Productivity hacks: gold dust or garbage?

Wherever you look now there’s a shortcut to this and a hack for that – but how many of these actually work? We separate productivity hack fact from fiction.

Productivity hacks drinking chart

(Hat tip to wocrig for the photo)

Wherever you look now you’ll find people advertising a shortcut to this and a hack for that, but how many of these tricks actually work? And do any give you more back than you put in?

Handily, Lifehacker has already exploded a number of the most common efficiency myths.

Productivity hacks, debunked

  • You need to rise early to get anything done. Just because you have more hours in the day doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll use them wisely – it depends entirely on when you work best and what your job entails. If you work best in the morning, you might benefit from waking up earlier to tackle your hardest tasks when no one is up to distract you, but these might not be the most productive hours for night owls. Within reason, you need to find your own work rhythm.
  • You have to power through slumps. Studies show that taking time out or switching mental gears by focusing on another project are much more effective ways of boosting productivity than just ploughing on regardless. You sometimes do your best thinking when you’re not actively trying to think about the problem at hand. Why not take a walk?
  • Remote working is shirking. Sadly, this myth still lingers in the minds of those who measure hours and presence rather than results. Really, it depends on how you work. If you find the hubbub of the office distracting and feel happy working alone, do that. If you prefer the buzz of the office and like being around your colleagues, work there.
  • A clean inbox is an organised inbox. Sorting your inbox into folders is classic busywork; it feels like you’re doing something, but you’re not really being productive. Rather than spending hours organising your emails, employ automated filters, like SaneBox, to sort the wheat from chaff and use the search function to find what you want. HubSpot suggests replying to yourself using specific search terms in the body before you archive an email so you can easily find it later.
  • You need a clean desk to be creative or productive. There are studies on both sides of this argument – some finding that clutter is distracting and others finding that it promotes creativity – but, again, it depends a lot on your preference. Some people can’t stand the sight of a pencil lying askew, while others are happy to plug on with paper, gadgetry and wires strewn about their workspace. Do what works for you.

So, how do you spot a fake efficiency hack? Use common sense and look for the source of the advice. If it’s being pushed by someone with a recently published book or a company with a vested interest, look to see if it’s backed up by hard evidence.

Productivity hacks that work

What productivity hacks, if any, have survived the cull? It’s often the simplest and cheapest that give the most back:

  • Wear headphones (with or without music) while working to block out surrounding noise and discourage interruptions.
  • Use cloud applications like Dropbox and Evernote as a digital depot for all of your documents – from shopping lists to spreadsheets – so you don’t have to waste your time rifling through filing cabinets or email attachments.
  • Use pay-as-you-go software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools to automate and streamline processes like invoicing and expenses
  • Get active. Exercise reduces stress, increases your focus and, over time, can improve your blood oxygen levels.

With any productivity hack, however, it’s important to remember that everyone has their own ways of working and it’s wrong to think that one trick will suddenly transform you into some efficiency übermensch. It’s about working smarter, not harder, and focusing on the things that actually need to get done.

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