The Science of Productivity

Here's the actual science behind what makes us more productive and happy at work.

You'll learn what the latest in neuroscience and psychology means for your productivity, and we'll give you concrete tips on how to make it a part of your life.

Why You Should Always Write Down Your Bad Ideas

badideas

Most of Thomas Edison’s ideas were bad.

At least they weren’t good enough to make it out of the laboratory. Or from the patent office to the product line. Thousands of ideas, never to see the light of day.

An associate of Edison’s, Walter S. Mallory, recalled asking the inventor about this, according to a 1910 biography “Edison: His Life and Inventions.” Mallory recalled that Edison had been working for months on a nickel-iron battery. Mallory visited Edison in his shop and learned his friend had tried more than 9,000 experiments for the battery and none had been successful.

“In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’”

Mallory sympathized with Edison. He felt sorry for him that so many ideas had not yet produce one result. Edison saw it differently.

“Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.'”

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How to Have a Great First Day at Your New Job

first-day

Day one at the new job. How’s it feel? Slightly terrifying?

It should. At your old job — just last week perhaps — you were the most experienced you ever were there. Suddenly, you’re the least experienced you ever will be at this job.

It’s enough to cause a panic. But it doesn’t have to. Fresh starts come with great opportunity. Here are a few tips on how you can capitalize on this new adventure. We’ll skip the obvious — show up on time, practice the route to the new office —and focus on some of the research behind the first day and how you can use what science and experts say about the topic.

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Why Your Brain Loves Negativity and How to Fix It

negativity

Pretend you’re a caveman.

You’re in your cave preparing for a hunt, but something outside seems dangerous, violent sounds you don’t understand.

You have two choices: Skip the hunt, spend the night hungry but live another day. Or risk death and go outside.

Hold onto that thought. We’ll be getting back to that.

Now imagine you’re driving to work. While getting off the highway, someone cuts you off. You slam on your brakes.

You know the feeling that’s coming. That tense anger rises up. Your fingers clench the steering wheel.

It’s enough to set you on a path to feel horrible all day. You might be less productive at work, distracted during meetings. You might try to counterbalance the feeling with a quick shot of endorphins from junk food, mindless web surfing or time-wasting YouTube videos. This only compounds the problem. This is like taking short-term unhappiness and investing it in a long-term, high-yield unhappiness investment plan, ensuring belly flab and career stagnation for years to come.

So why does this one minor thing, getting cut off, have such a powerful effect on us? Why does one negative experience ruin an otherwise great day?

The answer has to do with our friend, Mr. Caveman. Research shows that our brains evolved to react much more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. It kept us safe from danger. But in modern days, where physical danger is minimal, it often just gets in the way.

It’s called the negativity bias.

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Writing is Power

Guy writing in notebook

We’re writing more than ever these days. Every day, you’re texting, emailing, and chatting. As many of us sit at our computers at work all day and our phones everywhere else in between, we’re writing.

Successful leaders believe writing is a crucial ingredient of great work. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, for example, insists that writing replace other forms of communication to make the most of meetings. Instead of jumping straight into a conversation, or snoozing through bullet-pointed sentence fragments in a slideshow presentation, he requires his senior executives to write six-page narrative memos.

He explains in a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.” In this age of knowledge work, we’re hiring people to think and communicate those thoughts — which means people who can write have a leg up.

Like most things worth doing, writing can be a chore. But the more fluent and practiced you become at the writing process, the more you’ll be able to own your success.

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The Science Behind How Emotions Lead to Smarter Decisions

Range of Smiley to Angry Faces

There once was a man named Elliot. An intelligent, pleasant thirty-something guy, he had built a pretty good life for himself, with a family and a good job. But his life started to fall apart when he got a brain tumor the size of a small orange that compressed his frontal lobes — causing debilitating headaches and an inability to focus.

Even after a successful surgery to remove the tumor, Elliot’s life continued go downhill. His relationships unravelled, he couldn’t hold a job, and invested in a disreputable business scheme that lost him his savings. Something was still wrong with Elliot’s brain — damage to parts of his frontal lobe somehow resulted in an inability to feel emotion.

You’d think that this might have been beneficial at least for his work ventures, some ability to make calculating, rational, optimal decisions. But the opposite was true. After losing his emotions, he’d become hopelessly ineffective at business.

That can be a jolting lesson for many of us who consider emotion something to regard very lightly in the workplace. Emotions work, not as a barrier to getting things done, but to help us reason at a basic level and thrive.

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Why You Will Gain Freedom with a Set Creativity Schedule

Create an oasis of quiet by creating boundaries of space and time.

Ira Glass not only hosts the popular public radio show, This American Life, but also writes, edits, performs, produces, and manages. There’s plenty of work to keep him busy, which is why he confessed to Lifehacker that his worst habit is that he procrastinates … by working.

He explains:

Ira GlassIn addition to being an editor and writer on my radio show, I’m also the boss, and deal with budgets, personnel stuff, revenue and spending questions, and business decisions… [W]hen I should be writing something for this week’s show, I’ll procrastinate by looking over some contract or making some business phone call or doing something else that actually isn’t as important as writing.

When you’re wearing lots of hats, the temptation to procrastinate by working is high, and it’s usually creative priorities and projects that wind up getting the short end of the stick. The double whammy is that not only do you feel guilty and demotivated for not getting to priorities, you also feel worse and burned out from working so much anyway.

In order to reliably get to your creative priorities, the solution is to carve out a deliberate creativity schedule. Without it, the work you put off will be creative work as other tasks seem easier to get through and justifiable, to boot, as part of your job.

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The Secret to Finding the Elusive Balance Between Busy and Happy

collage of balance

Let’s face it. We have a love-hate relationship with being busy. We want more free time but are quick to jam-pack our calendars and flaunt the bling of our busy status.

While busyness has become a badge of honor to be admired and applauded, at the heart of it, busyness seems a human way to assert that you exist, to prove you matter. I do, therefore I am — which can quickly morph into, I do more, therefore I am better.

University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson studies how people use their time for a living. He’s even called “Father Time” by his colleagues, and he discovered that the happiest people actually balance busy schedules by not feeling rushed. Only about a tenth of Americans attain this elusive balance, and that might be because we’re inclined to trick ourselves into enjoying busyness for more than it’s worth.

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The Paradox of Why Top Performers Fail Under Pressure

performance pressure

You’ve seen it happen before. Maybe you’ve even experienced the stomach-churning, brain-in-hyperdrive feeling yourself. Whether it’s the professional missing those easy free throws on the basketball court or the professional sweating through an important presentation in the conference room — even the best performers choke under pressure.

The expertise and skillful command of these bright talents are exactly what should be helping them thrive in such conditions. All that hard work that brought them to where they are now should help them kick it up a notch and spur amazing feats. Instead, it’s these outstanding capabilities that set them up for failure in the clutch.

While star performers should be best equipped to handle pressure, the interesting paradox is that they might be the most prone to buckling.

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Stop Spreading Busyness Like the Flu

busyness at train station

Busyness has become such a sign of our times that there’s a trend in architecture of drawing blurry people on the move for office project designs. Apparently it’s a visual that clients can identify with “on an emotional level.”

While you might recognize yourself in that blurry state of being, consider how limiting busyness can be as a state of mind. Since you start coming across as irritable, impatient, and anxious, you start to close yourself off from others. It’s hard to connect with someone who’s a physical or mental blur that can’t sit still for a minute and feels like there’s no time.

One of the toughest part of falling into the busy trap is that you become preoccupied with your own busyness, and you might not realize that you’re spreading your busyness affliction to everyone around you.

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How Good Enough is Actually Optimal

Ten years ago, Jon Bell, now a designer at Twitter, told his wife that he’d be happy with how much he was making for the rest of his life.

I didn’t make much at the time. But that marked the day I began trying to fight back the impulse for “more” and instead try to discover how “enough” feels.

The conventional wisdom is that to be successful, you have to be really hungry for it, never content with mere sufficiency and outdoing everyone else. Surprisingly, Jon’s philosophy of aiming for enough is a better approach.

It all comes down to whether you’re a maximizer or a satisficer. A maximizer yearns for perfection — making the best decision after weighing all the choices while a satisficer goes for “good enough.” This doesn’t mean you have to settle for lower standards — but you do prevent yourself from “trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI.”

Maximizer vs Satisficer list

That’s why high achievers fall into the peculiar trap of getting mentally caught up in what you haven’t done — there’s always something else to be working on because it feels like, the more you do, the more you gain an edge. But focusing too hard on maximizing your productivity and choices can come at an ultimate cost to your time, health, and happiness.

Ironically, maximizing doesn’t lead to the optimal result.

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