How to Work Smarter: 3 Workplace Productivity Myths Debunked

Graphics via Freepik.

Whether you work in an office or from home, staying focused can range from mildly difficult to downright impossible. From noisy co-workers (even if they’re your children — or cats) to the siren call of social media, there’s always something to distract.

If those days where you feel like you haven’t accomplished much come around more often than you’d like to admit, you’re not alone. Consider these statistics:

  • Worldwide, workers average only three productive days per week. Put another way, close to 40% of the workweek is unproductive. (Source: Microsoft)
  • 80% of workers admit to wasting time at work, with nearly 1 in 5 wasting three hours or more per day. (Source: GetVoIP)
  • Interruptions (and the time it takes to recover from them) consume nearly 30% of the average worker’s day. (Source: Basex)
Source: GetVoIP

We clearly have a productivity problem. And it may be because we’ve been looking at productivity the wrong way. Ready for a wake-up call? Read on as we debunk three myths about workplace productivity, and keep an eye out in each section for tips for a better, more efficient workday.

Myth #1: Fewer breaks equal more work done

So you’ve got a deadline at work. You probably spend eight hours with your nose to the grindstone (or keyboard, as the case may be), skip your coffee break, and eat lunch at your desk… And your project still seems like it’s moving along at a snail’s pace.

Why is that? Well, it may be that the longer workdays we’ve had in place since the Industrial Revolution, cramming as much activity as we can into an extended period of time, aren’t the most conducive for reaching top productivity and focus.

Case in point: a study published in the journal Cognition looked at how the brain handles focusing on a single task for long periods of time. For the study, one group had to work on a task for about an hour without stopping — this group’s performance declined significantly as time passed. A second group did the same task, but split it up with two short breaks — and saw no decline in performance.

In other words, working nonstop on that deadline isn’t doing you any favors, and you need mental breaks to help your brain power through demanding work. Although it can be hard to form new work habits, if you’re in need of a productivity boost, a change of routine may be just the thing.

Productivity Hack: Try the Pomodoro Technique

Source: Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management system developed by Francesco Cirillo for splitting up your workday (or any task) into a series of work sessions and breaks. “Pomodoro” (Italian-to-English translation: tomato) refers to the tomato-shaped type of kitchen timer that Cirillo used when he first tested the technique as a university student. While you don’t need one of these specifically, you will need a timer of some sort to track the segments.

One session (or “pomodoro”) is 25 minutes of intensive, distraction-free work on a single task. Each pomodoro is followed by a five-minute break. After completing four pomodoros, you take a longer (15–30 minute) break. Repeat this process until you’re done with whatever you’re working on. The idea is that you’ll get more done in those shorter periods of time than by slogging through longer work sessions dealing with interruptions, distractions, and no mental breaks.

Myth #2: Staying at your desk keeps you focused

Although the jury’s out about whether sitting vs. standing at work has any effect on productivity, it’s pretty clear that hours upon hours of not moving isn’t good for you — in terms of both health and your ability to work with greater efficiency. In fact, a new universal guideline from the American Heart Association is simply this: Sit less, move more.

But that can be tough when you have any sort of desk job and/or computer work makes up the majority of your day. So what’s to be done?

Productivity Hack: Get Up for Short Bursts of Movement

This ties in well with the Pomodoro Technique: when you take your five-minute break, simply get up from your desk. Do some stretching, pace around your office, or walk to the bathroom in another department. If you can get outside for a stroll, even better: brilliant minds from Beethoven to Steve Jobs have credited walking outside as a source of creativity, energy, and inspiration.

Source: Canva

A program called Organizations in Motion (helmed by Jack Groppel, a sports scientist and co-founder of the Human Performance Institute) supports this idea. A survey given to participants in the program found that workers who interspersed frequent “micro-bursts” of physical activity (lasting just one to two minutes) throughout their workday experienced better productivity, with roughly 40% to 60% of participants (at two companies where the program was implemented) reporting increased engagement and focus.

Groppel explains the connection: “The data suggest the possibility that increased activity, even at a low level, leads to increased cognitive activity, which, in turn, leads to increased employee engagement.”

So instead of reaching for a cup of coffee when you hit that afternoon slump, get up and move a little: your brain will thank you.

Myth #3: Silence is always the best work environment

This debunked myth comes with a few caveats: It depends on your own working style, as well as the type of task you’re doing (and the type of noise or music). Some people concentrate best in complete silence, while others find the silence itself distracting and need a little audio in the background. That said, let’s sift through some specific studies related to music and ambient noise to pick out some nuggets of productivity wisdom.

Moderate noise can jumpstart creativity.

The level of noise (low, moderate, or high) can have a big influence on whether it’s distracting or focus-boosting. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that moderate ambient noise increases performance on creative tasks, while high noise levels impair creativity.

Ambient noise is the combination of sounds that naturally occur in your work environment. So that co-worker yelling a question across the office? Not helping. The hum of conversation and espresso machines at your favorite coffee house? It may just help you get into a good working groove.

Lyrics can be distracting.

If you like to listen to your favorite jams at work and find yourself singing along, it may be time to develop a taste for classical music. Why? A study on how music influences attention found that music with lyrics is distracting in a work environment — which makes sense. If your brain has to focus on what the music is saying, that reduces your ability focus on the task at hand.

So does that mean that not listening to music is the best for workplace productivity? Not necessarily.

Mood-boosting music may improve workplace performance.

One study that looked at the work output of IT specialists found that music improved mood, and therefore helped listeners come up with better ideas and complete tasks more quickly. A key point here was that the type of music was left to personal choice. Bottom line: you know best what types of music help you concentrate. And this likely varies from day to day and task to task.

Productivity Hack: Try an Ambient Noise App

If the noise level in your work environment is not conducive to concentration, you can reproduce a level of ambient noise that works for you with an app created specifically to help you tune out distractions and focus more deeply. Check out these options:

  • Noisli: This is a free web and mobile app that lets you create your own mix of ambient noise, with options like white noise, rain, wind, waves, a crackling fire, or other nature sounds. Alternatively, turn on a ready-made soundtrack sorted into categories like “Productivity” and “Relax.”
  • Coffitivity: Another free option, Coffitivity, is an app available for both web and mobile that mimics the moderate level of noise present in environments like coffee shops (as the name suggests) and cafes. Choose from mixes like “Morning Murmur,” “Lunchtime Lounge,” and “Brazil Bistro.”
  • Brain.fm: This is a paid service developed around neuroscience about how music affects the brain. You can take it for a test drive with a free trial. The “Focus” category is your best bet for increasing productivity at work, but “Relax” and “Sleep” options are also available.

Need more productivity pointers?

We hope you’re inspired to re-think some of those ingrained ideas about what efficiency and productivity at work looks like. Ready to take it up a level? Tackle your office next.

Download our guide to making your office 
or workspace a productivity powerhouse.

You’ll find tips on arranging your workspace for maximum productivity, get a primer on proper posture, and more — pointers you can apply today and reap the productivity benefits tomorrow.

Check out a couple of our other resources to round out your productivity toolbox:

4 Quick Tips for Staying Productive On the Go

Crossover Case Study: 6 Weeks to Soaring Productivity