Accomplish More: How to Replace Busyness with Productivity | Chris Kresser

Accomplish More: How to Replace Busyness with Productivity

by Chris Kresser

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Are you feeling burned out? Not enough time in the day to get work done? Do you have trouble remembering the last time you unplugged and truly relaxed? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re not alone.

Multitasking—like this woman is doing at her desk—won’t help you accomplish more.
If you want to accomplish more, focus on one task at a time—stop multitasking.

I have spent much of my professional life fine-tuning my own productivity so that I can accomplish more without working longer hours and destroying my health. Read on to learn how “busyness” doesn’t equal productivity, how to cut out distractions, and how to accomplish more by actually doing less. Being mindful, learning to prioritize, and scheduling downtime and play are all important for a productive, happy life.

You can accomplish more, and you don’t need to work longer hours to do it. Here are seven ways to increase your productivity without sacrificing your health or happiness. #optimalhealth #healthylifestyle #chriskresser

We All Want to Accomplish More

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • You get to the end of a day and you feel like it was all a blur
  • You often feel distracted and have trouble focusing
  • You are constantly checking your email, text messages, or social media accounts—even when spending time with loved ones, on vacation, or out in nature
  • You never feel like you’re getting enough done, and yet there’s so much more you have to do
  • When you are trying to take some downtime, you keep having the nagging feeling you should be doing something more “productive”

If you can relate, there’s a good chance you’re in danger of having what author Max Strom called a “near-life experience” in his book There Is No App for Happiness. We’re busier than ever, and arguably unhappier as a result.

The problem is that society has equated “busyness” with productivity. Busyness has become a badge of honor or status symbol. (1) Being constantly busy is a way of saying, “I am important, and my human capital is sought after.”

Instead of a badge of honor, I believe that busyness is a cultural disease. It’s a sign of just how disconnected we’ve become from what’s important in life. Our days are packed with one thing after another and full of distractions. The internet was supposed to revolutionize how we worked, helping us to be more productive, but everyone would agree that it’s a double-edged sword. The average person checks her smartphone 221 times per day. (2) We’re constantly switching between social media, texts, emails, and actual work—and less gets done as a result. “Busyness” starts to wear us down and might result in:

  • Lack of sleep or insomnia
  • Feeling fidgety
  • Food cravings
  • Feeling “worn out”
  • Being tense
  • Brain fogginess

Too much stress and distraction wreak havoc on our health. Chronic stress, and the unhealthy habits that go along with it like low physical activity, poor eating habits, and lack of sleep, are related to a myriad of health problems, including:

The good news is that being genuinely productive doesn’t have to mean longer hours, more stress, and health issues. In fact, you can learn how to replace busyness with productivity.

Seven Life Hacks to Increase Your Productivity

I’m a “productivity hacker.” I have spent significant time actively working on increasing productivity while cutting out things that decrease it, and I’m going to share what I’ve learned with you. Here are seven practical tips that have helped me throughout my professional and personal life:

  1. Be mindful
  2. Stop multitasking
  3. Batch your tasks
  4. Do less (but accomplish more)
  5. Move your body
  6. Make time for rest and rejuvenation
  7. Play and have fun

1. Be Mindful

Did you notice if there were clouds in the sky this morning, or what they looked like? Did you even look up or were you staring at the phone attached to your hand? Later, when you waited for your lunch date, did you open your phone to check email or scroll through Facebook?

In everyday moments that once presented the opportunity for reflection and quiet presence, many of us are more likely to be thinking about what we have to tackle next on our to-do lists, what we already did or didn’t do (with regret), or what others are doing. We compound this when we pick up our phones and browse the internet, as if that will help us find the answers. We instantly respond to texts that can wait. We click on headlines and read news stories that aren’t urgent. All these little distractions are actually rewiring our brains.

A three-second distraction—enough time to pick up a phone to view a notification—can disrupt our brains from a “sequential task” (following directions, for instance) so effectively that we’re likely to make twice as many errors when we return to the task. (11)

In our quest to constantly be “on” and be productive, we have forgotten how to be mindful and present. Mindfulness, originally derived from Buddhist philosophy, means being aware of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis. It means paying attention to what is rather than getting lost in thoughts about the future or the past.

Mindfulness meditation can be used by anybody regardless of religious beliefs as a way of cultivating awareness and attention. By setting aside even 10 minutes per day to focus on your breathing, you’re exercising your brain’s ability to let go of distracting thoughts and stay on task. With practice, you can learn to allow feelings to come and go, like watching cars pass by.

Here Are the Benefits of Mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation improves both interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. It’s been shown to:

  • Increase positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress (12)
  • Help tune out distractions and improve attention and ability to focus (13, 14, 15)
  • Enhance relationships and make us feel more connected and relaxed (16)
  • Boost our compassion for ourselves and others (17)
  • Improve self-esteem and social anxiety (18)

The brain is able to reorganize in response to stimuli, an ability called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the idea that we have the power to change the function and structure of our brains through our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. In a way, neuroplasticity lets us rewire our brains—to focus on positive occurrences instead of negative, for example, or to be more aware and mindful. By measuring neuroplasticity, researchers can directly observe and quantify the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain. (192021)

Through changing the brain, mindfulness changes the entire body. The vagus nerve, involved in regulating functions such as heart rate and digestion, sends messages between the brain and our internal organs. (22) Vagal tone, a measure of its functional fitness, correlates to healthy bodily function and increased positive feelings. (2324) Low vagal tone is related to inflammation, poor cardiac function, and gastrointestinal dysfunction. (2526) (With regard to the gut, for example, communication between the brain and gut can be influenced by neurotransmitters created by gut bacteria.) (27Mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, and emotional tools to foster self-love and kindness can all improve vagal tone. (282930)

Mindfulness meditation has been linked to major health benefits, including:

  • Pain management (313233)
  • Reduction in anxiety and depression (3435)
  • Blood sugar control (36)
  • Slower cellular aging (37)
  • Healthy pregnancy (38)
  • Improved sleep (3940)
  • Overall improved immunity (41)

You Can Start Meditating Today—Just Start Small

If you have never meditated before, it can feel excruciating at first. Start small. You don’t need to spend hours each day meditating. Instead of committing to something unrealistic on day one, try meditating for just five minutes. Studies show that a mere 10 minutes a day yields a host of benefits. (42)

Here are some tips from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction:

  • Pay close attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions
  • Notice what you’re sensing in a given moment: the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness
  • Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns
  • Tune into your body’s physical sensations, from water hitting your skin in the shower to the way your body rests in an office chair

For additional resources, consider enrolling in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Two meditation books I recommend are Meditation for Beginners and Buddha in Blue Jeans. A group at UCLA creates a new, free, 30-minute guided meditation every week. The Headspace app has been helpful for many people (as long as the extra app doesn’t contribute to more distraction!).

2. Stop Multitasking

The term “multitasking” was first used to describe parallel processing abilities of computers. Today, of course, multitasking refers to a person’s ability to do multiple activities simultaneously, like talking on the phone with a client while answering emails. In some workplaces, multitasking is simply part of the job.

Multitasking sounds efficient and useful, but unfortunately, it is a myth.The simple fact is that the human brain cannot focus on several tasks at the same time.

According to the late Stanford neuroscientist Clifford Nass, multitasking should be renamed “multi-switching,” and no matter what you call it, it’s actually a buzzkill for productivity.

You Aren’t as Good at Multitasking as You Think

People who think they are good at multitasking may simply be proficient at rapidly shifting attention between two tasks they have already mastered. That’s not really multitasking—it’s just switching between a couple of things you’re already good at. (Think of an experienced chef who can prep and cook lots of dishes without missing a beat.) And most of us can’t do it well. Furthermore, research suggests that those who consider themselves to be effective “multitaskers” actually aren’t good at multitasking at all, and their productivity suffers.

Students who engaged in high levels of multitasking reported significant issues with academic work. (43) In a study of college students, those who focused on a single task at a time outperformed multitaskers in a series of experiments. And when the experiment involved multitasking, the participants who were not considered multitaskers still came out ahead. (44)

Media multitaskers, those who, for example, scroll through social media while watching TV, especially have reduced attention control, greater susceptibility to distractions, and a general tendency toward diffuse or shallow attention. (45, 46, 47) A study at Stanford found that 25 percent of students use four or more media devices at once. (48) They’re writing a paper, they’re on Instagram, they’re in a text conversation, and they have music playing. But this is becoming increasingly common in the workforce as well; workers will be answering the phone while replying to an email and texting friends.

The loss of productivity that comes from switching tasks frequently is called the “switch cost.” (49) The switch costs can manifest in various ways:

  • Increased switching leads to poorer performance on the primary assigned task
  • During rapid switching among tasks, learning new information is difficult, if not impossible
  • Attempting to multitask increases the chance of mistakes (in the case of cell phone usage during driving, this can be a potentially fatal mistake!)

Almost without question, you will be more productive if you focus on one task at a time instead of trying to multitask. Consider a focus-intensive task such as writing. It takes a while to settle into the zone of concentration. If you come out of it to check email, you might not be able to get back into the same level of concentration quickly. One study by researchers at UC Irvine monitored work interruptions among office workers. They found that workers took an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering emails and return to their original task. (50)

If, while you’re fixed in the zone, another to-do item comes into your head, don’t shift tasks. Don’t open a tasks app in your phone to type a reminder. Instead, jot down a few words on a physical notepad and deal with it later so that you can stay focused on the task at hand.

If you enjoy working with music in the background, check out [email protected]. The site provides music that is designed to modulate at intervals that match up with how frequently your brain begins to search a new stimulus. They call it “scientifically optimized music to help you focus.”

3. Batch Your Tasks

Frequently checking email and browsing online is guaranteed to reduce your overall productivity. And, unfortunately, you’re checking email and social media more than you think. One study from 2015 found that, on average, people check their smartphones twice as often as they thought they did. (51) These statistics might surprise you:

  • Office workers on average check email at least 12 times during the work day. (52)
  • The average person picks up his phone and interacts with it 221 times per day. (53)
  • 75 percent of employees respond to an email within an hour of receiving it. (54)

If you’re interested in the plain, hard truth of how you’re spending (read: wasting) your time, download the web-based application RescueTime. It tracks the time you spend on different tasks, like social media, email, Microsoft Office, and any other programs or sites.

The solution? Batch email, errands, phone calls, and other tasks, using the following tips.

Schedule Time to Check Your Email

Instead of checking email constantly throughout the day, schedule two to four focused sessions per day to devote to email. Schedule these times into your calendar, just as you would a meeting, and don’t even have the email application open on the computer otherwise. Checking email (and texts) has become addictive for most of us, and it can take some time to break the habit of constantly wanting to click on it—but once you take the plunge and schedule your email activity, you’ll free up larger chunks of time to work on tasks that require intense focus.

Group Your Tasks Together

Group similar tasks together within the day (or week if more applicable). Batching works for more than just email. For example, instead of having meetings scheduled for 9:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:00 p.m., schedule all of them within a single block of time, like between 3:00 and 4:30 p.m., for example. This frees up blocks of time for uninterrupted work. Other examples of this would include doing all in-town errands on the same day or having a dedicated day to meal prep for several days’ worth of meals.

Schedule Your Batches Strategically

I know that I am more productive and focused in the morning, and so that’s when I will focus on writing or content development. I leave errands, meetings, emails, and so forth for later in the day. Evaluate what works best for you.

Turn Off Your Notifications

As I mentioned above, multitasking doesn’t really work. All the little notification boxes that pop up when someone likes your status or comments on your post shift your focus and break your concentration. Most apps have notifications turned on by default, but you can manually turn them off. If you really want a reprieve from the constant distraction, try following the “notification zero” movement and disable push notifications entirely.

Of course, you might need to keep certain notifications enabled, but you know what they are, and you can turn off the rest. At the very least, putting your phone face down is helpful because you won’t be tempted by a screen that lights up as soon as “news” comes in.

Leave Your Phone in Another Room

Research indicates that the mere presence of a phone can be distracting! (55) If you keep the ringer on, you won’t miss that important phone call you’ve been waiting for, but the phone will be safely out of reach.

4. Do Less (But Accomplish More)

It might be hard to hear, but no, you can’t do it all. We get so frazzled trying to keep up with dozens of people, projects, and activities, that we lose sight of what we’re working towards.

In order to achieve your goals, you need to get rid of the “busyness” and instead learn to plan and prioritize.

Learn How to Say No

This tip is meant especially for the people-pleasers. As I said, you can’t do it all—you shouldn’t try, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to. Focus on what’s important and let the rest go.

Avoid Arguing about Things That Don’t Matter

From Facebook tiffs to in-person drama, these arguments will drain your energy and often sour your mood, both of which will negatively impact your productivity.

Stay Away from Toxic People

Being courteous and kind to everyone is a good rule of thumb, but not everyone has to be your best friend. Steer clear of negative people or those who tend to stress you out.

Identify and Plan Out Your Goals

As a monthly practice, identify your five most important projects or goals. (Put a note in your calendar to do this—you could choose the first Monday of the month so that it’s a logical fit with your schedule.) Don’t skip this step—you have to know your target to aim correctly. Each week, identify tasks to move you closer to those goals. (Again, Monday makes sense, but some advance planners may like doing this on a Friday, in preparation for the week to come.) At the start of each day, list the three most important tasks to follow.

Make a Schedule Instead of a To-Do List

By setting aside specific times for tasks, schedules prevent things from staying on your to-do list indefinitely. Pencil it in!

5. Move Your Body

Here is where I will start to lose people. That’s because the remaining three productivity hacks have less to do with work itself than with supporting productivity while you are not working. But they are just as important.

Physical activity improves cognitive performance. (56, 57) Busy professionals will say they don’t have time for exercise, but without it, productivity will suffer. Even at work, you can incorporate more movement into your day with these three strategies.

Sit Less and Move More

One meta-analysis involving 18 studies and over 800,000 subjects found that those who sat the most had a greater than 100 percent higher risk of diabetes, a nearly 150 percent higher risk of heart disease, a 90 percent higher risk of death from heart disease and close to a 50 percent higher risk of death from all causes when compared to those that sat the least. (58) A recent study found that as sedentary time increased, so did early death from any cause. (59) What might be surprising is that in this study, exercise time did not mitigate any of the detrimental effects of sedentary behavior.

Invest in a Standing Desk or Treadmill Desk

My treadmill desk has been life-changing. I walk at a very slow pace (less than one mile per hour) while doing computer work, or I can choose to stand. Some companies may even purchase a standing desk for you as part of a company health initiative.

Take Frequent Breaks

I use the program Time Out to determine break intervals. Every 10 minutes, the screen pauses for a quick 15-second break, during which I look away from the computer, stretch, or close my eyes. Every 45 minutes, I program Time Out to take a longer three- to four-minute break. I will walk outside for a bit, do a few pull-ups, or make an effort to look at 3D objects instead of a 2D screen.

Outside of work, an ideal exercise routine should incorporate weight lifting, interval training, vigorous activity, and moderate activity. But whatever exercise you enjoy doing and actually will do is better than none. Also, increase physical activity outside of distinct periods of exercise—walk or bike to work, take the stairs instead of the elevator, spend time running around with the kids.

6. Make Time for Rest and Rejuvenation

Americans in particular are working harder than ever. Men and women in the United States are working 12 to 13 hours more per week than they were in 1968. In a year, Americans, on average, work: (60)

  • 137 more hours than Japanese workers,
  • 260 more than British workers, and
  • 499 more than French workers!

So many feel like they can’t afford to take breaks, or feel guilty about doing so. But downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and may help you accomplish more.

The most creative and productive people in sports, business, and the arts make a point to rest and rejuvenate. Many artists and athletes rarely practice more than four hours per day and regularly schedule breaks and naps. (61) An interesting study on one consulting group experimented with less work. The bosses insisted employees take regular time off, workers took one day off per week, and employees were told to unplug at night instead of checking email. (62) At the end of the study, employees were more productive and more satisfied with their jobs because they were able to work better when they were revived and rested.

Structured downtime helps us feel refreshed and rejuvenated, but this time can look different for different people. Whether it’s walking, meditation, cloud-watching, or something else, schedule regular downtime into your day.

If You Want to Feel Rejuvenated, Go off the Grid

We all could benefit from being less connected. I recommend “going off the grid” regularly. One day each week, don’t check email or social media or use a computer or phone except for very basic tasks like finding directions. For the past few years, I have taken at least a week of vacation where I go completely off the grid.

Is it scary to imagine a week without a smartphone or the internet? I’ll admit—at first it was challenging, but now the only thing that’s difficult about it is going back on the grid.

Make Sure You’re Getting High-Quality Sleep

Poor sleep has negative effects on cognitive function, including decreased short-term memory, reduced learning capacity, a decline in mental stamina, and an inability to sustain attention. (63) Most experts on sleep agree that humans require seven to nine hours of sleep in the vast majority of cases, but unfortunately, many Americans never clock that much shut-eye. In fact, nearly 30 percent of American adults are sleeping fewer than six hours per night. (64)

Here are some beginning tips to help with sleep:

  • Control artificial light exposure, especially at night. Do not use screens two hours before bed, and if you absolutely must use them, wear orange glasses that block melatonin-suppressing wavelengths of light. Apps like f.lux can help you control the amount and color of the light coming from your screens.
  • Get exercise during the day.
  • Wake up and go to sleep at the same times every day. Even on weekends.
  • Take a nap. Although it may vary, 10 to 20 minutes seems like the sweet spot for a beneficial nap.
  • Address insomnia. Follow the tips in this article for help improving your sleep.

7. Play and Have Fun

Play isn’t just a frivolous luxury; it helps keep our minds flexible. Play has been part of our evolutionary heritage. In adults, playfulness is associated with creativity, productivity, flexibility, optimism, empathy, social altruism, and stress tolerance.

What counts as play? According to Dr. Stuart Brown’s definition from his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, play is:

  • Purposeless, done for its own sake
  • Voluntary
  • Outside of time
  • Improvisational or spontaneous
  • Mildly addictive

Watching television and browsing the internet are distractions, not play. Cultivate time for something you enjoy doing that fits the criteria above, like photography, knitting, playing basketball, music, surfing, making art, dancing, and more. Make a list of playful activities, and when you’re in a rut, consult the list and do one of them.

The pleasure of play releases endorphins that help counteract stress hormones, improve mood, and improve immune function, among many other benefits.
  1. Great article, but doesn’t the time out program you mention that breaks up your workflow every 10 minutes contradict what you were saying about multi switching (aka multitasking)?

    • Great question, Jason. The 15-second breaks every 15 minutes are designed to reduce eye strain. I just look away from the screen and out the window into the distance. I’ve found that a break this short doesn’t interrupt my flow when working on a focused project; in fact, it has the opposite effect.