What do you do to be productive?
In the past year, I’ve been using different tools and strategies to help me focus more and thus, be more productive at work. In this article, I’ll share with you three of these productivity hacks to increase your focus and delve into the science behind why they work.
When I was still writing code, I would listen to different music playlists ranging from rock to electronic, electro-pop, and pop. Sometimes though, when I had to solve a more complicated problem, I would shut the music off. I never really stopped to ask myself why that was — I just did it. What was it about music that made writing code easier? And what about those times when I needed silence?
These days, I’m mostly reading or writing, and I’ve found that listening to music is a big distraction (I imagine classical music would be a good choice, though). So I found an alternative to fill the void: Noisli.
Noisli does exactly what its name suggests — play different types of noises to you. It comes with a variety of sounds such as the rustling of leaves, singing of birds, ocean waves, and the ambience of a coffee shop. What I found that works best for me is the combination of three options together: wind, rain, and thunder. When I put these on, I can focus better than when I’m not listening to anything or the regular noises at my office. I also work really well in cafes. The sounds of cafes somehow stays at the back of my mind and do not distract me for most of the time.
Why this works
There is a ton of research out there on the different types of noises and how they affect concentration levels. Most of us are familiar with the term ‘white noise’ and have a decent idea of what it means. While doing research for this article, I realised that I didn’t know exactly what it meant and also found the existence of other types of noises, like brown and pink noises.
In summary, white noise is the mix of all frequency of sounds distributed equally. Pink noise, on the other hand, is louder at low frequency and softer at high frequency. Brown noise is similar to pink noise, but stronger at low frequency and absent at high frequency, giving it a distinct muffled sound. To get a sense of what they actually sound like, check out their pure representations at the Simply Noise website.
So what sound is better for doing focused work? As with everything, it seems that the best answer is: It depends. However, there is a lot of research that shows that the best environment for focused, productive work is actually the absence of sound. That’s right, silence is the best strategy. If you want to give silence a go and don’t have an obvious option, try visiting your local library.
Unfortunately, nowadays, other than in the library, silence is a rare occurrence. From open-concept offices to noisy cafes, it’s hard to find a place where silence is the norm. Research shows that you can use a different colour of sounds for different environments, as well as classical, or other types of non-intrusive music styles to improve focus in a noisy environment.
Bursts of Focused Work: The Pomodoro Technique
Another hack that I like to use for productivity is the Pomodoro technique. If you don’t know what that is, it’s actually quite simple: Commit to a focused time free of distractions for 25 minutes, then rest for 5 minutes; repeat.
I found this nice app that implements this technique in the form of planting trees, called Forest. The planting of each tree takes 25 minutes. When you are successful in not opening any other app for the duration of the 25-minute session, you will get a full tree. But if you try to open a messaging app before you finish planting one, the tree will die. And you don’t want your tree to die, do you? You can also see all successfully and unsuccessfully planted trees of your forest and sort them by day, week, month, or year.
According to the app, I’m not doing this too well. But I’ve found out that I’m better at planting trees when I disable all my messaging apps’ notifications just before I start to plant a tree. This is the third technique I’ve found helpful to remain focused and I’ll cover it below.
Why this works
The Pomodoro technique is based on a time management technique to increase your ability to maintain concentrated attention over prolonged periods of time. This is what psychologists call Vigilance or Sustained Concentration.
The technique is grounded by the simple idea to commit to a short burst of concentration, and then taking a break from that intense mind-work. The idea of taking frequent breaks to improve productivity is based on a lot of science. Working on short bursts followed by taking breaks, or even napshave been shown to improve productivity.
On the other hand, too much of a good thing is not that good. Too many breaks may imply that you are procrastinating and avoiding a difficult problem.
Reducing distractions: Disabling notifications
I noticed that I unconsciously check my phone for messages every few minutes - a habit I only noticed after I started using the Pomodoro technique. I noticed that I would unlock my screen to look at notifications sometimes in the same minute!
I installed a phone-usage app to show how much I use my phone (a flawed metric, but illuminating nonetheless). As shown below, there are days when I unlock my phone more than 200 times!
Why this works
It’s no secret that apps nowadays are being built to get us hooked. That’s why more and more apps make use of notifications to bring us back to their platforms. However, even though checking a notification may take less than a minute, one research shows that it can take up to 23 minutes to get back into the original flow.
And if you consider that on average we touch our phones more than 2000 times a day, we have the potential of being 40% more productive every day by being more mindful about how we use our technology in our hands.
Taking back control of your time
For me, the combination of these three techniques/tools - Noisli, Pomodoro/Forest app, and disabling my phone’s notifications has been really helpful to improve my focus. As a matter of fact, I’m using all these three techniques right now as I’m writing this article.
So if you are looking for a few ideas to improve productivity, try these out and let us know.