Debunking the Best and Worst Productivity Tips

We put these wise old sayings to the test to find out which are wise and which are just old

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10. Success never sleeps

Know what we’re tired of? High-powered types who brag about how little sleep they get. According to the CDC, more than a third of U.S. adults don’t get enough shut-eye, even though chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity and heart disease (not to mention serious crankiness). It’s also linked to low productivity, setting back some insomniacs by 11 days' worth of work performance a year. Sure, you could be a member of the "sleepless elite," people who naturally need only a few hours. You could also marry Kate Upton. But chances are, you’re a mere mortal like the rest of us. Get six hours or less? Try to bump it closer to seven for the next month and see if your productivity improves, suggests Sarah Stoddard, Glassdoor career trends expert.

9. Be the first one into the office, and the last to leave

Productivity is about results, not hours. Just take it from Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management who wrote a whole book about it: Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours. “The number of hours you work in the office is almost irrelevant,” Pozen says. More important: how much you accomplish that’s relevant to your or your boss’s goals, says Pozen. If you want to leave on time, try blocking off your calendar as busy an hour before you want to leave so you can focus on finishing up your tasks for the day.

8. Time is money

Employers, especially those looking to scale their business, are always on the hunt for new ways to streamline workflow, Stoddard says. But too much emphasis on speed and efficiency can backfire if it leads to a shoddy product. Todd Henry, author of Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need, has noted that successful people distinguish between efficiency and effectiveness: One is about speed; the other is about results. Once a week, set aside the to-do list and focus instead on whatever makes you more effective, like chatting with clients or journaling.

7. Genius is 90 percent perspiration, 10 percent inspiration

Hard work is important. Good ideas are important. But to say that one is more important than the other is misguided. “You need both,” says Pozen. “You need good ideas, and you need to work on them.” Henry points out that fast-working professionals often get hung up on the drudgery of deadlines and daily tasks, rarely setting aside time to just think. For your most important projects, be sure to block out time on your calendar devoted to generating ideas.

6. If you want something done right, do it yourself

If you’re a manager or an executive, then yes some things (recruiting, key client meetings) you must do yourself. But most priorities can be carried out by your team, Pozen says. But it’s not enough just to delegate—you also have to take time to train your people to ensure the job is done right, establishing clear objectives and success metrics, Pozen says. According to Henry, successful creative teams need clear direction from their leader, but they also need to feel challenged. To strike the right balance, pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues, and ask questions, says Henry. A good one: “What do you need from me right now?”

5. Early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise

“People get their inspiration at different times,” says Pozen. Some work best in the morning, while others can be more creative at night. “There is no particular time that’s a priori the right time,” says Pozen. But early risers may have one advantage: more quiet time. Henry likes to use early hours to unplug. Not a morning person? No problem. Just be sure to make some time every day to go off the grid—no email, social media, or phone. It will help you focus.

4. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today

For some people, waiting until the last minute works, Stoddard says. “It’s a major motivator.” But for many others, procrastination is not intentional (or desirable). “Often, people procrastinate when they’re overwhelmed by the task,” Pozen says. Break the project into smaller steps and reward yourself for each one you finish. For really big projects, try a strategy Pozen calls “Start at the end”: Early in the project, write down your tentative conclusions—your hypotheses. That forces you to grapple with the key analytical questions early and can help guide your research. Revise those conclusions periodically as you go.

3. The shorter way to do many things is to do only one at a time

Tackling two projects at once divides your attention so you can’t fully focus on either one, Stoddard says. You’re more easily distracted and may experience “brain farts”—because your working memory can hold only so much at a time. All that slows you down, lowers productivity, and causes stress. However: “Sometimes multitasking is unavoidable,” Stoddard concedes. For example, in meetings, you must listen, think, and plan. Don’t count on your memory: Take notes!

2. Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses

Ever wrestled with a problem only to have the answer come to you later during a stroll or relaxation? Then you know that time away can be helpful. That’s because even when you’re at rest, your brain keeps working, processing information and consolidating memories. It also restores motivation and your ability to focus. Take a 10- to 15-minute break every 90 minutes, suggests Pozen.

1. Perfect is the enemy of good

This axiom may be more true than ever, due to people’s increasingly unrealistic self-expectations. That’s not only bad for mental health but may lead you to waste valuable time and energy. Ask yourself what level of perfection your audience wants, Pozen suggests. Submitting an affidavit to court? Then sure, take care to get it precise. But if you’re submitting a routine report or you’re charged with running a meeting, shoot for “good enough”—that’s all that’s expected of you, and going above and beyond won’t be worth the extra effort. In some cases, like new product development, trying out less than perfect work can yield valuable info, Pozen notes—feedback helps you refine the product.

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