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Time crunched

Four tips to transform your productivity

You sit at your desk for eight hours a day, yet your to-do list seems to swell, not shrink. How can you be more effective with your time? Here’s what the latest science says.

1. Move

Research has shown a “direct biological connection between movement and cognitive function,” says Harvard psychiatry professor and author of Spark, John Ratey. Exercise increases circulation, and improved blood flow to the brain means “improvements in executive control, memory, and critical thinking,” he says.

What kind of exercise should you do? An article published in Advances in Physiology Education points to “a multicomponent exercise program that builds aerobic fitness, muscular strength, balance, and flexibility.” In fact, any physical activity positively impacts the brain, whether it’s walking to the water cooler, or participating in high-intensity interval training. The deleterious consequences — including reduced circulation — that come with prolonged periods of inactivity have prompted sitting to be labelled “the new smoking,” say researchers at the University of Manitoba.

2. Fuel

“One of nutrition’s most important contributions to mental health is the maintenance of the structure and function of the neurons and brain centres,” says a report from the Dieticians of Canada. Eating balanced, regular meals and snacks is particularly important to brain function.

One of nutrition’s most important contributions to mental health is the maintenance of the structure and function of the neurons and brain centres. Eating balanced, regular meals and snacks is particularly important to brain function
—Dieticians of Canada

“Executive cognitive function, which is necessary to carry out many everyday activities, is impaired during hypoglycemia [low blood sugar] in adults with and without type 1 diabetes,” says an article published in the journal Diabetes Care. “Executive function incorporates a number of complex, interdependent cognitive processes that allow an individual to plan, initiate, sequence, monitor, and inhibit complex behaviour, allowing one to organize thoughts, prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently, and make decisions.”

Drinking enough water is important, too. Even mild dehydration, says an article published in the Harvard Gazette, “can cause headaches, irritability, poorer physical performance, and reduced cognitive functioning.”

3. Meditate

“Think of attention as a mental muscle that we can strengthen by a workout,” says psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Focus. “The mental analogy of lifting a free weight over and over is noticing when our mind wanders and bringing it back to target. That happens to be the essence of one-pointed focus in meditation, which, seen through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, typically involves attention training.”

The key is committing to the practice of this attention training tool, and not getting discouraged if your mind wanders off — because it will. The more you meditate, the better you’ll become at directing one-pointed focus at your work.

4. Focus

“Multi-tasking makes us demonstrably less efficient,” says McGill University neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin. It increases the production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, says Levitin, “which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.” ◊


Multi-tasking myth

“Multi-tasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus, and for constantly searching for external stimulation,” says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. He suggests maintaining concentration and staying on task by “creating systems,” as follows:

Set time aside: Designate time to work on priorities without distraction (i.e. phone and email turned off).

Make notes: “The best time-management technique is to ensure you have captured every single thing that has your attention — or should have your attention — by writing it down.”

Practise the five-minute rule: “If there is something you can get done in five minutes or less, do it now.” ♦