The Science Behind a Productive Mindset

Here’s a simple question!

Have you ever been stressed about being productive at work?

Since we live in the information overload era, the irony of this question can’t be ignored.

There’s always something to catch our attention. And the more we go with the flow, the quicker work productivity becomes an unknown.

In fact, we’re trading our attention for work efficiency, focus, and peace of mind.

We accept (even embrace in some cultures) productivity killers like stress, multitasking, and social media as another part of doing our work.

Yet this same workplace culture shift has multiplied the value of developing a productive mindset at work, for physical and mental well-being.

Now, the journey to the holy land of productivity can’t begin without understanding which factors affect our brains today.

It’s time to get personal.

What affects work productivity

Before we jump into the pit of factors which influence our productivity for worse, a few facts to set things straight:

  • Our brain molds based on the thoughts and behaviors we feed it (hello, neuroplasticity!).
  • An average person gets 10,000+ thoughts a day (mind=blown).
  • We all have an internal clock––known as the ultradian rhythm––going along 90-110 minute brainwave cycles throughout the day.

(Source: Escaping The 9 To 5)

You produce cortisol and adrenaline under stress, which are naturally effective to deal with the fight-or-flight reaction your body faces. However, once this stress becomes a constant in daily life, your cortisol levels build up.

This is harmful for two reasons. First, bigger cortisol levels mean it takes your body longer to reabsorb it. Second, your attention narrows down to the cause of stress––prioritizing thoughts surrounding it––instead of the task at hand.

After a while, you experience physical and mental handicaps like fatigue, anxiety, sleep disorders, exhaustion, etc.

On the other hand, when you multitask the brain gives you an illusion you’re getting things done “simultaneously.”

In reality, you’re switching back and forth between tasks, through two mental executive functions called goal shifting (choosing one thing over another) and role activation (switching from the rules for the previous task to rules for the new one).

This impairs your cognitive abilities, and you end up with more work since you split your brain’s resources in half and use a part of the same channels to process information, causing conflicts between tasks.

(Source: Buffer)

It’s been found that multitaskers:

  • Struggle with ignoring distractions.
  • Suck at filtering information and switching between tasks.
  • Can’t maintain a high working memory and sort out irrelevant details from relevant data.
  • Are less effective when focusing on one task.
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How to develop a mindset to be productive at work

To become a practitioner of productivity, a framework is crucial. Without it, all the insights you get from hundreds of data points, YouTube videos and studies on work productivity won’t matter.

You’ll end up chasing rather than enjoying productivity strategies let out in the wild.

In fact, just one word can get you there: Deliberate.

Deliberate actions––like those mentioned below––will help you nurture a mindset that ingrains productive behavior as a default.

1. Take a break

We’re not designed to work for longer periods. Yes, focusing on a single task is productive. When you do it without a break––however––it can be as mentally exhausting as multitasking.

And it’s no wonder then that research found our brains are anything but dormant when we take a break. The moment you engage in idleness, a neural circuit known as the default mode network (DMN) fires up, engaging different brain regions that:

  • Grow your self-awareness
  • Validate your past, present, and future
  • Connect unrelated events
  • Improve self-identity

Pro tip: Document your level of focus, energy, and motivation at the same intervals for at least three weeks. With this data, map out the best time to work and take a break.

2. Meditate

Meditation is food for mental health. Regular practice has shown to increase gray matter density in the brain stem, which leads to better personal efficiency and higher output.

(Source: Buffer)

Another reason meditation is crucial for productivity is its effect on cerebral blood flow, causing enhanced oxygenation and nourishment of several regions of your brain.

Meditation also strengthens connections between DMN regions and makes it easier for you to shift between idle and hyper-focused states.

Pro tip: Don’t force your thoughts to stop. Let them flow inside your mind. Occasionally, shift your focus to your breathing. Continue this process every time you meditate.

3. Exercise

Exercising is essential to productivity workflow even though your brain identifies it as a moment of stress. Basically, when your heart rate increases, brain concludes you’re either fighting or fleeing from danger.  

To protect yourself from the effects of stress, the body releases a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor)––along with endorphins––which acts as a reset switch. This is why you feel rejuvenated and at ease after exercising.

Plus, it helps calm your brain’s response to stress and reduce anxiety.

Pro tip: According to research, our muscle strength improves between 2 and 6 p.m whereas our lungs perform 17.6% better around 5 p.m. So, go out for that quick run during this timeframe.

4. Nap during work

Shut down your laptop and find a quiet room to take a nap because these short bursts of sleep are helpful in shooting your productivity through the roof.

Researchers found napping promotes better learning, improves memory and its storage.

The right side of the brain remains active and carries housekeeping tasks while the left side relaxes.

This enables the brain to reorganize itself to retain new information, solidify memories by pushing them to the permanent storage of your brain––neocortex, and boost alertness.

Remarkable activity in the well-rested brain (top) vs. low activity in a tired one (bottom). (Source: Foundr)

Pro tip: It’s proven 26- to 30-minute naps are effective in improving our attention and focus, thereby enhancing productivity. Squeeze in one nap of the same duration per day.

5. Self-regulate emotions

One of the most effective ways to be productive is to self-regulate your emotions. As you monitor and analyze fluctuations in your emotions, the amygdala and other stress circuits quiet down. This frees up the executive centers of your brain.

And you experience a nimble alertness.

Such self-regulation of emotions, as a result, promotes self-discipline for tasks you undertake.

We now know people who condition their mind for task completion reach their goals consistently by tracking the process, what’s accomplished, where time gets wasted, and when robotic behavior springs back up.

Pro tip: Associate words with what you’re feeling to make your emotions more tangible. You can then backtrack to determine the culprit and move on to your task with more focus.

Bottom line

The best way to build a productive mindset is to listen, understand and work with your own body. Clients, projects, and technology are external stimuli. Stress, impatience, and negativity are internal.

You’re in total control of your potential and actions… even when you’re required to stay “efficient” and “attentive” during traditional office hours (that don’t match your biological clocks).

Get away from your PC. Hit pause on your brain. Let it wander, relax, and grow.


Sphoorti Bhandare is a PR and Content Marketing specialist. She helps B2B tech companies grow brand relevance and trust through badass messaging told with simple, effective words. Sphoorti is fluent in traveling solo, eating sushi and dancing at the drop of a beat. Check out her site.

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