If you wake up at dawn, or before, with your to-do list scrolling through your mind and your shoulders already hunched as though bearing a weight, you are a person who values productivity. You are also, however, a person who is stressed and, unfortunately, stress interferes with productivity.
Research shows that stress physically interferes with a person’s ability to focus by blunting the connections of nerve cells within the brain. That long to-do list is causing anxiety and, though it seems that the only way to reduce the stress is to complete all the tasks on the list, the very existence of the list is harming your ability to complete it. You are caught in a double bind.
The first instinct of a productive person in solving this dilemma is to work harder and faster to cross off the tasks on that list. That instinct could prove to be self-defeating.
The same research that identified the dimming of connections in the brain due to stress, found that a period of relaxation restored the strength of the brain’s connections. So instead of doubling down with the goal of relieving your stress, try flipping that concept —relieving your stress to increase your productivity.
Turn off email alert signals
Studies have shown that each email and instant messaging interruption costs a worker approximately 10 minutes to respond and then an average of 10 to 15 additional
minutes to resume the task that was interrupted. If, instead of responding to individual email alerts, you schedule several periods throughout your day to read and respond to email, you will gain back a considerable amount of time each day.
Shorten your daily task list
Nothing is more disheartening than to have uncompleted tasks on your list at the end of the day. Break your list up into manageable segments and put them on your calendar. Besides the satisfaction of finishing what you’ve scheduled for yourself, the visibility of the upcoming segments will help you not to overcommit.
Plan Your Day
End your work day by clearing your desk of clutter and calmly reviewing what is happening the next day. Adjust your next day’s to-do list to incorporate necessary changes. Many people find it helpful to write their list on a 3 x 5 index card, which limits the length of the list, and leave it in the center of a clear desk.
Arrive to work 10 minutes early each morning. Go over the list you left for yourself BEFORE you check your email. Remember you are in control of your day, don’t let your day be dictated by what arrives in email.
Take a Lunch Break
A recent poll by Right Management of 1,023 U.S. workers found that only 21% routinely leave their desks for a lunch break. Not only do they rob themselves of time to mentally re-charge, many simply snack on unhealthy food while at their desk, further sapping their energy.
Though taking an hour, or at minimum, a half hour for lunch, seems counterintuitive when you have uncompleted projects, the break is vital to health and energy, including mental energy. Tony Schwartz, head of New York City-based productivity consulting firm The Energy Project, believes that companies that stress the need for lunch breaks have a tremendous competitive advantage. “Look at Google,” he says. “Everyone goes to lunch there. The food is great, and it’s free. And people are having terrific conversations in the dining room.” Other large companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, also fight mental fatigue and burnout by encouraging mid-day breaks.
Remind yourself that periods of relaxation restore the brain’s connections. Relieve stress in your workday with these strategies and increased productivity will follow.