The psychology of mindful productivity

Mindful productivity is a sustainable way to work and think. It’s not a product, it’s not an app, it’s not a system—it’s a flexible roadmap. While mindful productivity is first and foremost a set of principles anyone can apply to work better and think better, many of the habits and routines it prescribes are rooted in psychology research. Here are some of the most important ones.

Stress impacts our ability to focus

Research shows that stress and anxiety can impact our attention in two ways. First, we tend to pay more attention to negative or threatening stimuli, compared to positive or neutral stimuli. This attentional bias may have evolutionary origins—after all, it’s more crucial to your survival to pay attention to a scary lion than to a pretty flower. In laboratory experiments, people were not only attracted to negative stimuli quicker, but were struggling to disengage from these. In our everyday work, it means we may pay too much attention to an annoying email or a slipping deadline than to encouraging results or constructive solutions.

The second way stress and anxiety impact our focus is particularly relevant to people who already suffer from high anxiety levels. After paying attention to a negative stimuli, some people with high anxiety may start avoiding the stimuli. In our daily work, this may mean burying your head in the sand when problems don’t get solved quick enough.

As you can see, the impact of stress on our ability to focus is a delicate balance. While you don’t want stressful events to completely derail your work, you don’t want to completely ignore such challenges either. This may be related to a concept called the Goldilocks Principle of Anxiety, which shows that we need a bit of anxiety, but not too much. (named after Goldilocks who tastes three different bowls of porridge, and discovers she likes porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold)

Mindful productivity is about finding such balance. Any kind of creative or entrepreneurial endeavour will see challenges arise along the way. Accepting these challenges and tackling them while being mindful of our mental health is crucial to be able to sustain our productivity.

Breaks are essential for efficient thinking

Taking mindful breaks improves your creativity and your productivity. A famous study found that judges were more likely to grant parole to prisoners after a break than after they had been working for a while. Not taking breaks leads to decision fatigue, where we make simplistic choices because we lack the mental energy to ponder our options properly.

In mindful productivity, breaks do not take you away from work—they are an integral part of work. Mindful breaks are a way to recharge your batteries, to lower your stress levels, and to give space to your brain to process background information.

Breaks are also a great way to learn better. Scientists found that taking short breaks may help our brains learn new skills, with brain waves suggesting that our brains are consolidating memories during such resting times.

If you want to make your breaks even more effective, make them active breaks. Go for a run, reconnect with nature by walking in a nearby park, or if you only have a few minutes, get up and stretch. If you want more ideas for mindful breaks, download the Teeny Breaks Chrome extension.

We are terrible at multitasking

Multitasking and being busy give us the illusion of productivity. We are not made for multitasking. The word “multitask” was actually invented by IBM in 1965 to describe a computer capability. It was only later that we started using it for humans.

Research suggests that the brain is unable to focus when multitasking. Not only people take longer to complete tasks, but they make errors in the process. While we have the feeling we are doing several things at the same time, in reality our brain is constantly restarting and refocusing.

While it would be nice to be able to always focus on one task at a time, the reality of knowledge work is that it often requires collaboration. And with collaboration comes externalities and interruptions outside of your control. Mindful context switching is more realistic than “one task at a time”—it’s about finding the delicate balance between optimising your own output and not blocking information which would prevent your collaborators from progressing.

Mindful context switching allows you to define your responsiveness, design manageable chunks of work, and schedule dedicated time so you can both do your best work and be a great collaborator to the people you work with.

Another way to avoid multitasking is to adopt asynchronous communication, which makes for calm, thoughtful, flexible work and focuses on the right outcomes rather than the constant chatter of illusory productivity. (this is especially true for remote teams)

Mindful productivity is about embracing these flaws. We do not do well under long-term stress, we struggle with lengthy work without breaks, and we are bad at multitasking. Instead of using rigid frameworks to fix these, mindful productivity advocates for working around them. It results in better and more enjoyable work.

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