There are simple ways to fix our frantic obsession with productivity

Our obsession with productivity comes at a cost.
Our obsession with productivity comes at a cost.
Image: AP Photo/Paul White
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Our culture is obsessed with productivity. But research shows that attempting to triumph over an ever-expanding to-do list actually works against us.

Not only does workaholism double the risk of depression and anxiety, it actually lowers productivity and decreases work performance, according to research by Steven Sussman, a professor of preventative medicine and psychology at the University of Southern California. It also leads to sleep problems and shortened attention spans, both of which conspire to get in the way of our ability to do good work. Workaholism is bad for employers as well. It leads to stress-related accidents, absenteeism, higher employee turnover, lower productivity and higher medical costs.

If we know so much about the bad effects of too much work, why do we insist on a frantic approach to productivity? As a Stanford University research psychologist who has spent years reading literature on the subject, I believe the problem lies in our constant focus on the future. Our culture teaches us that the key to success and happiness is to always be looking ahead. This belief leads us to forego personal happiness in the present and spend the bulk of our days hunched over our computers, grinding our teeth, reassuring ourselves that the eventual payoff will be worth it.

But the truth is that nonstop focus on our work doesn’t lead to the success and satisfaction we crave. Instead we’re stressed, tired and perpetually unhappy, aware there’s always something more to be done.

A few simple, counterintuitive changes—all aimed at helping us stay in the present—could make us much better off.

First, detaching from work can actually make us more productive. Sabine Sonnentag, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Mannheim in Germany, has found that people who do not know how to step away from work during their downtime experienced increased exhaustion over the course of one year and became less resilient in the face of stressful work conditions. By contrast, gaining some emotional distance from highly demanding work tends to help people recover from stress faster and leads to increased productivity.

“From our research, one can conclude that it is good to schedule time for recovery and to use this time in an optimal way,” Sonnentag tells Quartz. Recommended activities include exercise, walks in nature, and total absorption in a hobby that’s unrelated to work—whether that’s shooting hoops with friends, doing some woodcarving in the garage or learning to make dim sum.

Positively reflecting about your job after work hours can also help replenish your energy, according to research by Sonnentag and organizational psychologist Adam Grant. They found that people who consider the positive parts of their job at the end of their workdays—particularly the ways in which their work benefitted others—had higher levels of well-being and happiness.

For people with jobs as firefighters or nurses, this exercise will be straightforward. But you can participate in this exercise even if you don’t have a job with obvious societal benefits.

Perhaps your job helps pay for your family’s housing and groceries, or your helpful attitude at work has made you a mentor to a younger colleague. Sonnetag and Grant suggest that people who reflect on the prosocial impact of their work are less likely to seek out distractions while they’re on the job. Moreover, they write, “positively reflecting about the past day at work has an energizing component, perhaps because it draws employees’ attention to what they like about their jobs [. . .] or makes the personal meaning of their jobs more salient for them.”

Our addiction to caffeine and other stimulants is another major issue. In the name of productivity, we have learned to keep our adrenaline levels high with copious amounts of coffee.

Caffeine is a stimulant drug—albeit a socially accepted one. When we drink coffee, it raises cortisol (our “stress” hormone) above its natural levels. Cortisol helps us wake up in the morning and have energy to start the day. However, raising it to unusually high levels through coffee is the reason we sometimes feel so jittery after consuming caffeine.

This means we wind up depending on anxiety to fuel ourselves to get through our overscheduled days. Other people may rely on stimulants like sugar, energy drinks and even potentially addictive drugs like Adderall to wake up, stay up and focus for long hours.

Then, over-stimulated and unable to calm down when we come home, we turn to depressants like alcohol, sleeping pills or anti-anxiety medication to achieve balance. The constant back-and-forth between stimulant-induced anxiety and depressant-induced drowsiness places an enormous burden on our already exhausted nervous system.

My study of 21 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (arguably some of the most stressed individuals in our society) shows that conscious breathing can help significantly reduce stress and anxiety levels—sometimes in a matter of minutes.

Breathing is among the most neglected solutions to stress, since it mostly happens on its own while we’re not paying attention to it. But research suggests that you can change how you feel using your breath. Taking deep breaths into your abdomen and lengthening your exhales so they are longer than your inhales helps your nervous system relax. Your heart rate and blood pressure may even decrease.

A more relaxed nervous system will actually help provide you with more energy. Instead of wearing yourself out quickly with caffeine, sugar and other stimulants, a better solution is to remain calm and engage your parasympathetic nervous system. This will help you restore yourself and manage your energy throughout the day without crashing.

For readers interested in testing this technique out for themselves, here’s a breathing exercise to sub in the next time you have a caffeine craving:

  • Place the index and middle finger of the right hand on the center of the eyebrow, and place the thumb on the right nostril, and the ring finger and pinky on the left nostril. The left hand rests on the lap, palm facing up.
  • Take a deep breath in and, closing the right nostril with your thumb, breathe out through the left nostril.
  • Then take a deep breath in through the left nostril, close the left nostril with your ring finger and pinky at the end of the inhale, and exhale through the right nostril.
  • Take a deep breath in through the right nostril and, closing the right nostril with the thumb, exhale on the left side, and start over.
  • Do this with your eyes closed for about five minutes. Notice the effects on your body and mind.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that there is little evidence that an adrenaline-fueled life makes you more productive. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that a chronically stressful lifestyle damages your physical health and your cognitive faculties. So if you’re really interested in becoming a more accomplished and happier person, stop driving yourself up the wall with productivity hacks—and commit to learning how to take a breather.