Go to Google right now and type, “being more” in the search box, and Google’s autocomplete function will show “being more productive” as a top option without fail. Whether you work with short deadlines or are in it for the long haul on research assignments, everyone is familiar with the eternal puzzle of managing time and productivity levels. Should you work in bursts, or should you pull an all-night marathon? What is the right setting? The questions go on, and the media industry gives little leeway when it comes to its trademark deadline, adrenaline-rush atmosphere.
Looking at larger issues such as skills or technology barely scrapes the surface of our productivity state of mind. Instead, this post focuses on the brain science of productivity and then moves on to ways we can start reaping the benefits of a more focused working approach.
Focus and Efficiency
Environment has a lot to do with one’s attention span and cognitive abilities. First, imagine your focus as a single flashlight. Your mind can only shine it in one spot at a time. As the beam becomes wider, the intensity of the light will wane. Multitasking is more like shining the light in rapid motion between different points. While possible, you will not have the same focus as if you held it steady on one point. “Multitasking” does not help, and its effects are serious.
When your environment is full of distractions like bustling, random music, background conversations, social media, alarms, et cetera, your mind is fighting to stay focused. If one keeps working at full capacity, your brain loses cognitive abilities to focus and problem-solve, according to the studies mentioned herein.
Even if one can stay awake with several pots of coffee, brains lose their cognitive abilities in the prefrontal cortex over time in a distraction-heavy environment. If you ever have a free weekend, Attention Restoration Theory (ART) offers a natural solution to restoring brain function by suggesting people go outside. University of Utah psychology Professor David Strayer compares the brain to an overused muscle that just needs rest in a 2012 study supporting ART.
Strayer and fellow researchers took eight hiking groups across various states and performed a prefrontal cortex activity and critical thinking test pre-hike and during a 3-day hike. The hikers experienced a 50 percent increase in cognitive ability. That means they were operating at 150 percent of their usual daily capacity. Strayer explained in National Geographic’s feature “This Is Your Brain On Nature” that the 3-day effect of calming nature, sounds, and fresh air recalibrates the brain and allows one’s senses to come back fully refreshed.
Not everyone however has three days to spare. Thankfully, the mind only needs 40 to 50 minutes of walking outside to experience noticeable rejuvenation, according to Kalevi Korpela, a professor of psychology at the University of Tampere.
There is still no time!
Scenario: You just finished a couple of hours of interviewing in the field or collecting facts for writing up a news story or press release. Should you barrel into the next hour without a break? There is a deadline, and you are worried about finishing on time.
Solution: Fifty-two minutes of intense, focused work with a 17-minute break is an ideal interval. Researchers based this ratio on the same concept that removing yourself from work completely can aid your brain. When you take that break, make sure everything is in place to start back again with full focus.
One can relax by doing a variety of things in the meantime. The objective should be to take the workload off your mind completely. My personal favorite: plugging in some relaxing music, drinking something nutritious and stepping outside if possible. Yes, this is justified procrastination. The goal is to allocate your time wisely.
When you get back to work, do not waste your focus. That means no social media (unless that is the work), no emails, or any other short distractions that can actually make it hard for you to gain momentum. Increase your focus and abilities by having writing strategies already in mind.
Have a plan. This is critical to success.
Spend the first two-thirds of the time writing your assignment. Spend the last third proofreading and refining your writing.
If you know how to write a certain article, you know about its various parts (i.e. lead, nut graph, lead quote, kicker, and others) and where they go. You can then quickly organize your notes according to which information goes where.
Of course, keeping listed objectives, allocating tasks to certain times and intervals, organization, and more can aid productivity. Please read my post on Dealing with Deadlines for extra tips specifically addressing lab deadlines.
 Sendhil Mullainathan, Looking at Productivity as a State of Mind, N.Y. Times, Sept. 24, 2014, § BU, at 6.
 Ilya Pozin, ‘There’s No Such Thing As Multitasking’, Forbes, Jan. 7, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/ilyapozin/2015/01/07/theres-no-such-thing-as-multitasking/.
See infra notes 5–7.
 David L. Strayer, Ruth Ann Atchley, & Paul Atchley, Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings, 7 PLOS One 1 (2012).
 Stephen Kaplan, The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework, 15 J. Envtl. Pyschol., 169–182 (1995).
See supra note 5. See also, This Is Your Brain On Nature, Nat’l Geo, Jan. 8, 2016, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/call-to-wild-text.
See supra note 5, at 2.
See supra note 5, at 2.