17 scientifically backed habits that will make you more productive

You can’t always be at your best. But if you start implementing these suggestions into your daily routine, you’ll be giving yourself the best shot and peak productivity.

Full disclosure:
Hell yes, there are affiliate links in this post. If I like it use it, like it and recommend it then I’ll try to put in an affiliate link… So I can keep writing and buy myself a pony (ok not really a pony).


  1. Meditate

Meditation has been scientifically proven to reduce depression, anxiety and stress. And it’s been shown boost immune function, better your ability to maintain good emotional states and increase focus and attention.

How does meditation do all that?

The short version is that it actually changes our brainwave pattern. Take a look at this fMRI image that shows a significant decrease in beta wave activity after meditation.Despite the benefits, only 8% of us Adults meditate according to nih.gov as of 2012.

But if you do meditate, you’ll be in good company. Oprah, Tony Schwartz, Bill Ford, Arianna Huffington, Rupert Murdoch and more, all meditate.

There’s a ton of upside to dedicating even 20 minutes to the practice. But starting can be tough. It’s not like you can just sit there and chant “Ohm”.For beginners like myself I’d suggest guided meditation. And two of the best apps that I’ve tried are

Omovana or Headspace

2. Get Enough, Good Sleep

Whether you’re an athlete or need to perform in the board room, getting enough sleep is critical to perform your best and avoid mistakes. Dr. Samuels of the Center for Sleep and Human Performance conducted a pilot study with the national ski team. The study showed that Sleep length, quality and phase all had a direct effect on cognitive function, energy, and tissue repair.

In short if you want to maximize your performance during the day like these athletes, think quicker on your feet, make better decisions you need quality sleep.

But just how much?

Sleepfoundation.org aggregated over 300 sleep studies to find that the average adult 18–64 needs 7–9 hours of sleep. Not only that but the quality of your sleep directly contributes to how “restorative” your zzz’s are.

Frankly there are a lot of “tips” on how to get better sleep, and a lot of them are crap. I can only tell you what seems to work for me. And you can give it a shot.

  • Cool. According to studies around 65 degrees is optimal, but it varies for each person. I like it a bit colder. Only problem is we no don’t have air-conditioning, so instead we use this fan. Just make sure the fan you get isn’t too noisy.
  • Dark. Our body’s natural response to darkness is to feel sleepy, and its response to light is to wake up. That’s how it was for centuries before electricity. So your computer screen can mess with your sleep by reprogramming your circadian timing. So turn it off at night. And if you are up late working staring at your screen isn’t helping. But we all do it sometimes. Try Flux app. It adjusts your computer’s display based on the time of day.
  • Figuring out when I sleep bestsleepcycle app The app tracks your sleeping patterns and asks you a couple simple questions in the morning. Based on how you feel, and your answers, you’ll be able to see what activities, bedtimes, etc… lead to your most restful sleep and your most restless.
  • Sometimes you just can’t sleep. A Melatonin tab helps send me off into la la land. Your body naturally produces Melatonin that helps create the urge to fall asleep. Taking a pill may help you reset your sleep cycle because of jet lag etc… You can get it over the counter, but it doesn’t require FDA approval, so be careful with what you purchase.

3. Exercise

Experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. And trying to get 20–30 mins in per day.

My morning run is part of my routine 3x per week. Running up that damn hill (mt. Sutro reserve in San Fran) is a killer. The other days I either do a short bodyweight & kettlebell workout, play tennis or ride my bike. For the body weight workouts, I’ve started trying the 7min workout app, modifying the workout as I see fit.

Studies prove that exercise can increase focus, energy and even creativity.

Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey the author of Spark:The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain has discovered that

“physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must be made… The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn.”

4. Focus on ONE THING at a time

It’s simple, multitasking makes you dumber, single-tasking makes you smarter.

Trying to focus on more than one thing at a time reduces your productivity by as much as 40%. And effectively lowers your IQ by as much as 10 points.

It typically takes 23 mins 15 seconds to get back to your original task once you’re interrupted. Worse is that these distractions plauge all of us if we let them. On average if you work a desk job you’re distracted every 10.5 mins and lose 2.1 hours per day to distractions and interruptions.

So how do you just focus on one thing at a time?

Cut out as many distractions as you can. Close unneeded browser windows and don’t visit distracting sites… Lets be honest — I can’t stick to that, so I don’t rely on my willpower.

I use single tasking tabs to limit what I have open and rescue time to block my distractions.

I try to ONLY open my email when I plan on looking at it and responding.Last if you’re in an office sometimes you need a way to signal to people that you’re working and to please leave you alone… Dan from officevibe wears his Pomodoro hat to do just that. INSERT IMG.

5. Practice Gratitude

Feeling and Expressing gratitude can make you happy.

In a study measuring gratitude and happiness researchers found a strong correlation between the two. The more grateful you are, the more of a positive effect it will have on your subjective well-being. So if you’re feeling not great about yourself, try being grateful… it may just improve your mood.

How can you start?

I use the 5 minute journal, every day and every night. Takes longer than five mins at first, but with practice it gets easier and easier. Don’t want to buy the journal? Try writing down 3 Things you’re grateful for every morning.

Try to appreciate the small, astounding things that happen each day — that you’ve started ignoring. (I live in San Fran and try to take a run 3x per week. The view from the top is amazing. For a while I didn’t even think to pause and take a look, I was too concerned with my heart rate monitor, keeping to my workout. I look every time now, just a quick pause to appreciate how lucky I am. The view makes me feel grateful, and I feel grateful for the view.)

6. Work in Blocks & Chunks

This cool hack has been around for a long time — There’s even an example of it in Benjamin Franklin’s journal.

You’ll want to schedule out your day by blocks of time, not by exact task. So that means blocking out 1 hour in the morning for eating breakfast and getting dressed, another 2 hour block for working on whatever project you have at the moment, then 30 mins to check email, etc…

We’re going to combine this idea of block scheduling with the Pomodoro technique.

It’s work for 25 mins then take a break. That doesn’t mean start a new task, instead get up walk around, stretch, etc… Once you’re feeling refreshed you can start a new 25 minute period in whatever time block your on.

There are lots of Pomodoro timers. I use TomatoTimer.

There is research out there that says 90 minute intervals are better. You’ll have to experiment with what works best for you.

My method is a bit of a hybrid, I’ll plan on taking the 25 minute break, but if I’m in the flow, I’ll power through. Once I lose the rhythm I’ll take a break, but I try to work no more than 90 mins at a time without letting myself recharge.

By working this way you’ll keep from getting bored and unfocused, retain more information and be able to better evaluate progress and your goals. And by blocking your time, you won’t have to rely on willpower alone to keep you in check, you’ll automatically get more done by constraining your time.

7. Take breaks

I touched on this just above, but it deserves it’s own section.

Taking breaks is key to peak performance while working. Short periods of deactivation from a goal keep us from getting bored and unfocused, help us process and retain infomration and even help us reevaluate our goals.

What should you do on your break?
Take a walk. Stretch. Nap. Listen to music. Meditate. Get outside.

A little break from your computer screen is a good thing.

8. Schedule tomorrow, tonight.

If you’re using the time blocking method then you have a good start.

The idea here is to make decisions about what you’ll do tomorrow the night before.

We all have only so much willpower and capacity to make decisions before focus, self-control and concentration start degrading. This is the decision fatigue phenomenon.

The more decisions you can put on autopilot, the better you be able to evaluate the choices you do make.By setting out your outfit at the end of the day, packing your lunch or even just deciding where to eat lunch the night before, you’ll be preserving your willpower the following day.

9. Set your top 5 things to get done.

The story goes that a management consultant by the name of Ivy Lee called Charles Schwab and started pitching his firm’s services. Schawb was skeptical. But Lee persisted and promised that he could raise productivity by 50% in just 20 mins. Schwas ended up writing Lee a check for $25,000 two weeks later (Equivalent of about $500,000 Today)

How’d he do it?
Write down your top 5 tasks to accomplish the next day. Rank them in order of importance. Start working on #1.
Keep going down the list. If you don’t finish them all, that’s ok. At the end of the day, do another top 5.

10. Have a morning routine

A morning routine sets the tone for your whole day.

I’ve found this to be even more important now that i work for myself. If I start the day by sitting on my A** and watching tv, then the whole day will be a waste.

Successful people have morning and evening routines.

  • Eat a good breakfast — what qualifies? (see #12 right below for more info)
  • Set an alarm to wake up early
  • Disengage the night before — no phones or computer.
  • Make sure the routine works on weekends too.

Need more Ideas. This Quora post has 80 answers about how the most successful people spend the first hour of their day.

11. Eat breakfast

“Adequate nutrition car raise your productivity levels by 20 percent on average” — WHO

What and when you eat can have a huge impact on how much you get done, how creative you are and how you feel while you work. Though it’s true of every meal and snack, breakfast is especially important because it’s the first bit of nutrition your body gets after (ideally) 7–9 hours without eating.

Your brain and body function by turning food into energy (mainly glucose). While sugary foods like donuts result in an immediate rush of glucose, healthier foods that are lower on the glycemic index (oats, nuts, seeds, etc…), slowly release glucose into your system.

“This gradual release helps minimize blood sugar swings and optimizes brainpower and mental focus”

What qualifies?

  • High-fiber cereal with fresh fruit and low-fat milk or soy or rice milk substitute
  • Low-fat protein shake with fresh/frozen fruit
  • High-fiber toast or bagel with tablespoon of peanut butter
  • Select protein bar and yogurt or a glass of milk

Or try starting with one of these low-glycemic breakfasts.
3 low glycemic breakfasts

Then graze throughout the day to maintain a steady blood sugar level. You’ll be amazed ago how much better you feel and how much more you’ll be able to accomplish.

12. Delegate / outsource

You can’t do everything yourself. Even if you think you can, you shouldn’t, because your work will suffer.

If you work more than 40 hours per week, each hour you work after 40 will be less productive, you’ll feel more fatigued, your stress levels will be higher and you’re at higher risk of obesity.

What should you delegate?
Low-value and repetitive tasks.

HBR has a self-assessment that may help you decide.The gist is, list out your activities that may be candidates for outsourcing/ delegating.

  • how much time do I spend on it?
  • How valuable is it ( can I justify spending time on it)?
  • How essential is it?
  • How much personal value do i get out of it?
  • How easily could it be outsourced?

Hand off the ones that are low value and can be easily outsourced first.

13. Analyze your Energy Levels

Managing your time is only part of the equation for productivity. You also have to be aware of your energy level.

Tony Schwartz of the energy project goes as far as to say that we should manage our energy, not our time.

Even if you don’t go that far… Make sure your aware of your physical , mental and emotional state. Each of these contribute to your happiness and productivity.

For me, it’s not always clear what area is causing the issue. If that’s the case for you too…Try tracking your energy with either Lumin or Juice

14. Say NO

There’s always pressure to say yes, at work and in our personal lives.

The boss asks if you can take on a new project… You want to say yes, even if you know, it means staying up till 10 pm every night to keep up with the workload. Your friend is having a party and invites you… And tell you that you HAVE to come. You feel social pressure to do it.

We only have so much time and energy. If you’re pickier about what you say yes to, you’ll be able to dedicate more of each to the projects and commitments you do take on.

Try operating from a default stance of No. This lets you determine if the job, task, etc… is something you want to do. Of course, you can’t always say no, especially to your boss. Do things that you MUST do, and choose carefully the rest of the things that you CAN do.

Gary Keller of the One Thing suggests that the easiest way to say no is to be direct but politely explaining that you just don’t have the additional time to take on the task.

15. Deal with something only once

The one-touch rule. If you open it, or look at it, deal with it right then and there.

What’s it?

Emails are a biggie. Open an email and respond, resist the urge to come back to it later.Meeting requests. Either decline or schedule. Bills, phone calls, paperwork.The key is that once you look a it you should deal with it right away.

By applying the one touch rule, you prevent all the little things from piling up and weighing on your mind.

Don’t think you have time? Don’t open it in the first place : )

16. The Carrot and the Stick

Rewards and self-imposed punishments are a tricky thing.

Studies have shown rewards can actually backfire and reduce your motivation.

Still, for me a little reward along the way can keep me inspired and more focused. So just be careful if you decide to reward yourself. Giving yourself a reward in advance, with the understanding that it will have to be given back if you fail, can improve performance.

This is exactly what happened in a study of 150 public school teachers. Half were given a $4000 bonus in advance and were allowed to keep it if their students standardized test scores increased by a certain date. These teachers were told that they would have to give back the bonus if scores didn’t improve. The other group was not given the money in advance and were only promised a $4000 dollar reward at the end of the period if they were successful. Not surprisingly the teachers that feared losing the money were more successful.

For me, I know a combination works best.
Carrot todo is a todo app that combines both rewards and punishments.

Think that just a punishment would work better for you?
Try Stickk

17. Be consistent

How do you know if what you’re doing is working or not, if you don’t do it consistently over a period of time? You don’t.

Plus there’s no shortcut to being more productive.

Small wins add up to big wins over time.

This is the aggregation of marginal gains.I know that if I put in the effort, do the right things and try to get just 1% better every day, then what I get done and how much I get done will be amazing.


Originally published at www.weeklydesk.com on October 21, 2015.

Nick Julia is an entrepreneur dedicated to helping others become more productive, creative and happy.

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