Posted on 9 July, 2018 | 5 mins
The UK has wrestled with a huge productivity problem over the past decade. Productivity growth has been at its weakest since the early 1820s—a time shortly after Napoleon reigned and just before we knew Antarctica existed1.
If you think your business could be more productive, you're probably right. You’re also not alone, and doing something about it will be high on your to-do list. Improving workplace productivity is considered so important, researchers say it could even be a route to Brexit success2.
In many ways, that’s why productivity apps exist: to give even the smallest businesses a chance to intelligently improve their output with minimal input—the building blocks of productivity. Productivity tools include those that allow safe but broad access to the information people need whenever they want it, conferencing and collaboration tools, and time-tracking project management software.
Arguably, just as important as knowing how to improve workplace productivity is knowing what not to do. The worst of these productivity foes come disguised as friends, so you’ll think you’re helping your business and your staff but might actually be doing the opposite.
Here, we debunk seven of the most common productivity myths.
1. The best employees can multitask
It’s a myth that the best employees are great at multitasking. In fact, it’s a myth that multitasking—as in doing more than one thing at once—exists at all. According to a Stanford Multitasking Study3, humans don’t really multitask but their brains switch quickly between single tasks.
That means people trying to multitask are actually “sacrificing focus” by concentrating on the actual job switching itself. And there’s more bad news for job jugglers…
2. Job juggling makes the most of time
We all have more than one thing to do at any given time in the work day. But whether you or your staff are trying to “multitask” or actively job switching, it actually doesn’t help to do more than one thing at once, studies show.
In fact, studies show your brain will nag your unconscious mind if you’ve started but not finished a task, creating a feeling of unease4.
We seem to work best, then, when allowed to focus on single tasks to completion, even at the expense of momentarily ignoring others, rather than juggling multiple jobs at the same time. It may even be better for mental health.
3. We can effectively “will” our way through a task
While people can push through an unfavourable job on sheer willpower alone, the idea that they can do so and still produce their best work is pure mythology.
On the contrary, it might be a half-baked idea to push through in this way, according to a piece of cookie-related research5. Psychologist Roy Baumeister gave hungry participants a difficult mental task to complete and a plate of fresh biscuits, saying the subject could have one either before or after the job.
Results showed that participants who willed their way through the tasks before rewarding themselves with a treat spent their energy on self-control and performed significantly worse on the tests.
Baumeister coined the term “ego deletion”, a form of mental exhaustion from using ones’ willpower. Businesses may want to consider how much they can expect of their staff when asking them to push though difficult tasks. In reality, it might be counter-intuitive to their—and your business’—productivity.
4. The current working hours are optimal
Working 9–5 (what a way to make a living) with a lunch-break and two 15-minute rests is the norm—but is it ideal for productivity?
Studies suggest not, particularly for jobs that require a mental workout. That’s because of something called the ultradian rhythm, which fixes the brain into productivity cycles. The optimal time for a person to work on mental challenges is 50–90 minutes, followed by a rest of around 20 minutes.
The Atlantic even heralds the perfect productivity formula to be working for 52 minutes followed by a 17 minute break6.
5. “Facebook breaks” improve productivity
So, as a general rule giving staff the time to take short breaks more often allows people to rejuvenate and work more productively. But the effectiveness of that break depends on what people do while resting.
Social psychologist John Bargh found that if the break is used for something also mentally taxing, or on something that feels like a task, the productivity boost is lost.
That’s because the brain is convinced that it has actually done something in that time, giving you a feeling of accomplishment and diminishing your motivation to do more arduous tasks.
Checking Facebook, tidying the desk or running errands, while they might seem like breaks, are only mythological productivity tips. Instead, stretching, reading a magazine or going for a walk might instead promote true workplace efficiency.
6. Being “always on” helps productivity
This can be true or false, depending on what “always on” means to your people and your business.
The idea of working late into the night to complete a project is unfortunately unavoidable to most people at some point in their working lives. To help, today’s generations likes to think of themselves as always on and available to work on something if required—or even always connected to the wider world through modern technology.
The major loser of this trend is often sleep, which is where productivity can be ruined if people don’t get enough of it.
Harvey B Simon, the editor of Harvard Health, says a third of people in the US aren’t getting enough sleep to perform at their peak ability, costing the country’s economy some $63 billion a year in lost productivity7.
So use “always on” in the right ways. Give your staff the ability to work remotely, leveraging cloud-based business apps to make out-of-office work more productive. But be sure “always on” doesn’t include those essential eight hours at night.
7. There’s a one-size-fits-all solution
All that being said, there isn’t a single magical solution to improve business productivity. Techniques that work for one employee might be different for another. One might be more productive in the morning, one at night; one in the office, one at home.
It’s up to individual businesses to find a bespoke solution that works for them and their staff. And while productivity apps aren’t a silver-bullet solution either, they do give business owners and managers a variety of resources to choose from to create their own flexible approach.
Businesses in the UK might have a historic productivity problem not seen since people discovered Antarctica, but with data and digital resources now at their fingertips, they really don’t have to be left out in the cold.