Skip to main content

Our productivity seems to deteriorate pretty quickly after lunch rolls around. One survey even pinpointed 2:22 p.m. as the time that most workers begin “hitting the wall.” While most of us try to solve that through a caffeine hit to power through, the reality is that afternoon productivity is less about working harder and more about working smarter.

Laura Vanderkam, time management expert and Verily contributor, writes in her book What the Most Successful People Do at Work, “. . . making success possible hinges on two things: being choosy about each day’s priority list and developing an accountability system that works.” By taking a closer look at your afternoon routine, you may find that some habits are sabotaging your productivity more than what you ate for lunch.

01. Thinking That Doing More Means Achieving More

Stanford University research found that multitasking is less productive than focusing on a single task because it reduces our efficiency and overall performance. Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology, tells Stanford News that when people are “in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

Attention studies by the University of Utah show that only 2 percent of human subjects are capable of effectively multitasking (e.g., driving while doing other tasks); the other 98 percent failed the tests abysmally. Remember this next time you’re chatting on the phone while trying to make dinner: Less is more.

02. Turning Notifications On

A study done by the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance reports, “. . . subjects performing a task that required intense focus performed poorly when they received notification of a text or call on their phone.” The mobile alert undermined their concentration, interrupting their train of thought and focus.

While a notification only lasts a few seconds, the effects last much longer. Our thoughts are more likely to drift into wondering about who contacted us or why, remembering a conversation, or reminding us to share information with someone later on.

Switch your phone to “Do Not Disturb” when you need to focus. Better yet, keep your phone on silent or away from your workspace. Set certain times that coincide with a break or a trip to the bathroom when you can check your phone, so it doesn’t keep you from achieving your daily goals.

03. Inbox Addiction

New research from Adobe found that “white-collar employees spend an average of 7.4 hours each weekday checking their work and personal email, up 17 percent from a year ago.” A study by Microsoft found that workers stopped what they were doing for an average of twenty to twenty-five minutes every time they responded to an instant message or email alert. And 27 percent of the time an employee received an alert, they moved on to other work and didn’t return to their original task until more than two hours later.

Not only does this decrease efficiency, but it’s also mentally draining. Each time you switch between tasks, it depletes your attention and brainpower (which some studies show gets sapped within ninety minutes of starting a task). Set aside a chunk of time—an hour after you get into the office or an hour before you leave—to check email, or only check your inbox when the task or benchmark you are working on is complete.

04. Skipping Breaks

Think that stepping away from your work for fifteen minutes is a waste of time? Think again. Though powering through the pain may seem valiant, skipping breaks inhibits productivity. Harvard Business Review reports that removing ourselves from our work for fifteen minutes allows us to reexamine our game plan with fresh eyes when we check back in.

The key factor to an effective break is to engage in something active. Scrolling through Facebook is not a viable option. Instead, take a short walk, stretch, grab a snack or coffee, or catch up with a coworker at the water cooler. Your mind can drift to something other than work yet still remain on and alert.

05. Saving the Best for Last

Our tendency is often to do our easiest work first to help ease us into the day, leaving more difficult tasks for later. But this is counterintuitive to optimal productivity. Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal tells Stanford Medicine her research shows that “willpower decreases over the course of the day, as your energy gets ‘spent’ on stress and self-control.” According to several studies reviewed by the American Psychological Association, willpower is the best predictor of academic success and is associated with higher GPAs, increased self-esteem, better relationship skills, and greater mental and physical health.

Start off the day by getting your hardest and most important assignments done first, when your willpower is at its strongest. You’ll avoid burning off valuable energy and motivation where you need it the most.

Recognize and nip these bad habits in the bud before you fall back into them. Whether you put your phone on silent or fully commit to eliminating all five habits, you’ll find that your afternoon blues will turn into an afternoon bloom.

Photo Credit: Freddy Castro