The Best Kept Secrets to Exceptional Productivity

Our culture has become one of compulsive overworking. Although this habit "get things done" – the tendency to push themselves further and harder often, over time, comes at a steep cost. Recent research, however, shows that there is a far more constructive and sustainable way to increase productivity, insight and well-being!

Most "successful" people – whether they are start-up founders in Silicon Valley, university students, wealthy entrepreneurs, politicians, medical professionals, corporate lawyers and even social entrepreneurs and non-profiteers with a motivation to do good—are running, rushing, pushing forward, pushing through, moving ahead, getting farther, climbing higher, creating more, innovating better, working harder for longer, harder and heavier. A “successful” person outcompetes, outperforms, surpasses. A “successful” person is running, all the time. Past the pain, past the limits towards a finishing line that is ever changing and moving. Satisfaction doesn’t come or, when a goal is attained it may appear for a moment but doesn’t last because the finish line keeps moving. They often work to the bone, are somewhat (or very) anxious, sacrifice their time, often their health and family, all in the name of achievement.

Success, achievement, wealth, innovation are all things to strive for. But is there a way to disrupt the current model that doesn’t work? Research shows the impacts of overworking: exhaustion, irritation, weakened digestion and immunity, an inability to disconnect from work thoughts, and maybe even a lack of self-control when it comes to food, exercise, sleep and alcohol. But we don’t need research to tell us that. Most of us have experienced that and continue to do so. It’s become the M.O. Everyone’s doing it. If you don’t, you might miss the boat on success.

Aside from all the mental and physical health problems that can ensue from overworking and chronic stress, research by former Harvard Psychology professor Dan Wegner also shows that it often doesn’t end in success. Wegner coined the term ironic processes to describe the failure of excess discipline. In particular, he showed tha extreme control and focus on one goal often leads to failure or backlash much like the binge after the diet. Roy Baumeister’s research shows that too much self-discipline is taxing and, over time, actually leads to willpower fatigue. According to a line of research, too much focus can actually hurt our creative problem-solving skills. Here are 2 unexpected ways to get more done.

What we may not know, however, is that research has recently shown two unexpected ways to disrupt this overworking pattern that may actually make you more efficient and effective while working less.

1) Do More of Nothing

If you’re like us who’ve worked most of our lives in overachiever settings such as Ivy League campus and start-up central Silicon Valley, the idea of “doing nothing” or stopping to smell the flowers can sound laughable and – of course – totally unproductive and even counterproductive. And if living an extreme lifestyle is working for you, then by all means continue. However, if you have felt yearning for more time to spend on things you used to love (poetry, movies, hulahooping, your family), then you’re in luck because doing so may actually help you be more productive (and probably healthier too).

When do we get moments of insight or creativity? It is in the shower, on a hike, or while driving or relaxing in some other way. Things seem to fall into place and just “click” – we have an “AHA” moment. The trick to self-mastery actually lies in the opposite of control: effortlessness, relaxation and well-being. Control is fatiguing, while brain-imaging research shows that relaxation is not only restorative but actually leads enhanced memory and facilitated intellectual understanding. Another brain imaging study found that “AHA” moments of “sudden insight” (e.g. finding the solution to a complex program) were often preceded by enhanced alpha waves in the brain – a sign of relaxation. UC Santa Barbara researcher Jonathan Schooler has also found that daydreaming may lead to greater creativity and enhanced problem-solving. Another fascinating study by Marieke showed that we are at our most creative when we are sleepy (in the evening for morning people and in the morning for night owls!) – the reason may be that we are more relaxed in those moments. Recent research by Norman Farb of the University of Toronto has determined that our brain has specific pathways dedicated to internally directed attention – they help us become more calm, slow our racing thoughts and ultimately have greater insight into ourselves. It’s important that the brain has had time to relax, restore, and reflect.

A side effect of taking time for ourselves, detaching from work, and relaxing is often enhanced positive mood, which research shows also leads to greater insight and better problem solving. Another reason to play more, which research is showing benefits both health and creative problem-solving.

Maybe that’s why everyone’s meditating. It’s a pretty good idea to clear your desktop, empty your trash or clear out your email but we sometimes forget to do the same thing with our mind. Research on meditation is growing and the data shows that it leads to lower stress, enhanced well-being, and – in one study even improvements in multi-tasking. We understand that resting the body (i.e. sleep) is important, but often forget that it’s equally important to rest the mind. It’s a chance to unwind our mind and loosen up our thoughts.

2) Be of Service

A great way to stop focusing so damn hard and enhancing your positive mood is to shift your attention from yourself and your work to others. That’s right, go do something nice or helpful for someone else: your family, your friends, strangers, colleagues. Go out of your way and be kind. Share, care, donate, volunteer, listen, extend a helping hand. Research shows its good for your mental and physical health, you’ll live longer, be happier and even have decreased inflammation at the cellular level. If that’s not persuasive enough, research by Wharton’s most popular professor Adam Grant has shown connection is at the heart of productivity and enhanced chances for professional success. This is your chance to socialize, help others out, feel good in the process and enhance your own success as a side-effect.


When it comes to productivity, less can actually be more

  • Have fun, do the things you enjoy, prioritize them as much as the other things on your to-do list, and your list will get done more efficiently
  • Find time to relax, do unimportant things, unplug from work and constant focus, un-focus
  • Learn to meditate
  • Do kind/helpful things for others, notice the impact on yourself and your community
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