Three productivity myths busted (well, almost)

Can you rewire your brain to make it more productive? Yes, but some common productivity myths may need to be re-examined. Perhaps multi-tasking makes you more efficient. Perhaps you can learn new habits. Perhaps you can learn to be more intelligent.

Pencil sketches of the brain with think, write, remember all around it – productivity myths

Myth 1: You can’t improve your intelligence

According to this NYT article, psychologists categorize intelligence as either “crystallized” – accrued information that increases with age – or “fluid”, which is believed to peak in young adulthood, then ebb away.

But can fluid intelligence be enhanced – or at least sustained – by brain-training games?

“If you train your attention and working memory, you increase your basic cognitive skills that help you for many different complex tasks,” says Susanne Jaeggi, who has been researching the effectiveness of games for brain-training with Martin Buschkuehl, now of the University of Maryland.

Busted? The BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory comprehensively rubbished the idea that brain-training games have any positive long-term effect on cognitive function. But Jaeggi and others in academia continue with their research. This is one you may have to try for yourself: you can have a go at the N-Back game here (you may need to download Silverlight to play.)


Myth 2: Distractions hinder productivity

While the likes of 37Signals actively discourage incidental distractions, there are researchers who believe that a wandering mind may signify higher working memory capacity – and that a little distraction can be invaluable to creativity.

Jonah Lehrer, a neuroscientist and author, relates the surprising results of a University of Toronto study, which tested how easily a group of Harvard undergrads were distracted by background noise. Those who found it toughest to ignore extraneous noise were also seven times more likely to be “eminent creative achievers” (according to past accomplishments).

Writes Lehrer: “According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people struggled to filter the world, they ended up letting everything in. They couldn’t help but be open-minded.”

Lehrer’s most recent book, Imagine, also busts another popular myth: that creativity is a singular gift that cannot be learned.

Busted? The idea of distractions contributing to creative thinking is appealing, but are they really a boon to creativity or is it just that those with wandering minds have a lot more going on upstairs in the first place?

Myth 3: Habits are ‘locked in’ and hard to break

“There used to be this sense that habits are locked in at 25. We now know that’s not true,” says Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit”.

It’s possible to change bad habits by forming new ones, he argues, if you understand the “habit loop”: the cue, or what triggers the habit; what routine behaviour results; and what’s the reward.

“The golden rule of habit change is that it’s easiest to change when you keep the same cue and reward, but just change the behaviour. Sometimes this takes a bit of experimentation: Duhigg discovered the best replacement for his afternoon biscuit habit was not a healthier food option, but a gossip with work colleagues. Turns out that the real payoff was not chocolate chip but the opportunity the break afforded him to chat to colleagues.

Busted? I can’t say I’d ever heard of habits being ‘locked in’ at any age, but that shouldn’t detract from Duhigg’s research. For more advice on cultivating good habits, check out this post.

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