaningless and pretentious. However, they do have a scientific rationale. Researchers from Münster and Hiroshima universities independently concluded that the use of words with negative connotations adversely affects your brain processes and leads to the deterioration of associative memory. This, in turn, hinders our productivity.
Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist from Stanford University, also discovered that stress has a negative impact on the hippocampus, part of the brain’s limbic system, which is thought to be the centre of the memory. Sapolsky recommends minimising stress levels, and he also notes that the people who are most vulnerable to stress are those who aspire to achieve goals at any cost. They are often characterised by anxiety, haste and occasional aggression.
To be more effective workers, it is recommended that we free ourselves from our pessimistic outlooks. At the very least we have to stop complaining – or just do it outside of work.