Productivity Hacks Aren’t Created Equal

stressThe new school year is here. If you’re starting it by telling yourself that this is the year you’ll stop wasting so much time—and if you’re following up that promise with a brand-new list of productivity-related resolutions—you’re probably not alone. There’s no dearth of productivity-boosting tricks on the internet, and while you’re reading all those lists, you can tell yourself you’re not really procrastinating (and maybe even believe it).

But how useful are they? Personal preferences do play a part; different methods work for different people. Still, much of the stuff out there is either nonsensical or only helpful in theory. For example: 

Do [insert unappealing task, like waking up at five in the morning] to boost your willpower. Fun fact: Willpower is a finite resource.  

Throw money at the problem. This strategy might work if you’re a CEO or a partner at a law firm, but since you’re probably taking out loans, signing up for a bunch of yoga classes and paying a company to do your laundry probably isn’t going to make your life better in the long run.

The best way to cut through the noise is to search for productivity hacks that a) are backed by research and b) make sense for a wide variety of people. I’ve listed three examples below. May one of them become more than just another bullet point on your list of resolutions. 

studyingWORKING IN 90-MINUTE CYCLES

It turns out marathon study sessions don’t mesh with our biology. Nathaniel Kleitman, the late father of modern sleep research, proposed the existence of the basic rest-activity cycle. A lot of people are familiar with the idea that humans cycle through five different stages of sleep (e.g. REM sleep), each lasting 90 minutes. Fewer people know that we function the same way while we’re awake, going from increased to decreased alertness roughly every 90 minutes. 

Generally, we start feeling tired or fidgety after 90 minutes of focused work. Instead of listening to our bodies, we override those feelings with caffeine, sugary snacks, and even hormones associated with the the fight-or-flight response. It’s not healthy. Adrenaline and cortisol might help you keep going in the short term, but relying too heavily on them puts you at risk for anxiety, depression, heart disease, memory and concentration difficulties, and more.

There’s evidence that taking a true break every 90 minutes could improve the quality of your study sessions: A 1993 study published in Psychological Review studied a group of violinists, and it found that those at the top of the group practiced in 90-minute intervals. 

Every 90 minutes, try to do something relaxing that doesn’t involve your computer. See if the method improves your productivity. If not, adjust your timing accordingly; again, 90 minutes is a rough number. Just make sure you’re giving yourself regular breaks.