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Productivity is a priority for every business and there’s all kinds of advice out there on how to achieve this. The problem is, most of this information comes from opinion or sales pitches and it can be difficult to find advice that’s based on solid scientific findings on workplace productivity.

So, in this article, we’re looking at seven scientific studies that reveal the secrets of maximising workplace productivity in the digital age. Each study is linked to so you can see them for yourself and we’ll be quoting from official summaries of each study so you can make your own mind up about how relevant they are to the points made in this article.

Finally, we’ll also be exploring what these studies mean for the modern digital workplace and how you can use them to boost productivity.

#1: Multitasking reduces productivity

In 2001, Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, conducted four experiments that involved young adults switching between different tasks.

Their findings revealed that participants who switched between multiple tasks were less productive than those who focused on a single task at a time. Essentially, the process of switching itself takes time but the cognitive process of adjusting to new tasks is where productivity really suffers.

What does this study say?

In a summary of the experiments conducted by Rubinstein, Evans and Meyer, American Psychological Association explains the key findings of the study.

“Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity. Although that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has talked on the phone while checking E-mail or talked on a cell phone while driving, the extent of the problem might come as a shock. Psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists tend to liken the job to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.”

How can we use this to boost productivity?

Multiple studies have reinforced the findings of Rubinstein, Evans and Meyer to leave little doubt that switching between tasks hurts productivity. In other words, multitasking simply doesn’t work but, thankfully, the solution to this problem is simple: focus on one task at a time.

This is the key design principle behind Serene, which we built to help digital workers maximise productivity. By encouraging you to set a single goal for the day and break these objectives into a series of related tasks, the app keeps you focused on the task at hand.

Businesses should adopt this working philosophy and shift away from the culture of multitasking and task overload that results in busy, yet unproductive workers.

#2: Distractions reduce productivity and increase errors

For most digital workers, distractions are merely bad news for productivity but, in some lines of work, distractions can be deadly. Some of the most telling research conducted on the dangers of distractions comes from the medical industry and there’s a large back catalogue of studies that illustrate how distractions reduce productivity and increase the risk of errors.

To name a couple:

What do these studies say?

PSQH cites both of those studies (and more than a dozen others) in a writeup on the impact of distractions in the medical field.

“Distractions and interruptions impact the prospective memory, or the ability to remember to do something that must be deferred (Relihan, 2010). When a person forms an intention, their memory establishes a specific cue to remind them to act. If the task is interrupted and the cue is encountered later, a spontaneous process is supposed to bring the intention to mind. However, individuals are less likely to remember the intention if they are outside the context in which the cue was established (Grundgeiger & Sanderson, 2009).”

While the repercussions of distractions may be less severe for digital workers, the same principles are true in terms of distractions reducing productivity and increasing the occurrence of errors.

How can we use this to boost productivity?

Create a working culture that reduces the number of distractions workers face. Start by focusing on single tasks (as mentioned above) but create an environment where managers allow team members to complete tasks without being distracted or having new tasks added to their workflow.

Use a communication tool like Slack that allows team members to set an availability status – e.g.: busy when they’re working on something. Respect those statuses and encourage people to avoid sending messages when people are busy.

To help prevent distractions, we’ve also built a website and app blocking feature into Serene, which prevents access during work sessions.

#3: The average digital worker is distracted every 6 minutes

This is particularly worrying, considering what we discussed about distractions in the previous section. Research carried out by productivity software provider, RescueTime found that the average digital worker can’t go more than 6 minutes without checking their email or IM.

We’re not only being distracted by outside sources; we’ve developed this internet state self-distraction by always being “switched on” in the digital age.

What does this study say?

“When we looked at the anonymized behaviour data of 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found that the average knowledge worker “checks in” with communication tools every 6 minutes.”

(In this case, a “check in” is defined as any time you switch to a communication tool while working on another productive task.)

“All this raises a huge question: How are we expected to get focused work done when we only have a few minutes in between answering emails and messages? The short answer is we aren’t.”

“What we discovered was that 35.5% of workers check their email and IM every 3 minutes or less. While only 18.6% can go more than 20 minutes without being pulled into communication.”

  • 40% of knowledge workers never get 30 minutes straight of focused time in a workday
  • 17% of people can’t even get 15 minutes straight of focused time without communication
  • 30% only get an hour a day of dedicated focused time

How can we use this to boost productivity?

First of all, use a tool like Serene to block websites and apps that keep distracting attention from where it should be. This is the easy fix. But to solve this problem for the long-term, you need to create a less intrusive working culture that encourages people to focus on their current task and ease the anxieties that are pushing them to constantly check their emails, IMs and to-do lists.

Like I said in the last point, make the most of statuses and eliminate IMs and notifications when people are working on tasks. People don’t need to know someone has added a new comment to a document they’re not due to work on until later today.

Stop emails, IMs and notifications from getting in the way of productivity.

#4: Regular breaks boost concentration

A study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011 joined the list of research papers that find regular breaks boost concentration. The study finds that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically increase a person’s ability to focus on the same task for longer periods

What does this study say?

“We newly propose that the vigilance decrement occurs because the cognitive control system fails to maintain active the goal of the vigilance task over prolonged periods of time (goal habituation). Further, we hypothesized that momentarily deactivating this goal (via a switch in tasks) would prevent the activation level of the vigilance goal from ever habituating. We asked observers to perform a visual vigilance task while maintaining digits in-memory. When observers retrieved the digits at the end of the vigilance task, their vigilance performance steeply declined over time. However, when observers were asked to sporadically recollect the digits during the vigilance task, the vigilance decrement was averted. Our results present a direct challenge to the pervasive view that vigilance decrements are due to a depletion of attentional resources and provide a tractable mechanism to prevent this insidious phenomenon in everyday life.”

How can we use this to boost productivity?

Work in short bursts with regular breaks. There are various working models based around the principle of short intense working sessions broken up by regular breaks, so this isn’t a new philosophy by any means. The most famous of these is the Pomodoro technique that encourages people to work in 25-minute bursts followed by five-minute breaks and this approach nicely breaks sessions up into a total of 30 minutes.

This makes the day easy to compile into two-hour sessions, broken up by larger breaks.

Other models suggest 50-minute sessions with 20-minute breaks. It all comes down to what works for you. There are plenty of software platforms designed around Pomodoro technique and similar principles, too. We decided to take a more flexible approach with Serene by allowing you to create sessions between 20-60 minutes, followed by your choice of break length.

#5: Regular rewards boost motivation

A study from Cornell University in 2018 shows hoe regular rewords boost motivation and makes a case for instant rewards as a means of maximising workplace satisfaction.

What does this study say?

“This research compared immediate versus delayed rewards, predicting that more immediate rewards increase intrinsic motivation by creating a perceptual fusion between the activity and its goal (i.e., the reward). In support of the hypothesis, framing a reward from watching a news program as more immediate increased intrinsic motivation to watch the program, and receiving more immediate bonus increased intrinsic motivation in an experimental task.”

“The effect of reward timing was mediated by the strength of the association between an activity and a reward, and was specific to intrinsic motivation—immediacy influenced the positive experience of an activity, but not perceived outcome importance. In addition, the effect of the timing of rewards was independent of the effect of the magnitude of the rewards.”

How can we use this to boost productivity?

As the study itself explains, rewards don’t necessarily have to come in the financial sense or in terms of quantifiable perks. Breaks themselves act as a reward and implementing the short bursts strategy we looked at in the previous section means workers are always on the verge of another small reward: their next break.

This helps replicate the sense of instant reward and ongoing motivation that is constantly referred to throughout the Cornell University study – and it doesn’t cost a thing.

Of course, taking this further, the idea of bonuses throughout the year or more significant rewards for completing projects or hitting other objectives can make a big difference. You could even implement a points-based system where workers can accumulate rewards points for every task or goal completed, which creates a sense of instant reward, even though the reward itself will be received at a much later date.

#6: Shared goals boost productivity and motivation

Priyanka B.Carr and Gregory M.Walton published a study entitled Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation in 2014. Their findings reinforced the already-accepted idea that shared goals increase productivity and motivation within teams.

What does this study say?

ScienceDirect hosts this joint study where it lists the highlights and key findings:

  • A defining aspect of human society is that people work together toward common ends.
  • Five experiments examined cues that evoke a psychological state of working together.
  • As hypothesized, these cues increased intrinsic motivation as people worked alone.
  • Outcomes were diverse, e.g., task persistence, enjoyment and, 1–2 weeks later, choice.
  • These cues also increased feelings of working together but not other processes.

How can we use this to boost productivity?

The answer here lies in creating a strong team spirit based around shared goals, achievements and rewards. To make this happen, you need the right project management platform that allows you to create shared goals, as well as collaborative and individual tasks.

There are plenty of options for this, including Monday, Asana, Trello and countless other project management suites.

The problem is, this collaborative philosophy has largely contributed to the constant barrage of notifications and other distractions that can hinder productivity. So it’s crucial businesses and teams ensure individual team members are able to work on their own and distraction-free on individual tasks. There’s a time and a place for collaboration, live chat and instant messaging, but this doesn’t mean all the time.

Shared goals do not need to come at the expense of productivity.

#7: Productivity isn’t the be-all and end-all

This study conducted by the University of California, Irvine is one of the most cited in articles on the topic of productivity. It’s widely referred to as the study that reveals work-place distractions take us 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from.

That’s a bit of a misrepresentation of what the study actually says, which actually says interrupted work can be completed faster.

The problem is, even in cases where workloads are completed sooner, the prices paid illustrate how productivity isn’t always the be-all and end-all.

What does this study say?

“Surprisingly our results show that interrupted work is performed faster. We offer an interpretation. When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (and writing less) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted. Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort. So interrupted work may be done faster, but at a price.”

How can we use this to boost productivity?

Productivity as a short-term measurement can be problematic. For example, you might be maximising productivity on a weekly basis but burning out your staff and hurting long-term productivity to more sick days, lower motivation and weaker staff retention.

As Paul Krugman says in The Age of Diminishing Expectations, “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.”

Businesses and managers need to find the right balance between maximising productivity on a daily basis while making it sustainable for the long-term. In some cases, doing less today means you’ll be able to get more done by the end of the week and this can involve something simple like surprising everyone with the afternoon off once in a while as a reward or motivation booster.

Maximising productivity doesn’t mean you have to do everything to the max, all the time.

Make 2020 more productive

Be sure to take a look at our other article on productivity to get yourself ready for the year ahead. You can find out how to make remote team management work in 2020, what the 10 most common remote work challenges are (and how to deal with them), plus a number of recommendations for the best productivity apps to help you hit more ambitious targets.

Aaron Brooks is a copywriter & digital strategist specialising in helping agencies & software companies find their voice in a crowded space.

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