How to Increase Productivity Without So-called Productivity Hacks

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Passion October 9, 2017

How to Increase Productivity Without So-called Productivity Hacks

Curt Steinhorst
Curt Steinhorst is on a mission to rescue us from our distracted selves. Having spent years studying the impact of tech on human behavior, Curt founded Focuswise, a consultancy that equips organizations to overcome the distinct challenges of the constantly-connected workplace. He is a leading voice on strategic communication, speaking more than 75 times a year to everyone from global leadership associations and nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies. Curt is the author of the book Can I Have Your Attention? Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace (John Wiley & Sons, October 2017).

I don’t know who invented the term “productivity hack,” but I doubt they intended to create such a perfect double-meaning. On their face, these “hacks” are meant to double, triple, even quintuple our work output, like shortcuts to professional satisfaction. However, the word “hack” also has the connotation of insincerity and fraud—which becomes appropriate when we see how many of these tips are moronic things like, “use red and blue more often,” “staple multiple papers at a time” (Lifehack), and even “drink water” (Hackernoon).

Even when these “hack” articles offer sound advice from a cognitive science perspective (as the Lifehack list does at #9: “Before bed, prepare items for the next day”), that good advice is lost in the obvious falsity of the rest (“redecorate your room”).

I don’t know when the term first appeared, but today these look-at-me listicles and blogs and vlogs have come to practically engulf the internet. At the time of this writing, a search for “productivity hack” returns over eight million results.

Heaven help us.

My snark aside, it truly is possible to improve productivity with relative ease. Just like the snake-oil listicle writers promised! But the difference is, it’s not as easy as checking a few items off a straightforward list. We increase our productivity by taking advantage of the two systems the human brain uses to pay attention.

Bottom-up attention. Humanity has survived in large part because chemicals in our brains attract us to new stimuli. When seeing something novel, we receive a jolt of dopamine—which we like. Neuroscientists call this bottom-up attention, and it’s the first system of attention in our brains. Bottom-up attention seeks novel stimuli with a particular focus on finding pleasure (i.e., procreation) and avoiding pain (i.e., death). Your immediate needs are driven by this kind of attention.

This is great for survival in the wild, but makes it very hard to focus in the office.

Top-down attention. Lucky for us, there is another part of our brain that is devoted to planning—and it is very powerful, and is one of the biggest differences between humans and all other animals. The top-down system allows us to make active decisions about where we focus. This is the system that enables us to choose to wash our car, clean our house, and file our taxes. Your future self loves it when this system of attention wins.

The secret to effectively allocating our attention, then, is knowing when and how to engage your top-down system and when to just let the bottom-up system do its thing.

While cognitive theory on this subject can lead us to a number of fascinating implications, you don’t have to read thousands of pages of the research to make it helpful for you.

For example, running financial models requires strict top-down attention, so best to eliminate anything that might trigger your bottom-up attention. Turn off all sounds from your phone, make sure your financial software is the only thing visible on your monitor, maybe hang a sign on your chair that says, “Please don’t interrupt, I’ll be done soon.”

But, on the other hand, if you’re just answering a few emails before you leave the office, it might be good to give your bottom-up attention a bit of free reign, in case it bubbles up and reminds you of something you meant to do but forgot to write down.

See how productivity “hacks” are contextual? Not exactly useful for the listicle-writers of the world.

But you don’t need them anymore. If you are wise in the way you direct your focus, you can transform yourself and your organization in a way that actually, reliably increases productivity.

How’s that for a hack.