If there were more than 24 hours in a day, the question of how to be more productive might never come up. More time in the day equals more time to get everything done, after all. But with the clock insisting on giving us just 24 little 60-minute increments before the day flips over, we’re all facing the struggle to fit working out, seeing our BFFs, and whipping up a batch of cookies for the kids’ bake sale into a day that’s already jam-packed with everyday minutiae. The solution might not be what you expect. Could taking more time for yourself out of an already tight schedule be the secret to increasing your productivity? A growing number of experts are screaming for us to take more time for self-care, and it turns out there’s a surprising boost in productivity that comes with taking that much-needed time out.
The Self-Care Solution
Self-care sounds simple enough. The directions are right there in the term: You need to care for yourself. But knowing what self-care is doesn’t mean we’re actually doing it. Aaron Boster, MD, system medical chief of neuroimmunology at OhioHealth Neuroscience Center, puts the blame on society as a whole. “Within our culture, it’s completely acceptable to go to work, to work late hours,” he says. “What’s not acceptable or embraced is taking time for yourself. Words are used like ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated.’ We’ve completely devalued taking care of yourself.” And yet, Boster points out, everything from taking time to eat healthy meals (instead of scarfing down a bag of M&M’s at your desk) to drinking adequate amounts of water to getting a full night’s rest can fall under the umbrella of self-care. They’re all things that common sense would dictate we need to do, and they’re all things that have an impact on our productivity levels. A whopping 1 million American workers call in sick to work every day because of stress-related illnesses (from depression to heart issues), and that stress costs businesses an estimated $200 to $300 billion a year in lost productivity. Lack of sleep alone is estimated to cost companies more than $63 billion annually in productivity reduction. Simply put: When we skimp on self-care, our productivity takes a nosedive. “We have to take the time to fuel our bodies,” Boster says. “If you don’t fuel the machine, it doesn’t work too hot!” Caring for your body is essential maintenance in the same way that getting regular oil changes and new tires are essential maintenance for your car. One prevents the engine from blowing up, the other prevents us from getting sick and losing the precious productivity time. But if we’re not taking time for self-care because we’re too stressed to get everything done as it is, how are we supposed to put an end to this vicious cycle? Here’s how to be more productive at work and home and take care of ourselves at the same time.
At first glance, improving your organization may sound like it’s more about your bosses (or even your house) than it is about yourself. After all, good organization skills and time management are an obvious means to boost productivity. But what we often forget is how much a messy desk or messy house can affect our own stress levels. As much as 84 percent of Americans admit that they worry that their house isn’t clean enough, and 55 percent say it causes actual stress. Clutter has been solidly linked to a spike in the stress hormone cortisol, and it can challenge our productivity. As Princeton neuroscientists found when they looked at clutter, the more stuff you have around you, the more each item tries to pull at your attention. A whole lot of stuff everywhere won’t just cost you time and productivity; it can completely overwhelm you. Taking time to get things neat and tidy might be time away from “getting things done,” but in the long run, it will help you improve not only your workflow but your mental health too.
If you’ve been to the doctor recently, they probably gave you chapter and verse on getting enough exercise, right? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults get at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week. If you’re not meeting that minimum, you’re hardly alone. Just a third of American adults get up and move enough to hit the recommended physical activity benchmarks every week. Exercise is often the first thing that we cut from our day, because it doesn’t seem quite as necessary as everything else. Your boss isn’t paying you to exercise. Your kids can’t eat your exercise. But working out doesn’t just help the body in terms of making the muscles stronger, preventing obesity, and boosting the strength of your heart. It turns out scientists have found a direct link between physical activity and job burnout. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, scientists in Israel posited that people whose physical activity levels were high had virtually no career burnout issues, whereas those who were sedentary had relatively high levels of dissatisfaction on the job. It’s not just liking our jobs better that comes from exercise, either. Taking time to work out literally helps make you more productive, allowing you to pack more into less time. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Swedish scientists linked exercise to an increase in both the quantity of work and work ability and a decrease illness-related job absences. The scientists suggested reducing work hours for “health promotion activities” to increase production levels. While their recommendations were focused on employers, there’s no reason not to take the bull by the horns yourself. Boster suggests taking a brisk 20-minute walk twice a week to start yourself off on a new and improved exercise regimen. If you can do more, even better!
Meditate on that.
The mindfulness movement has been catching fire in America of late, and it’s not just your yoga buddy who’s pushing meditation anymore. A growing number of companies are adding mindfulness programs to their employee wellness solutions. The reason? Taking time to meditate can boost your productivity. As Harvard researchers found out when they began to look at mind–body practices, meditation and/or yoga can increase productivity by an estimated $3,000 per employee per year. And the benefits don’t end at the workplace door. In one employer-based mindfulness program, participants reported a 28 percent reduction in stress and 19 percent less pain. That’s likely because meditation leads to better rest, says Light Watkins, meditation teacher and author of the book Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying. In turn, Watkins says that better rest “leads to a greater ability to focus on the task at hand and prioritize what’s important.” “I consider meditation to be a ’key’ habit, because it makes you more apt to do the other things that should be a part of any self-care ritual: exercise, healthy diet, rest, philanthropy, and time spent with loving friends and family,” Watkins says. “If stress can diminish our desire to engage in all of those activities, then meditation should increase our desire.” Like exercise, meditation may seem like something we just can’t fit in our schedules, but you don’t have to take hours out of your day to make it happen. Meditation is often part of yoga practice, which allows you to hit all your exercise and meditative needs in one fell swoop. Even better: Just 25 minutes a day of hatha yoga is considered enough to improve brain function and boost energy levels, which are tied how productive we are.
Sleep on it.
We all need sleep. It’s how the body restores itself. But if you ask a quarter of American women how many mornings they woke up feeling refreshed in the past week, the answer would be a flat zero. A third of us get less than seven hours of sleep every night. Going to bed late and waking up early can help you steamroll through the six piles of laundry, catch up on bills, and finally fix the broken toilet. But it’s costing you. “If you’re going to bed already knowing you won’t get a good night’s sleep, you’re doomed from the start,” Boster says. “We have to figure out ways to make time to sleep.” When we do it, he points out, we feel better, we think more clearly, and we have more energy. And how else do we expect to be more productive? A study by RAND Europe found that lack of sleep ends up costing the U.S. economy $411 billion a year, while workers are losing 1.2 million working days annually. Scarier still, the study found that getting too little sleep on a regular basis hikes your mortality risk. If you’re routinely getting less than six hours of sleep a night, you have a 13 percent higher mortality risk than someone sleeping the seven to nine hours that the National Sleep Foundation recommends for adults. The solution is pretty clear on this one: Carve out enough time to get enough sleep, and you’ll be better able to tackle the mountain of projects ahead of you each day. The better able you are to get them done, the faster you can do it, leaving time for well…more sleep!
What about yo’ friends?
Don’t let the number of social media buddies fool you: We’re becoming an increasingly isolated society. The number of people who say they have no close friends has tripled in the last few decades. One of the major culprits is time. Friends tend to get the shaft when you’re burning the candle at both ends trying to get everything done. Your boss doesn’t pay you to chit chat, right? Well, maybe they should. Indulging in time with friends has long been considered a crucial part of a healthy self-care regimen. Friends can boost your longevity by as much as seven years. That’s as much of a life expectancy increase as you’d get by avoiding cigarettes! Of course, personal health means fewer work absences and better productivity in and of itself. It turns out friendship in the workplace also has a particularly positive influence on the amount of work we get done. Being able to turn to our friends on the job provides a safety net and allows us to ask questions without feeling judged, which helps us be more productive at work. Another big benefit to making friends at work: Your mood tends to improve as you feel comfortable, which spills over into positive effects on the work itself.
Can’t imagine sitting around staring at the ceiling tiles and twiddling your thumbs? How about getting up from your desk, walking to the break room and actually taking the entire allotted 15 minutes away from your work? Try it, Mikey. You won’t just like it…you’ll be re-invigorated and able to get a whole lot more done than you would have if you’d kept your mind hyperfocused on work. Our brains get a workout when we’re at work, and sometimes they need an old-fashioned break to recharge, according to researchers from Hiroshima University. Their suggestion is one that’s hard to argue with, especially if you like kittens or puppies. The researchers found that taking a few minutes to watch cute animals on the internet can restore your cognitive functioning, boosting your productivity and helping you get more work done in the long run. It turns out your mom was wrong: Laughter isn’t the best medicine. Panda cams are!
Just say no.
Can you bake just a dozen cookies for the bake sale? How about coming in the office for just a few hours on Saturday morning? Would you sign up for the office softball team? Come on, they need someone with a strong pitching arm…and it’s just two practices a week! Saying no to any (or all) of the above is the ultimate in self-care. It’s giving yourself leave to set down boundaries in your life and putting you in the driver’s seat. It’s also a way to reclaim your time. And look at all the things you can now do with that time to amp up your productivity.