BY STEPHANIE REYES
Every organization in the world seems to be concerned with productivity these days—and for good reason: improving productivity is often the only way for a company to remain competitive in today’s global market. Productivity gains can even drive entire economies! (In the USA, for example, they account for as much as 80% of GDP growth in recent years. 1) In spite of such wide-ranging interest in the topic, there are many misconceptions about workplace productivity that prevent individuals and organizations from being as productive as possible. Let’s take a closer look at five common productivity myths and the reality behind them.
MYTH 1: WORKING MORE INCREASES PRODUCTIVITY
REALITY: All humans function on a pretty arbitrary energy cycle dictated by circadian rhythm, our 24-hour inner body clock. The specific cycles individuals experience depend on a variety of inputs, including their genes, their sleeping habits, and the number of daylight hours. In addition to circadian rhythm, humans are also subject to the influence of a recurring shorter energy cycle called the ultradian rhythm, which moves us from alertness to drowsiness every 90 to 120 minutes. 2 To maximize productivity, be aware of and work with these natural rhythms by allocating work appropriately to high-energy periods and building in recharging breaks when energy slumps. Working for long, uninterrupted shifts is one of the least productive strategies.
MYTH 2: STAYING FOCUSED AT ALL COSTS INCREASES PRODUCTIVITY
REALITY: The human brain works better when it can wander from time to time, especially when it comes to creativity. 3 Because focusing on a problem for too long can cause the brain to fixate and get stuck in a mental rut that prevents finding a way forward, inspiration often strikes when people aren’t thinking about work (which is why people get so many great ideas in the shower!). Relaxing your focus and taking a mental hiatus can be exactly the distraction needed to shake off an unproductive line of thought and achieve breakthroughs.
MYTH 3: SOCIAL MEDIA KILLS PRODUCTIVITY
REALITY: It’s clear that for some people social media is a productivity killer. But for every employee who spends too much time on Facebook and Instagram, there are plenty of other employees who are working smarter and more productively with today’s social tools. In fact, in one recent survey 46% of workers say that “using social tools has increased their productivity” and 37% “believe that they could do their job better if their management were more supportive of social tools.” 4 Keep in mind, too, that a quick check of social media accounts can often provide the brief mental break and relaxation needed to recharge the brain, thus improving overall performance. 5
MYTH 4: NOISE IS ALWAYS BAD (OR GOOD) FOR PRODUCTIVITY
REALITY: Not all noise is created equal, and the effect of noise on productivity varies from person to person. Although research indicates that quiet environments are usually best for activities that require concentration, there are some interesting exceptions. For example, people who have difficulty concentrating experience better results in the presence of continuing ambient noise, and many people perform better (more creatively) in the presence of moderate ambient noise (70db) than when surrounded by low ambient noise (50db). 6 Researchers have also found that extroverts perform better in noisy environments than introverts do. 7 If it’s not possible to provide a quiet workplace, it pays to understand how much and what kind of noise is likely to erode (or boost) productivity and for whom.
MYTH 5: PEOPLE WORK BEST UNDER PRESSURE
REALITY: Some people thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with racing to meet an important deadline. Others don’t like it but out of necessity have developed the ability to work well under pressure. Managers often use the power of urgency and an impending deadline to increase productivity, but working under constant time pressure can actually have the opposite result:
First, mental workload may have a positive effect on productivity in the short term, but a negative effect in the long term. Second, mental workload leads to delayed mental fatigue, which has a negative effect on quality and productivity in the long term. Finally, mental fatigue decreases work engagement, thus having a negative effect on the innovativeness of a design group. 8
Whether you approach productivity from the perspective of an individual building a career, an executive building a company, or a policy maker building a country, you’re much more likely to attain success if your strategies rest on a foundation of reality rather than on popular myths and misconceptions.
Stephanie Reyes writes for TribeHR, a NetSuite company, the first truly social human resources management software. Its easy-to-use tools are used by businesses worldwide, allowing companies to focus more on what they do best and less on things that get in the way. For more information, visit www.tribehr.com.
1. Vikram Malhotra and James Manyika. 2011. “Five Misconceptions about Productivity.” McKinsey & Company. www.mckinsey.com/insights/ economic_studies/five_misconceptions_about_productivity.
2. Tony Schwartz. 2011. “The 90-Minute Solution: How Building in Periods of Renewal Can Change Your Work and Your Life.” The Huffington Post. www. huffingtonpost.com/tony-schwartz/work-life-balance-the-90_b_578671. html.
3. Time magazine staff. 2006. “The Hidden Secrets of the Creative Mind.” Time. com. content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1147152-1,00.html.
4. Ipsos Public Affairs. 2013. “Nearly Half of Information Workers Say that Using Social Tools Has Increased their Productivity.” Ipsos-na.com. www. ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=6143.
5. Sarah Winkler. 2009. “Are Social Networks Good for Job Productivity?” HowStuffWorks.com. computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/social-networking/information/social-networks-and-job-productivity.htm.
6. Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema. 2012. “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition.” Journal of Consumer Research, 39 (4), 784–799.
7. Gianna Cassidy and Raymond A.R. MacDonald. 2007. “The Effect of Background Music and Background Noise on the Task Performance of Introverts and Extroverts.” Psychology of Music, 35 (4), 517–537. 8. Ari Putkonen. 2009. “Predicting the Effects of Time Pressure on Design Work.” International Journal of Innovation and Learning, 6 (5), 477–492.