This is a Guest Post by Matt Ragland, a writer and speaker who helps people realize the priorities and choices shaping our lives. Read more about Matt on his blog ( ) and follow him on twitter @mattragland.

How many of you would love to finish more tasks, projects, and blog posts? Let’s see those hands go up. I thought so.

Google “How can I be more Productive?” and you’ll receive 95.5 million results. Some of the most successful blogs focus solely on productivity, not to mention apps, consultants, and books. In a cruel twist of irony, we spend more time learning how to be productive, rather than actually sitting down and doing the work which makes us productive!

The process has to be more than wake up early, stay up late, follow these 5 steps, use this app, buy my book, blah blah blah. I confess I do this as much as anyone, and my own blog is littered with these posts. Take a step back; you’re smart people, ready to take on the system and produce your best work.

The question is:

What Actually Makes Us Productive?

Let’s dive in to the research, the bare facts that come from studies, data, and real-world observation. This post may be frustrating because it won’t leave you with a cuddly feeling that you’ll immediately boost productivity by 200%. I’m challenging you to see the big picture, not the quick fix.

In 1986, Barry Staw was trying to get his peers to do the same thing.

My goal with this article is to lower expectations – to show why it is so difficult to make changes in both satisfaction and performance. My intention is not paint such a pessimistic picture as to justify not making any changes at all, but to inoculate us against the frustrations of slow progress.

My hope is to move us towards a reasoned but sustainable pursuit of the happy/productive worker, and away from the alternating practice of fanfare and despair.

There is temptation to look for instant gratification, and there are hundreds of different hacks that can help you for a little while. But the practice of lifelong productivity requires a whole lifestyle change, not simply a quick hack.

Do you want to keep reading? Here are the 10 topics we’ll cover.

  • Brain Science
  • Sleep
  • Multi-Tasking
  • Exercise & Movement
  • Nutrition
  • Intrinsic Motivation
  • Effect of Natural Light & Views
  • Goals
  • Inspiration
  • Reality of Life

1. How Your Brain Produces

My early study into the world of brain science and production began with acclaimed neuroscientist Dr. John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. Dr. Medina lays out 12 concepts that show us the functional power of the brain.

What makes us productive?

The problem is we ignore these truths most of the time. The badge of honor for many of us is a sleep-deprived zombie, who stirs his 4th cup of coffee and brags about how much he “got done” on 4 hours of sleep.

Maybe it’s the multi-tasker, or the person who says they don’t have time to exercise, or eat right. While we may be able to crank out a few sleep-deprived, manic days, this isn’t a sustainable model. You need to be able to make this a whole life change, covering physical, mental, inspirational, and environmental concepts.

How You Can Hack Your Brain’s Productivity

Your brain needs to incorporate many different elements to function well and keep you productive. Sleep, hydration, nutrition, exercise, and motivation all play a factor. The concepts may seem overwhelming, and some will come easier than others. Sometimes, you may even feel that your brain is working against you! Focusing on a single task is difficult for me, while exercise comes easily. Work on 1-2 of these at a time, and you’ll soon find yourself being more productive.

2. You Need to Sleep – Science tells you why and how to get enough

We all know this and yet neglect it so easily. Enough sleep is at the very top of the list for working more productively. Whilst the importance of sleep for productivity has been covered before, here are some more unique insights. Interestingly, the most optimal amount of sleep isn’t the standard 8 hours. Instead keeping it between 6.5-7.5 hours per night is the absolute optimal, tells acclaimed sleep researcher Daniel Kripke.

The power of sleep doesn’t only lie in sleeping at nights though, a study by NASA mentions. Pilot’s performance shows a 34% increase for when they took a 26 minute nap. With the power of napping being so well documented, it is fascinating how so many employers are still strictly against it.

How To Make Sure You Get Enough Sleep

Here are two most important aspects for getting enough sleep every night:

#1 – Develop a sleeping ritual: One of the key things to get great sleep is to fully disengage from all activities of your day. The most proven ones are to go for at least a 20 min walk or to read fiction (instead of non-fiction) to clear your head and dust off all thoughts from the day.

#2 – Focus on physical and mental tiredness: A lot of the time, we continue to stay awake, as we are mentally drained, but not physically. Make sure, you have at least one daily exercise that drains you both mentally and physically, it’s the key to full disengagement as Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz write in The Power of Full Engagement.

3. Multi-Tasking Myth

Brains do not process multiple tasks well, but we have been brainwashed into thinking this is a desirable trait! Multi-tasking cuts straight to the heart of the problem with our “feelings” of productivity. When we have our attention diverted to several different tasks, our brain creates the illusion of productivity, while completion actually takes much longer. Once again, we are after results, not feelings.

If we look back to Brain Rules, we’ll see that when people routinely switch between tasks, they make 4x more mistakes, and take 4x as long complete the main task! A full post could be done on why multi-tasking doesn’t work (especially for creatives), and thankfully, Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, has already written one for us!

How to Single-Task

When you’re on the computer, work on 1 program at a time. If you’re on the internet, have only 1 tab open. In other types of work or play, be fully present and engaged with the task at hand. It’s a paradox, because we have trained ourselves to multi-task, and you may feel less productive.

But the research proves you will actually get more done by focusing on 1 task at a time. I have noticed I write most efficiently when I don’t have internet access! I can be fully present with the topic, and when I’m done with a draft I can go back to add links and research data. The more you can strip away distractions, the easier it is to focus, and the more productive you’ll be.

4. Exercise & Movement

You need to get up and move around! If you could take away just one point from this article, I would choose this one. There are undeniable, proven benefits of exercise and its effect on the brain, productivity, and happiness.

You don’t need to be a workout fiend either, since only 20 minutes of pure movement (walking, hiking, resistance training) will trigger these benefits, improving your health and provide a significant happiness boost. The Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine even suggests that workers could trade work hours for exercise hours, while maintaining or even improving productivity levels.

How to Exercise Efficiently During Your Day

Schedule 20 “movement minutes” at the beginning of your day. You can stretch, walk, run, or lift weights. Focus on movements that will get your blood going and even a sweat! At work, set a timer, and move around each time the alarm goes off. Take 5 minutes and walk around the office, do some pushups, or swing a kettlebell.

To change up your routine, try and incorporate several “mini-workouts” in your day. At the end of the day, static stretching is a great way to loosen up your muscles and joints, allowing your body to slow down and prepare for a good night’s sleep.

5. Nutrition

The food in your body directly affects the performance of it. Instead of reading a journal article, experiment on yourself! For a few days, eat a healthy diet of lean meat, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and drink water. Then eat fried food, processed snacks, other packaged foods, and drink soda. You can tell the difference. The temptations of sweet and salty treats are difficult to ignore, because our brain wants them!

However, this desire for fat is an evolutionary trait, because it burns slower. This slow burn was ideal for our hi-energy ancestors, but not for our relatively sedentary lifestyle. Personally, I like the summation of Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” To make your nutrition even simpler, just think, good in, good out, and have a realistic eye to what is good.

And no, donuts are not real food, there’s no wild donut tree.

Finding Your Ideal Diet

As mentioned before, experiment on yourself, trying different foods and eating practices. Test food groups, portion size, time between meals, and regulating portion size at different times of the day. In a recent study, subjects who gained a minimal amount of weight or lost weight were more likely to consume a higher percentage of daily calories at breakfast. See, it really is the most important meal of the day!

There is also growing evidence pointing to your blood type having an effect on what you should eat. In his blood type diet studies, Dr. Peter D’Adamo lays out his research and anthropological data to prove how certain foods benefit specific blood types.

For instance, as an “A” type, I should eat mostly vegetables, fruits, and grains. Meat should be eaten in small portions, or not at all. My wife is an “O” type, and she needs more meat to complete the genetic make-up of her blood type. In any case, know there is not a one-size-fits-all diet plan, and you should try out a few to see what works best for you. When in doubt, eat lots of plants, lean meats, and whole grains.

6. Intrinsic Motivation

We all want to feel personally fulfilled by our work. People who feel intrinsically motivated by our work have shown to be happier and more productive than workers who are just in it for the paycheck. In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, he shows there are 3 motivating factors behind our work and productivity. They are:

  1. Autonomy: The desire to direct our own lives.
  2. Mastery: The urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  3. Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Pink cites esteemed researcher Dr. Sam Glucksberg, who tells us that monetary rewards don’t even play the role we believe they do. Research groups who are given monetary rewards usually take longer to complete a given task than intrinsically motivated groups! This is crazy! Money is the #1 motivator and initiator of productivity, right?

It would seem otherwise (see Pink’s fantastic TED talk on the subject). The top motivator is an inner desire to make our work matter, something that vibrates in our bones. The factors of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose arise from this inner harmony. I believe we can all look back to a job in our lives where we felt a purpose larger than ourselves, and truly believed in the work we were doing. It’s time to return to that type of work (go ahead and tweet that, it’s important).

Finding Purpose in Your Work

Hopefully, this isn’t too difficult for you, and you work at a place where the purpose is clearly defined. If not, a good question to ask yourself is “What is the benefit of my work, or my company’s products, to the customer?”

When I was in college, I spent my summers as a counselor at Camp Rockmont. The purpose of our work was the growth and development of boys into young men, and providing them with opportunities to achieve that growth. I could see the benefits of my work each day, and in the following summers as those same boys would return. I know a man named Eric who works at Wendy’s.

I think of fast-food places as some of the most uninspiring places to work. But Eric doesn’t see it that way! I asked him why he works there, and how it could possibly inspire him. He said “Matt, every day I have the chance to put a smile on someone’s face. I ask about their day, offer encouragement, and at the end I’m able to give them good food which fuels the rest of their day! I’m able to feed them physically and emotionally.” He certainly put me in my place!

Professors Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath found 2 main components of a productive, thriving workplace. The first is vitality: the sense of being alive, passionate, and excited. The second component is learning: the growth that comes from gaining new knowledge and skills. This research goes hand in hand with the research of Pink and Dr. Glucksberg.

Of course, you could always start your own hustle or business, and build something you believe in. You can even use your current job to launch it.

7. Effect of Natural Light & Views

When we keep ourselves in poorly-lit rooms with no view, our productivity suffers. I know I have the tendency to do my work in the early morning, with a single lamp illuminating my desk. The California Energy Commission showed the presence of natural light (or even proper artificial lighting) can improve worker performance 2-5%, and directly improved tests of mental function and attention by 13%.

When workers have “an ample and pleasant view”, they were found to perform 10-25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible view, versus those with no view. This has significant implications for not just independent artists setting up their own workspace, but also for managers and CEOs who have input on the office layout of hundreds or thousands of workers!

How You Can Optimize Your Workspace

If you are able, move your desk towards natural light (even plenty of artificial light will help), and point your view to a pleasing sight. Declutter your desk and office to keep your focus on the task at hand, in fact research has shown that workers in neat offices have an easier time remembering tasks and accessing information.

Thomas Malone found the effect of an organized desk was not simply in finding information, but served to remind the workers of tasks. Messy desks frequently contained piles rather than files, and while we build piles to create the illusion of quick access to information, the piles quickly grow out of control, making the information more difficult to find.

8. Goals

When we are setting goals, whether they be for work or personal reasons, it is tempting to list everything you can think of. Go ahead, I won’t stop you. But anyone who’s made a list of New Year’s Resolutions knows long lists of goals are difficult to keep.

Looking back on past goals, would you have been happy to accomplish 1-3 of them? If you plunged your primary effort in to your blog, losing weight, or learning the guitar? Habit change expert Leo Babauta promotes having just one goal at a time, completing it, and then moving on to the next one. Rather than be a multi-goal setter, just do one (as Frank the Tank says in Old School) and move on to the next goal. I have found this to be profoundly important in my own work, whether personally, physically, or creatively.

Here are the most important takeaways:

  1. Start Small
  2. Have One Goal
  3. Examine Your Motivation

When it comes to goal setting and accomplishment, the academic expert is Dr. Edwin Locke. He theorized that specific goals result in higher levels of performance than general goals, i.e. I want to generate $500/month in online revenue (specific) vs. I want to earn money online (general).

Locke states that goals have 2 main characteristics – content and intensity. The content refers to what we actually want to achieve (e.g. I want to earn an additional $500/month). The intensity refers to the amount of physical and mental resources needed to create and achieve the content.

How to Create and Achieve Reasonable (and Outlandish) Goals

First, write down your goals. In her book Write It Down, Make It Happen, Dr. Henriette Anne Klauser states the importance of writing down your goals “explains how simply writing down your goals in life is the first step toward achieving them. Writing can even help you understand what you want”. After you have written down your goals, define them in Dr. Locke’s context (specific, contextual, intensity). Then, following Leo’s advice, choose 1-3 short term and long term goals to work on. Continue to persevere until completion, then move on to your next goal. When you name, define, and act upon your goals, you will find them easier to achieve!

9. Inspiration

What inspires you? Is it the work you’re doing, the cause you champion, or lives you change? This is an important aspect of what makes us productive, to wake up each morning and enjoy the work we do. In the grind of our day-to-day work, it is important we unplug and get away from that work on a regular basis.

Call it a sabbatical, walkabout, or vision quest, but we need to change our surroundings and reframe the important work and relationships in our lives. Clay Collins must go on a vision quest every once and while, and here’s why:

“My vision quests basically entails randomly going backpacking into the woods by myself for an extended period of time. EVERY major product and business initiative from my company has been envisioned during these vision quests. And when too much time passes without one, I start going a little crazy.”

Another way to reframe your work is to spend time studying and enjoying the work of other people. Listen to music, read a book, study great design, admire great art, or whatever fuels you.

The bottom line is, don’t allow your well of inspiration to run dry. This may mean you need to actually take a step back from your work, and re-examine the reasons why you create. It sounds counter-intuitive, but a few of the best parts of life are wrapped in this paradox.

How to Be Inspired

Yes, it’s a corny sub-headline, because there’s no great way to be told how to be inspired! The best advice I can give is to pay attention to what causes you to act, think, and look inward. For me, I read, get out in nature, run, and listen to Mumford & Sons. I also find inspiration in art, people, or work. The point is, inspiration is different for each person, and you need to pay attention to what inspires you. Sorry I don’t have a 10 step plan for you, but it doesn’t work that way. You will need to piece it together from your own experience.

10. The Reality of Life

I understand. What I’m proposing isn’t easy. In fact…

It’s as hard as anything you will ever do.

So forgive my harsh words, but leave your excuses at the door and examine the facts.

Do you want to be more productive? Then set aside your apps, books, 10 step guides, and start making a few changes that will actually affect your life.

Here’s what I can distill this article down to:

  • Do work you care about.
  • Focus on one task at a time.
  • Cut away the crap which doesn’t serve you.
  • Exercise.
  • Eat healthy foods and drink water.
  • Work in a well-lit space.
  • Accomplish one goal at a time (with however many incremental goals it takes).
  • Take time to be inspired.
  • Realize this life-change of productivity takes time, and ruthless prioritizing.

Take heart, this is possible. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do something, failing before you’ve even tried is one of the most insidious lies the Devil ever worked into the conscious of humankind.

Take a deep breath, and begin.

[Images via Creative Commons, phillie, victor]