Workday Woes: Five productivity killers and how to overcome them

Megan Hays, Ph.D., explores five common productivity killers and offers practical solutions to overcome them.
ProductivityMegan Hays, Ph.D., explores five common productivity killers and offers practical solutions to overcome them.

“Productivity can foster a sense of accomplishment, reducing stress and cultivating a positive workplace environment with greater morale,” Hays said. “Many everyday actions can kill productivity, causing us to feel like a failure and become stressed.”  

By addressing key productivity killers, from mindlessly checking emails to working excessive hours, individuals can enjoy benefits such as improved focus, efficiency and overall productivity.

“Improving your productivity requires identifying and overcoming common pitfalls that hinder efficiency,” Hays said. “Productivity is not just about working hard but about working smart.”  

Avoid mindlessly checking email and other messages

While intended to be a productivity tool, email can be a serious distraction and productivity killer. It is easy to justify checking emails and other messages as “work,” but that inbox can quickly consume productive work hours.

Hays says that being drawn to procrastinating by answering emails is because of a cognitive bias known as the mere urgency effect. The tendency is to choose completing a five-minute, “time-sensitive” task over an important project that requires hours of focused or deep work.

“Perceived urgency tends to trump importance every time, even when the rewards of the less ‘urgent’ task are objectively greater,” Hays said.

To combat this, she encourages individuals to set aside specific chunks of time each day to address emails rather than answering each individual email as it comes in.

“Check your email and other messages in batches,” Hays said. “Ideally, put your phone out of sight when you are at your work station.”

Some tips include avoiding looking at the phone during focused work, putting the phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode and checking communication apps only at certain times during the day.  

downloadMegan Hays, Ph.D., explores five common productivity killers and offers practical solutions to overcome them.Take steps to get sufficient sleep

Research has demonstrated that insufficient sleep impairs cognitive functions such as attention, memory and decision-making. Sleep deprivation also increases distractibility, making it difficult to focus and perform tasks efficiently. The cognitive impairment of being awake for 17 or 24 hours is comparable to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent or 0.10 percent, respectively.

“Many people fall into the trap of sacrificing sleep for work but find themselves working more to make up for lost productivity due to sleep deprivation,” Hays said.

Making sleep a priority and keeping a consistent sleep-wake cycle is important to improving productivity. Guidelines suggest that adults should get at least seven hours of quality sleep per night, but Hays says this may vary from person to person.

“Understanding the link between sleep and job performance can equip people with the information needed to break the pattern of treating sleep like a luxury,” Hays said. “The primary goal is to get the amount of sleep you need to feel rested and functional.”

She says getting better sleep can look like promoting a strong circadian rhythm by waking up around the same time every day, getting bright light exposure within an hour of waking and having a consistent bedtime routine.

Bedtime procrastination can contribute to sleep deprivation. Hays says to set a daily “clock-out” time for any remaining work tasks at home.

Multitasking is a myth

Multitasking may seem like a time saver, but this is a myth. Hays says trying to do two or more tasks at once often results in decreased efficiency, increased errors and lower-quality work.

A cognitive phenomenon called the switch cost effect is the culprit. This is the extra time it takes the brain to shift its attention from one task to another, resulting in decreased performance.

“Every time we switch tasks, we need to disengage from the current task and reorient our focus to the new task,” Hays said.

Researchers have demonstrated that the cognitive load associated with task switching can accumulate over time and cost up to 40 percent of productive time. Hays says this can be mitigated by focusing on one task at a time with the least amount of distraction possible.

Improve your sleep with these simple steps.

“Practice directing your full attention to completing one task at a time, as opposed to attempting multiple tasks simultaneously,” Hays said. “While it can be difficult, turning off your phone and email notifications can help you resist the urge to multitask.”

Avoid the “always on” work culture

Thanks to the “always on” work culture, there is a common belief that more hours worked equals more productivity and demonstrates greater “dedication” to one’s work. Hays says this is a dangerous myth that can lead to diminished cognitive function, reduced efficiency, burnout and increased errors.

“While it is true that putting in extra hours can result in increased output in the short term, there is an inflection point in which working long hours leads to diminishing returns,” Hays said. “Do not equate hours worked with productivity.”

Hays suggests instead focusing solely on the number of hours worked as a badge of honorrioritizing effectiveness and efficiency. This means setting realistic goals, embracing downtime when needed, getting enough rest, engaging in enjoyable activities outside of work and effective time management during work hours.  

“A healthy work environment that values efficiency and quality output is significantly more productive than one that values long, exhaustive working hours,” Hays said.  

Trouble focusing on work? Refocus attention with these quick tips.

Have a plan

Lack of planning can hurt productivity in many ways. Without a plan, individuals risk spending too much time deciding what tasks to tackle next or how to approach them, leading to inefficiency and wasted time.

“People fall into the planning fallacy thinking trap, which is the tendency to underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a big task,” Hays said. “This is a big reason that to-do lists on their own can be counterproductive.”

She suggests making an hour-by-hour plan for each day the night before. This strategy is called timeboxing, and it eliminates the dilemma of not being sure what to do next and increases accountability.  

This can be done on a phone notepad, a handwritten plan, sticky note or a digital calendar. The key is having a personalized planning system that is integrated into something looked at daily.

“Improving your productivity requires identifying and understanding common pitfalls that hinder efficiency,” Hays said. “By addressing these common pitfalls, you can improve your focus, efficiency and overall productivity, allowing you to achieve your goals with greater ease.”