Busting 5 Common Productivity Myths

It seems that every organization in the world is concerned with productivity, and for good reason. Improving productivity is often the only way to remain competitive in a global economy. Sometimes productivity gains drive more than organizational competitiveness. In the U.S., for example, productivity gains have been known to drive the entire economy, accounting for as much as 80% of GDP growth in recent years.[1]

inner workings of a clock

In spite of such wide-ranging interest in the topic, there are many misconceptions about workplace productivity that prevent individuals and organizations from being as productive as possible. Let’s take a closer look at five common productivity myths and the reality behind them.

Myth 1: Working more increases productivity

Reality: We all function on a pretty arbitrary energy cycle dictated by our 24 hour inner body clock[2], or circadian rhythm. The specific cycles we experience as individuals depend on a variety of inputs including; our genes, hours of daylight, and sleeping habits. On top of this circadian rhythm, we are also subject to the influence of a recurring shorter energy cycle, called the ultradian rhythm[3]). This cycle moves us from alertness to drowsiness every 90 to 120 minutes. To maximize productivity, we need to be aware of and work with these natural rhythms by allocating work appropriately and building in recharge breaks when energy slumps. Long, uninterrupted shifts are one of the least productive options.

Myth 2: Staying focused, no matter what, will make you more productive

Reality: Research shows your brain works better when it can wander from time to time.[4] This is especially true when it comes to creativity (that’s why some of your most creative ideas likely come to you in the shower, or when you’re hiking). This is because focusing on a problem for too long can cause your brain to fixate and get stuck in a mental rut that prevents you from finding a way forward. Relaxing your focus and taking a mental hiatus can be exactly the distraction you need to shake off an unproductive line of thought and discover the breakthrough you need.

Myth 3: Social media kills productivity

Reality: There is no question, for some people, social media kills productivity. But for every employees who spends too much time on Facebook and Instagram, there are plenty working smarter and more productively with today’s social tools. In fact, a survey by Microsoft[5] found:

  • 46% of workers say their productivity has improved thanks to social media and social media tools
  • 37% percent wish their organization’s management would embrace social media tools in the workplace in order to increase productivity.

Besides, a quick check of your social media accounts can often provide that brief mental break and relaxation needed to recharge the brain, increasing overall productivity.[6]

Myth 4: Noise is always bad (or good) for productivity

Reality: When it comes to noise and productivity, not all noise is created equal. Not surprisingly, the affect of noise on productivity also depends on the individual. In general research shows[7] that activities which require concentration fare better in quiet environments, with a couple of interesting exceptions:

  • Some people, who typically have difficulty concentrating, experience better results in the presence of continuing ambient noise.
  • When brainstorming creative ideas, many people perform better (more creatively) in the presence of moderate ambient noise (70db) versus low ambient noise (50db).

Research also shows that extroverts perform better in noisy environments than introverts do.[8] If it’s not possible to provide a quiet workplace, it pays to understand how much and what kind of noise is likely to erode (or boost) productivity and for whom.

Myth 5: People work best under pressure

Reality: Some people thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with racing to meet an important deadline. Others don’t like it, but have developed the ability to work well under pressure out of necessity. Managers often use the power of urgency and an impending deadline to increase productivity. But evidence shows that working under continuing time pressure has a significant productivity downside. Whether you have become a workplace “fire-fighter” by design or necessity, if you’re always putting out fires, something has already burned. Studies show that the short term productivity gains associated with working under pressure are offset over time by:

 “delayed mental fatigue, which affects quality and productivity detrimentally in the long term. Moreover, mental fatigue decreases work engagement, which in turn reduces [the] innovativeness…”[9]

Whether you approach productivity from the perspective of an individual building a career, an executive building a company, or a policy maker building a country, success is much more attainable if you build your strategies on a foundation of reality rather than simply responding to popular myth and misconception.


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[1] Vikram Malhotra and James Manyika, Five misconceptions about productivity, http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/economic_studies/five_misconceptions_about_productivity

[2] Michal Ugor 11 Productivity Hacks to Boost Your Mental Focus, http://www.fortunepick.com/blog-article/11-productivity-hacks-to-boost-your-mental-focus

[3] Tony Schwartz, The 90-Minute Solution: How Building in Periods of Renewal Can Change Your Work and Your Life http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tony-schwartz/work-life-balance-the-90_b_578671.html

[4] Shelley Carson, When Being Distracted Is a Good Thing, http://mentalfloss.com/article/52586/why-do-our-best-ideas-come-us-shower

[5] Social Times, Social Media Increases Office Productivity, But Management Still Resistant, Says Study http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/social-media-workplace-survey/486874?red=at

[7] Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu and Amar Cheema Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/665048#fndtn-full_text_tab_contents

[8] Gianna Cassidy and Raymond A.R. MacDonald The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance of introverts and extraverts, http://pom.sagepub.com/content/35/3/517.abstract

[9] Phys.org, Working well under pressure http://phys.org/news/2009-04-pressure.html

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