We all want to get things done. In today’s world, our accomplishments are practically measured by how many hours we spend at the office and how many items we can squeeze on our to-do list.
Unfortunately, this is what is commonly misunderstood to be “productivity”. And it is headed in a very dangerous direction: burnout. Even if you haven’t reached it yet, it’s a very miserable road getting there. Since you’re here, it’s clear you’re someone who both values happiness and goes after what you want in life. And healthy productivity can help you accomplish both.
In this article, I will share 19 science-backed ways to be more productive — without sacrificing your happiness or running yourself to the ground.
- What do you need to be productive and happy?
- Is productivity linked to happiness?
- Cultivate the right long-term habits
- Prepare your environment
- Set yourself up for success
- Productivity tips in action
- Wrapping up
What do you need to be productive and happy?
We all know productivity means “getting things done”. But there’s much more to it than that.
Let’s say you can spend all day painting your house black and then repainting it back to the original color. Sure, you spent all day doing things. We could say you’d be busy, but not productive, and definitely not happy (unless you just really love moving furniture and painting).
Many problems arise when we assume the definition of productivity stops with business.
But there’s still a big difference between being busy and being productive — at least in terms of our happiness.
Productivity that leads to happiness is made up of three key things:
- Quantity: you get lots of things done.
- Quality: the work you do is high quality.
- Efficiency: it doesn’t take you too much time or effort.
The combination of these three things together ensures that you’re not wasting time, producing bad results, or falling behind.
If you’re reading this article, then you’re not just interested in productivity for the sake of doing more. You want to be productive in order to boost your happiness too.
So we must ask ourselves, how does productivity affect happiness?
Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans gives a compelling explanation. She asked thousands of people if they valued time or money more. She used this hypothetical vignette to help people decide if they agree or prefer the opposite:
Tina values her time more than her money. She is willing to sacrifice money to have more time. For example, Tina would rather work fewer hours and make less money than work more hours and make more money.
She also asked participants about their happiness. The ones who valued time over money were happier by 0.5 points on a 10-point happiness scale.
Though this may not sound like a lot, it’s actually half the effect created by getting married. And that’s one of the biggest bumps to happiness there is.
More research by Whillans shows that people who use their money to free up more time are happier than those who use their time to make more money.
In fact, people who feel “time-poor” experience several negative effects:
- Higher levels of depression.
- Higher anxiety.
- Worse health.
- Less productivity.
It’s clear from this that productivity can lead to a huge increase in happiness.
So without any further ado, let’s dive into 19 actionable ways to be more productive.
Cultivate the right long-term habits
Nothing you do happens in a vacuum. Every new goal, habit, or task that we try to do happens in the context of many long-term fixtures in our lives.
So the first step to increasing productivity in a healthy way is to review your long-term habits and make sure they’re contributing to this goal.
1. Eliminate stress
Stress is bad for pretty much anything we can think of — so it won’t come as a surprise that it affects productivity too.
There are mixed findings on the relationship between stress and being productive — sometimes being under a lot of pressure is actually what pushes you to work faster.
But there’s no doubt that working under stress is terrible for our sense of well-being. And emotional well-being has been identified as the biggest predictor of self-assessed productivity.
As it is “self-assessed”, there is a possibility that people overestimate how productive they are. But in the big picture, this really doesn’t matter.
Why? Well, because our feelings are usually what determines our success. Let’s compare these two options:
- You did 5 things throughout the day. You feel like you were very productive and you enjoyed the experience.
- You did 8 things throughout the day. You rushed around all day and all you can remember is feeling stressed. Even though you finished everything you wanted to, you still don’t have the feeling you were productive.
We could say the person in the second scenario was much more productive, but it doesn't matter if they don't feel that way.
2. Invest in your happiness
Happiness is something we should all pursue for its own sake.
But as an added side benefit, several studies have shown that happier people are more productive and creative.
So how do you become happier? Well, this entire website is made to help you do exactly that. We cover happiness from every possible angle, from work to leisure, removing obstacles or boosting assets. Every article gives you science-backed tips and actionable steps.
No matter what phase of your life you’re in, you’ll be sure to find something you can use to boost your happiness as early as today. If you’re not sure where to start, check out these pages first:
- 41 science-backed ways to cheer up.
- 12 ways to be happier at work.
- 5 ways giving makes you happy.
- Exercise habits that increase your happiness.
3. Don’t take on too many things
At some point in everyone’s productivity journey, an unfortunate truth sets in: no matter how long you make your to-do list, each day still only has 24 hours.
If time doesn’t stretch to accommodate our tasks, then our tasks must be cut down to fit inside the day.
A good suggestion is limiting your to-do list to activities that are directly related to your goals. Of course, this means having to say “no” to certain requests.
Productivity researchers themselves point out this can be difficult, for several reasons:
- We have an inherent desire to help people and feel uncomfortable saying “no”.
- We don’t want to seem selfish.
- We don’t want to jeopardize relationships we care about.
However, the alternative would be not having enough time to finish the work that is really important to you. This leads to stress and frustration, which can easily jeopardize relationships anyways.
So the researchers propose this strategy: never say “yes” or “no” on the spot.
Instead, say something like “Thank you so much for asking me. I’m going to look at my other work and see whether I think I can give this project/task/request enough time to do a good job.”
This will give you time to properly consider if the request aligns with your own interests and resources. You can also assess if you can get something off your plate so that you have enough time for the new project. Even if your answer feels obvious to you, spend a day or two thinking about it.
And of course take a hard look at the tasks you give yourself: are you really able to do them all, or are they just padding your to-do list?
Prepare your environment
Being productive without sacrificing your happiness starts with your environment. Use these three simple tips to prime your workplace for getting more done.
4. Use a standing desk
What kind of chair do you sit in while you work? Some people might like squishy beanbag chairs while others get nestled in an orthopedic chair fully decked out with massage pads and a neck rest.
But research suggests it might be good to ditch the chair altogether and invest in a standing desk.
Using these is good for both health and productivity:
- Promotes circulation.
- Increases oxygen to the brain.
- Boosts mental clarity.
- It burns more calories.
- Increases productivity by 45%.
If you’d like to try this out, start out with just 30 minutes of standing work a few times a day. You can slowly increase it when you start to get more comfortable with it. Just remember that standing while working does not replace getting regular exercise!
Also, be careful to use the correct posture:
- Your head, neck, and spine should be in a straight line.
- Your elbows should form a 90-degree angle where your wrists are flat on the desk.
- Your computer monitor should be at eye level.
- Wear comfortable shoes with no or low heels, or stand on a cushioned mat for more support.
5. Find a spot with natural light
Here’s a completely free and very effective way to increase your productivity. Use natural light.
You might not realize it, but poor lighting has a huge impact on our focus:
- We take more frequent breaks.
- We feel tired more easily.
- We might suffer from depression.
Our circadian rhythm is hardwired to keep us alert and awake during the day and wind down for sleep when it gets dark. That’s why natural light is the most effective in both boosting productivity and decreasing depression.
But if you can’t have natural light, the next best choice is to invest in cooler lighting.
6. Work in a cool environment
If you’d like an easy way to increase your productivity, have a look at your thermostat.
Researchers found that working in an uncomfortably hot environment worsens both health and productivity.
There are various ways to reduce the temperature with varying levels of control and cost:
- Work outside where there is a natural breeze.
- Get a ceiling or desk fan.
- Turn on the air conditioning.
Though the second two will require an investment, the researchers point out that losses in productivity are often much greater than the cost of cooling.
Set yourself up for success
As they say, “proper preparation prevents poor performance” — aside from making your lips go numb, this saying is also completely true.
Before you settle down in your well-lit, air-conditioned workspace, there are a few key strategies to set yourself up for success.
7. Make sure all your basic needs are met
What do you think would happen if I told you to skip a meal, then try to complete some tasks in a room that smelled of freshly baked cookies?
This is exactly what a group of participants had to do in a study. Those who weren’t allowed to eat the cookies gave up twice as quickly on the tasks as participants who could eat some cookies.
The researchers explain that the attention and effort that goes into resisting temptation (or forcing new, less-appealing behavior) leaves less energy, attention, and persistence available to complete other tasks.
So before you hunker down to get things done, make sure you’re not depleting your perseverance on unnecessary limitations. It’s better to take a few extra minutes to eat, rest, or take a shower to meet all your basic needs and then let your mind focus wholly on what you need it to do.
8. Make a detailed schedule and plan
Do you plan out every minute of every day? According to the author of Deep Work Cal Newport, you might like to start.
He argues that scheduling every hour of your day is one of the biggest factors of success. In particular, this detailed approach to scheduling has benefits:
- You have a clear task list and know what to do after finishing a task.
- Having time limits for each task will help you finish them faster and avoid overthinking the little details.
- You’ll get much more work done as you have defined exactly what tasks you need to do.
Even if you’re not so zealous with your planning, there is lots of evidence that planning greatly improves performance. You can start by planning the basics:
- Make a task list.
- Prioritize your tasks.
- Define how and when you’ll do them.
But if you want the best increase in productivity, you should always plan one more thing: anticipate any possible interruptions in your work and plan around them.
Study results show that this helps people stay engaged in their work and perform well despite frequent interruptions — which we’ll get to next.
Planning has another important benefit for productivity that boosts happiness. It helps you assess more objectively if you have too much on your plate. You can set more realistic expectations for yourself and feel less frustrated if you somehow fail to do 46 things during your 2 hours of free time.
9. Minimize distractions and interruptions
If you’re looking for ways to increase your productivity, you may have already heard of this University of California study. It’s one of the most often cited articles on the topic and is usually quoted as saying that workplace distractions take 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from.
Interestingly, the study also says that interrupted work is actually completed faster. However, the authors do point out that the resulting stress and lost time afterward isn’t worth it:
So in the big picture of productivity that makes you happy, it’s best to minimize interruptions as much as possible.
Here are some useful tips:
- Set your status as busy on communication platforms.
- Turn off non-essential notifications.
- Use an app like Serene to block websites that aren’t related to your task.
10. Define metrics to track your productivity
Just like weighing in when trying to lose weight, tracking what you’ve done is an essential habit for productivity.
But the point is not to get the “highest score” in the number of hours worked. Rather, it’s to keep your intention of being productive from getting out of hand and heading towards burnout.
In fact, the Harvard Business Review author who suggested this tip started tracking his productivity with the express purpose of working less. With this approach, he was able to reduce his average weekly hours worked by 20% without decreasing his output.
Tracking the hours you spend on something could be a good idea — but you can also use a different metric depending on your tasks.
11. Find a schedule type that works for you
It’s clear we’re not all productive in the same way. Your roommate might pound out a whole essay between 5 and 8 am, while you could be a groggy mess during that time.
Certain tasks might also be better done in particular ways. For example, research has shown that writing is better done regularly and consistently than “binge-writing” something in one sitting.
Figure out when you’re most naturally productive, and use that to your advantage. There’s no need to force yourself to work against your preferred habits and rhythm.
You might also like to try out different schemes as part of tracking your productivity. You’ll be able to compare if maybe something you haven’t considered yet actually works better — or confirm that your way is already the best way for you.
12. Use rewards as motivation
This tip is a must-try for anyone who wants to be both more productive and happier.
Researchers in a study gathered students who were having trouble going to the gym as often as they wanted to. They divided the students into 3 groups:
- Group One got an iPod loaded with popular audiobooks. They got it as a 10-week loan and were allowed to only listen to it in the gym.
- Group Two got the audiobooks for free, and they could load these to their own iPods. They were encouraged to listen to the tracks in the gym but they could also do it anywhere else.
- Group Three was the control group. They were encouraged to hit the gym more often.
Can you guess which group exercised the most?
It was group one — they showed a 51% increase in gym attendance. It’s useful to keep in mind that the motivation boost wears off over time. But by then, you can have formed a habit that will keep you going.
Here’s how you can apply this technique to your own goals:
- Find something you love doing (e.g. listening to music, scrolling on social media, eating chocolate).
- Tie this habit with a task you need to do — you’ll only be able to get the “reward” when you finish or work on the task.
- Don’t let yourself have the reward before you’ve completed the task.
- Continue doing this long enough until it becomes a habit.
Productivity tips in action
Finally, we come to getting things done. As you start working through your tasks, keep these 7 crucial tips in mind to be productive in a healthy way.
13. Stop multitasking
If productivity means getting more done with less time, that must mean doing three things at the same time would be much more productive than doing just one. Right? Wrong.
When we multitask, we are playing a trick on ourselves. We might appear like we’re getting more things done. But in reality, multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%.
This is because the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. So in fact, we’re not actually multitasking — we’re switch-tasking. We shift quickly from one task to another, constantly interrupting ourselves.
In the process, we’re wasting time. It takes at least 30-60 seconds to refocus on a task after transferring attention from a different one. The more complex the task, the longer it takes to refocus.
You might be thinking, “sure, I get that most people don’t know how to multitask — but I’m a master multitasker”. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Research also shows that heavy multitaskers are actually less competent at it than light multitaskers. So unlike most other things in life, the more you multitask, the worse you become at it.
In other words, you should stop trying to multitask immediately. You’ll immediately notice several benefits:
- You’ll enjoy what you’re doing more with full attention.
- You’ll make significantly more progress.
- You’ll reduce your stress and frustration.
- You’ll discover what things you really don’t have patience for without distractions and cut them out of your list entirely.
14. Batch similar tasks together
How much time does it take you to open your email inbox? Though it’s usually just a few seconds, this can be a significant productivity sap.
The reason for this is that switching between tasks naturally creates friction.
We start and stop, we open and close, and we begin and end.
All of these little changes add up and decimate our concentration.
We can more easily get distracted and even forget why we pulled out that file in the first place.
The solution is simple: group similar tasks together.
Don’t go and answer each email as soon as it comes in. Wait for a few to pile up, then get through them all at once.
This technique is highly recommended by the author of the 4-Hour Workweek. He even takes it so far as to only check emails once a week. But he understands this can be difficult for many of us, and recommends trying to do it only twice a day to start. Either way, he explains that the accumulated time saved makes an enormous difference.
In addition, batching tasks together also increases your satisfaction. If you sit down and answer 12 emails at once, you’ll have a much greater sensation that you’ve actually finished something rather than having to be pulled away from another task 12 separate times throughout your day.
Emails are quite an obvious choice, but there are many other tasks you can batch:
- Prepare all your meals for the next few days at once.
- Group errands in the same area together.
- If something requires waiting time, fit a short and simple task into the routine while you wait.
- Prepare all your social media posts for the month in advance.
- Clean your whole house once per week rather than doing it in bits and pieces gradually.
And did you know you can even batch relaxation? Of course, you should still take short breaks throughout the day, as we’ll look more into below. But it’s also great to have a few longer bouts of rest to help you fully regenerate.
15. Make a plan to complete unfinished tasks
You’ve done everything you could to eliminate interruptions — but alas, real life has other plans. Your children burst into the room, the fire alarm goes off, or your mind simply decides to take a long meandering walk down memory lane.
What happens then?
The Zeigarnik effect says that unfulfilled goals persist in our minds. In other words, our subconscious will continue to nag us about the task until we can complete it.
This can be a helpful reminder — but sometimes we may not be able to get back to what we were doing for hours or even days. In the meantime, our subconscious is busy helping us by cluttering our thoughts and taking attention away from other tasks.
So how do you mute these mental notifications?
Once again, it seems planning is the answer. Studies have shown that making specific plans for unfulfilled goals eliminates the negative effects of interruptions on productivity.
What’s more, the best effects were seen with people who ultimately followed through with their plan — so make sure you’re earnest when you draw it up.
16. Take more breaks
If you’re hyper-focused and stressed about getting something done, taking a break might be the last thing you think of doing. But in fact, science shows it’s one of the best.
People who allow themselves to focus on something else once an hour are more productive than those who try to push forward without a break.
This is because our brains numb out to the constant stimulation of doing just one task. As a result, we are subconsciously unable to continue to think of the task as important. A break lets us come back to it with fresh energy and a renewed sense of purpose.
If you want to double down on your productivity boost, you can use your break to do a bit of physical exercise. A moderate level of cardio can help you boost creativity and productivity for two hours.
17. Check things off a to-do list
If you’re big on productivity, you’re probably already using to-do lists. But you might not yet fully understand their importance.
Making lists of tasks and checking them off is beneficial in multiple ways:
- They help you define exactly what you need to do so you can take action.
- They help you break down big tasks into smaller ones.
- They make progress visible.
But more than that, they have a direct effect on our happiness. Checking things off a to-do list has been shown to release dopamine, a happiness hormone in the brain.
18. Don’t overwork yourself
In general, the more time and effort you invest into a goal, the closer you’ll be to achieving it. But there are limits to this — even when you’re doing the right actions.
A study from Stanford University shows that productivity per hour drops sharply when you work over 50 hours per week. After 55 hours, the loss in productivity is so big that there’s no point to put in even more hours. And people who work 70 hours only get as much done as those who work 55.
You’ll certainly get much further along working on your novel for 10 hours per week rather than 1. But if you overdo it, you’ll get nowhere at all. As Stanford scholar and author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang wrote:
Busyness is not a means to accomplishment, but an obstacle to it.Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
If you follow the productivity tips above, you will hopefully not need exorbitant amounts of work to get anything done. On the contrary, hopefully, you’ll need less time to make more progress than ever before.
19. Focus on one change at a time
This article has given you 19 ways to increase your productivity. They can all give you a massive boost in both productivity and happiness.
But for now, I want you to pick one, and forget about all the rest.
It’s too much to try to decrease your work hours, minimize interruptions, and meticulously plan your day all at once. If you try to start all these habits at the same time, chances are you’ll end up doing none of them. And the frustration created by trying will make you more likely to give up altogether.
At Tracking Happiness, we want you to see real and lasting improvements in your productivity — and ultimately happiness. So here’s our parting tip:
Figure out which one thing is the biggest obstacle to your productivity right now. In other words, what would save you the most time if it was removed?
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We’ve just seen 19 science-backed ways to improve both your productivity and happiness. Some are very simple and easy to implement, like lowering the temperature — others are much more elusive and complex, like reducing stress. A few may even be tedious at first, like making a detailed schedule or defining productivity metrics. But if you stick with them, they are all sure to help you be happier and more productive than ever.
What's your favorite method to be productive throughout the day, without causing burnout or stress? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!