Being a worker in the United States isn't easy. You may face long hours, stagnating pay, and high income inequality — with many CEOs making more than 300 times what the average non-supervisory worker does.
Alas, one troubling trend in the labor market isn't helping: Productivity growth in the U.S. has lagged for years. Sure, a college education helps to secure you higher pay. But weak productivity can weigh on wages, and vice versa: "If businesses pay their employees as little as possible... those companies will lose the incentive to train and develop more productive workers," as the New York Times explains.
Now, whatever the trends are in the broader economy, you at least do have control over your own individual productivity. And becoming more productive at work could make you less stressed out and maybe even more likely to get promoted. Here are three big ways to work better, faster and more efficiently, so you can boost your paycheck — or at least get out of work earlier.
1. Follow the 52/17 rule
Are you a work martyr who can barely step away from your desk for 10 minutes — much less take time off? Workers often feel guilty about taking breaks because a break is "this little oasis of personal time that we get while we’re selling ourselves to someone else," as management professor John Trougakos described it to the New York Times.
This misplaced guilt and reluctance to get away from your desk could be sabotaging more than just your health: It could also be making you less productive. Research suggests the most productive 10% of workers actually don't work for all 60 minutes in an hour.
Instead, they work for about 52 minutes and then take a 17 minute break, as the Washington Post explains in a report on a DeskTime study, based on data from software that monitors how employees use their computers.
To be fair, the causal link between breaks and productivity isn't conclusive (workers who took more breaks might simply be less inclined to use their computers for unproductive purposes). But the most common trend among more productive workers was that they "also spend a lot of time away from the computer during the day," said Julia Gifford, the leader of content marketing for DeskTime's incubator, the Draugiem Group.
Indeed, a growing body of research suggests it is important to take regular breaks. The brain "becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover — much as a weightlifter needs rest before doing a second round of repetitions at the gym," as Trougakos explained. Benefits of time away from work also goes for long breaks too — aka vacations — as employees who use their vacation time are more likely to get promoted.
2. Embrace monotasking
Regularly find yourself bouncing from spreadsheets to emails to phone calls — and then getting interrupted by meetings? You're not alone. "There are very few jobs that don’t require multitasking of some sort or another," as the Balance wrote in article explaining how to develop multitasking skills.
That's a problem. Sadly, science suggests people cannot truly multitask, as much as we might want to. "Multitasking is not humanly possible," Earl K. Miller, a neuroscience professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times. When you try to multitask, you're actually task-switching — and you're almost definitely doing it badly and killing your productivity.
"We all have a limited amount of cognitive bandwidth — the number of thoughts and memories we can hold in our minds at any given time," the New York Times explained. "Your brain may delude itself into thinking that it has more capacity than it really does, but it’s really working extra hard to handle multiple thoughts at once when you are switching back and forth."
Multitasking actually makes work take longer, increases the chance of errors, and makes you less creative and efficient. It can also increase the chance of fatalities if you do it in a car.
So instead of trying to do everything at once, monotask: Focus only on one task at hand at a time. Set up your work environment to eliminate distractions by putting away your cell phone and installing anti-distraction programs.
If you're finding yourself toggling between tasks out of habit, force yourself to work in intervals by setting a timer for 5 to 10 minutes — and wholly devoting yourself to just one task during that time.
3. Maximize "serendipitous interactions"
Taking time to chat with your co-workers may seem, on the surface, like it would make you less productive since you're not at your desk grinding out work. But socializing can actually aid efficiency: "The biggest driver of performance in complex industries... is serendipitous interaction," Paula J. Caproni wrote in her book, The Science of Success.
Serendipitous interaction is "an interaction with an unintended outcome," as the New York Times explains. That could be a random chat with a co-worker when you bump into each other in the hall or sit together at lunch. It can make a huge difference in how effectively you work: M.I.T. research suggests individual productivity could be boosted by as much as 25% just by eating at a company cafe or at a larger table designed to seat 10 to 12 people.
Random friendly encounters can enhance collaboration, improve knowledge and encourage you to think about challenges and solutions in new ways. You'll also feel happier and better supported if you have people to help pick up slack if you are stressed out or need to take a vacation.
Hopefully, your employer encourages friendship between co-workers, but far fewer workers today report having a close friend at work than in the 1980s. Take the initiative to build relationships by treating everyone you talk to with respect and warmth. And to further turbocharge your work productivity? See Mic's guides to staying motivated at and excited about your job.
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