Let’s get clear right now on that the advice in this post isn’t what I would class as ‘productivity hacks’. A lot of the hacks that have spread far are a waste of time or not a whole lot more efficient than your standard way of doing things. At some point you have to sit down with yourself and understand that you have to put in the work. I’m sure that, as a high achiever, you know this better than most.

However, whilst there is no secret key to unlocking a whole new level of human productivity which would give you more hours in the day, there are habits and lifestyle choices that have been shown to correlate with higher productivity over decades of research. They can, in effect, supercharge your productivity. You will have to put in the work, but these 7 things can be a gust of wind in your back when you need it to push yourself that little bit more.

 

1. Check yourself before you wreck yourself

I’ll start off with the toughest item on this list: being realistic about how much you can get done in a day. As a high achiever, this item might be especially difficult for you to come to terms with. However, there is indeed a limit to how much you can realistically achieve in one day. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be ambitious or aim high. What it means is that you should know when to quit.

Whilst doing your work and being in the zone can increase personal happiness, we also know that working overtime for prolonged stretches of time (and especially if there is no financial reward) makes us unhappy [1].

Unless you’re someone who works on a factory line with a daily quota you have to hit, your daily workload will probably never truly be achievable. After all, email traffic never stops. That said, you can manage your load better so that you don’t feel stressed all the time.

Saying ‘no’ to things or providing realistic deadlines are all ways to reclaim the important hours in your day that you should invest in your sleep or otherwise in your mental and physical health.

 

2. The one thing you should never sacrifice

Sleep is arguably the most important ingredient for high productivity but you can only achieve it once you’ve got #1 on this list locked down. When you’re not realistic about the amount of work you can take on and get done in a day, it’s usually sleep that is traded in to do the extra work. How often do you stay awake late into the night finishing up the work you couldn’t get to over the course of the day?

This is a horrible strategy because you’re sacrificing the one thing that could help you turn things around the next day. Instead what happens is that you feel sluggish the next day and with poorer decision-making skills, you will soon get stuck in a vicious cycle. It’s that place where you can’t get enough sleep because you have a lot of work to do, but the work is taking longer to do or isn’t up to par because you’re not sleeping enough.

Quality sleep is by far the single most important factor in every high achievers life

To feel even more refreshed after sleeping, I love to use earplugs. If you’re easily bothered by light, a sleep mask is another must. Overall, I cannot stress enough how important good quality sleep is for any high achiever.

Research says: just go to bed. And don’t wait for the weekend to do so! Experts advise that our wake-up time on weekends should be within 2 hours of the time we wake up during the week. Otherwise you might experience the so-called social jet lag – having an unsatisfying sleep pattern where you struggle to catch up on your sleep between the work week, when you’re getting minimum sleep (or less), and the weekends, when you enjoy a long lie-in.

Whilst we’re yet to fully understand why sleep is so fundamental for us humans, research undisputedly shows that a lack of sleep takes its toll emotionally, mentally and physically. In the context of productivity, sleep debt makes us prone to making errors [2], it reduces our ability to focus and stay focussed [3], our mood fluctuates [4] and we’re more confrontational [5] and reactive in general [6]. If you still think you could power through this, just consider that motivation and engagement have been shown to plummet as well and one study even found that we spend more time on a task when we haven’t had sufficient sleep [5].

You might think you’re getting by just fine on 5 hours of sleep, but it’s been shown that we tend to think we’ve gotten enough sleep even when we haven’t. Sleep-deprived participants in one study rated their mental performance as good when they were in fact under performing significantly [7]. Don’t let it happen to you.

A good way to figure out how many hours of sleep you really need is to keep a diary of your sleep and how you feel throughout the day.

 

3. Fatten up!

You might have heard of nuts such as almonds or brazil nuts being called ‘brain food’. This isn’t just a funny name for a great afternoon snack. Nuts contain not only a lot of vitamins A and E which have antioxidant properties (antioxidant consumption is linked to lower cognitive decline in elderly), but nuts are also high in fatty acids – the building blocks for your brain.

The brain is 60% fat, so a diet rich in fatty acids is crucial to keep your brain performing well.

Alongside this, consuming healthy fats tends to lower bad cholesterol [8], the fat in your blood that isn’t used as a building block and in fact has negative effects on long-term health.

In his book Grain Brain, Dr David Perlmutter emphasises that “the brain thrives on a fat-rich, low-carbohydrate diet, which unfortunately is relatively uncommon in human populations today’. So like many others, you might have a tendency to not eat enough of high quality fats but rather binge on transfats and sugars in carbohydrate form. This causes brain fog and for you to generally feel ‘fried’.

Healthy fats to opt for here include a few different food groups:

  • Fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines). Probably the best source of Omega 3s. However, keep in mind that the bigger the fish in the food chain, the more mercury it might contain. Because our bodies tend to contain heavy metals, consuming too much mercury can lead to poisoning and other health issues. Choose smaller fish as often as you can.
  • Coconut and coconut oil. The fatty coconut is full of a specific type of fat called medium chain triglycerides (known as MCTs in the fitness and health industry). MCTs bypass digestion and go straight into your liver for an awesome mental and energy kick. To feel its effects, add a spoon of cold-pressed coconut oil into your morning coffee. It will not only slow the caffeine breakdown (you won’t experience an energy crash), but it will also keep you focused for longer.
  • Avocado, olives. The creamy avocado and flavourful olives should be part of at least one of your daily meals, preferably breakfast. Both pack in more than 20 vitamins and minerals which makes them a superfood.
  • Nuts, especially those really high in fat like macadamias and brazil nuts. Get the latter shelled, because they tend to become rancid and mouldy very quickly.

 

4. Undo tight knots

Muscle aches and other such kinks can be a distraction. I could be absorbed in my work, but if I’m achey that will gnaw away at my focus until I’m distracted.

Although stretching sounds very time-consuming, it isn’t that. Unlike exercise which most people struggle to squeeze into their day, you can do just a few minutes of stretches to already feel a massive change in how your body feels. This has been shown to boost workers’ productivity [9].

You should aim to do at least some basic stretches to lengthen your spine, unlock your shoulders and stretch your legs (hamstring muscles especially). This is the type of stretching exercise that was found to improve productivity of a group of workers in a 1997 study [9].

If you spend a lot of your day sitting, you might struggle with tight shoulders and neck like I do. Whenever you feel the tightness creep in, there’s a few basic stretches you can do in your chair or on the floor. In just a couple of minutes, you’ll release all that tension.

I start by sitting up straight:

Easy stretching sequence 1

I like to cross my legs because having that anchoring to the floor helps me get deeper into the stretches. 

With my shoulders pulled back and my back straight, I’ll grab my left arm just above the elbow and I’ll pull it towards the middle of my back as far as it goes. This might feel uncomfortable so focus on breathing deep and after a few deep breaths, try to pull your arm in just a little bit more.

Easy stretching sequence 2

I like to hold this stretch for at least ten breaths, then release and do the same to the other arm. 

Next up, we’ll ‘unlock’ our shoulders from a different angle. I’ll grab my left arm again, this time by the elbow, and push it down behind my head. I make sure to keep my back straight, with my head and neck pushing the arm behind me. I’ll hold this stretch for about then breaths on each arm.

Easy stretching sequence 3

The last stretch I do to open up the shoulders, is to extend my arms behind me and clasp them together. My posture is still straight, with shoulders gently pulled back. I’ll then move my upper body forward over my legs. Once I’m almost face-planting, I’ll (gently!) bring my arms up, towards my head, as far as I can. I always make sure to breathe deep into this stretch and after about 10 breaths, I’ll try to pull my arms over a little bit more. Feels so good!

stretch-3 (1)

After coming back from the face-plant, I gently swing my upper body to one side. Rather than forcing my back into the twist, I’ll slowly turn around until I can’t go any further. Then I’ll exhale and breathe in again. I don’t hold this one for long because I usually get a little crack right away.

stretch-4

Altogether, this stretching sequence doesn’t take up more than a couple of minutes of my time. Yet it makes me feel super springy and ready to face the day (I like to do it as soon as I get out of bed in the morning).

More recently, researchers have looked at yoga interventions to see whether yoga can impact work productivity. Usually held at lunchtime, therapeutic yoga sessions have been shown to help productivity in multiple recent studies [10]. If you’ve ever tried it out, you will know the amazing stress reduction powers that a regular yoga practice can have [11].

If you want to go beyond just stretching, I would recommend a tougher yoga session or at least trying out these functional movement exercises from adventure racer and Spartan Race founder, Joe De Sena.

 

5. Mother Nature’s secret productivity booster

Adding plants to your work space might seem like a frivolous item on this list, yet research shows that office spaces with greenery make workers more productive.

One recent study showed that “plants in the office significantly increased workplace satisfaction, self-reported levels of concentration, and perceived air quality” [12].

 

Authors of the study estimate productivity increased by 15% once plants were introduced into an office that was previously ‘minimalist’ and clean.

Productivity increased by 15% once plants were introduced into an office environment

In one recent study, productivity increased by 15% once plants were introduced into a previously minimalist and bare office environment. Another factor that has been linked to better productivity in office workers is natural light – a lack of windows is a big downside.

6. Take a break from the matrix

Since the 2011 study [13] which implied our reliance on the Internet and its readily available information might be changing our memory, there has been much discussion around the importance of not being ‘always on’. Whether or not technology really is negatively affecting our thinking skills has yet to be proven, but I do find that little tech-free breaks interspersed throughout the day really do the mind good.

Enjoy your lunch break away from the computer or practice mindfulness where you can. This needn’t mean meditation; you can do something as simple as 1) thinking of 3 things you feel grateful for today or 2) taking a few moments to truly notice and observe the space you are in, with all its different items, smells, noises, nooks and crannies.

Mindfulness practice has been linked to not only better mood, but more importantly, to improving one’s ability to sustain attention [14]. Finally, it was shown to successfully reduce anxiety [15], a distraction which can ‘make or break’ our work day, as you might well know already.

 

7. Walk it off

It’s no secret that any physical activity or exercise can boost productivity in the short term, but how can you get the same effects on rest days? Take a walk, especially if the sun is out.

Changing your environment can revitalise your brain, especially if you’re working through a difficult problem or need to think creatively [16].

 

Changing your environment can revitalise your brain, especially if you're working through a difficult problem

Changing your environment can revitalise your brain, especially if you’re working through a difficult problem. If you’re not working through a problem, you can always ‘bring’ an audiobook or a podcast along for the walk.

Quick recap

  1. Be realistic about the amount of work you can get done in a day. You’ll reclaim hours that you’re better off investing in sleep or otherwise in your mental and physical health. Although it seems counterintuitive, this could make you more productive and in the long term happier.
  2. Get enough sleep. As explained above, this can absolutely make or break your work performance. If you think you are getting enough sleep on 5 hours, consider that it’s been shown that a) we tend to think we’ve gotten enough sleep even when objectively we are suffering, and b) when we’re sleep deprived we might think we’re doing really well when in fact our performance is plummeting. To figure out the amount of sleep you need, keep a sleep diary for a few weeks, also tracking how you feel during the day.
  3. Eat healthy fats. Your brain is 60% fat so consuming enough of good fats is crucial to keep you on top of your game. Foods you should add to your diet to achieve this include: fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines), avocados, coconut and coconut oil, nuts.
  4. Stretch. Less time-consuming than exercise, yet very beneficial. You can go a step further and take up a regular yoga practice which has been shown to reduce stress and increase productivity in the working population.
  5. Add greenery to your desk and office. Research shows plants increase productivity in office workers. One recent study estimated a 15% increase in productivity once plants were introduced into a previously minimalist, clean office space.
  6. Take breaks and unplug throughout the day. Enjoy your lunch break away from the computer or practice mindfulness where you can. This doesn’t mean having to meditate; you can do something as simple as thinking of 3 things you feel grateful for today or taking a few moments to truly notice and observe the space you are in, with all its different items, smells, noises, nooks and crannies. Mindfulness practice has been shown to positively impact mood and our ability to sustain attention as well as reduce fatigue and anxiety.
  7. Go for a walk. Changing your environment can revitalise your brain, especially if you’re working through a difficult problem.

Don’t stop at just productivity – supercharge all areas of your daily life with proven hacks delivered to you via email once a month:


 

References

[1] Bayer and Jüssen (2015). Happiness and the Persistence of Income Shocks. American Economic Journal. DOI: 10.1257/mac.20120163
[2] Lim and Dinges. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Department of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
[3] Porcu et al. (1998). Sleepiness, alertness and performance during a laboratory simulation of an acute shift of the wake-sleep cycle. Ergonomics 41(8), 1192-1202
[4] Pilcher and Huffcut (1996). Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: a meta analysis. Sleep, 19(4), 318-326.
[5] Lim and Dinges. Sleep deprivation and vigilant attention. Department of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
[6] Yoo et al. (2012). The human emotional brain without sleep – a prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology, 17(20), 877-878.
[7] Durmer and Dinges (2005). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology 25(1), 117-129.
[8] Ulven et al. (2015). Replacing dietary saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces total cholesterol and ldl cholesterol in healthy subjects with moderate hypercholesterolaemia – A randomized controlled trial. Atherosclerosis, Volume 241, Issue 1, Page e194.
[9] Henning et al. (1997). Frequent short rest breaks from computer work: effects on productivity and well-being at two field sites. Ergonomics 40(1).
[10] Strijk et al. (2013). Effectiveness of a worksite lifestyle intervention on vitality, work engagement,
productivity, and sick leave: results of a randomized controlled trial. Scand J Work Environ
Health. 2013;39(1):66–75.
[11] Wolever et al. (2012). Effective and viable mind-body stress reduction in the workplace: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17(2), 246-258.
[12] Knight et al. (2015). The relative benefits of green versus lean office space: Three field experiments (in prep).
[13] Sparrow et al. (2011). Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776-778.
[14] Zeidan et al. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, doi:10/1016/j.concog.2010.03.014
[15] Hofmann et al. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review.
[16] Opazzo and Schwartz (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 40(4), 1142-1152

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