For many of us, achieving peak productivity can seem like a Sisyphean struggle. Every once in a while, we’ll think we’ve got our inboxes or to-do lists up-to-date, triaged, and under control. And then something else comes along that throws a giant wrench in all our grand plans -- a tempting off-campus lunch, a last-minute request from your boss’s boss, or a cat GIF storm you can’t help but participate in.
And so we end another day feeling like we’ve failed. While accomplishing tasks is certainly part of the picture, being productive isn’t just about checking items off a list. It’s about creating an environment and state of mind that allow you to produce great work.
And although it’s true that staying focused or having the right tools can help keep you from getting derailed, peak productivity is usually a result of the right circumstances, the right project, and the right person.
These eight TED talks cover every aspect of productivity -- from how to literally do the impossible (Tim Ferriss) to how to inject out-of-the-box thinking into your everyday routine (Nilofer Merchant) -- and will leave you with a new perspective on what productivity really means.
8 Inspiring TED Talks That Will Change How You Think About Productivity
1) “Try Something New For 30 Days” by Matt Cutts
Too often, we’re unproductive because we get caught in a rut of bad behavior. We come to work every day and follow the same routine, and are surprised when we haven’t seen a dramatic shift in our output. Many of us have fallen victim to bad habits that are so entrenched they seem impossible to break, and so our lack of productivity continues day in and day out.
Matt Cutts, a software engineer and head of the web spam team at Google, argues that a change in behavior isn’t as hard as we might believe. In this TED talk, Cutts suggests that all you have to do to form a good habit -- or get rid of a bad one -- is to consciously incorporate (or eliminate) it into your routine for 30 days. Using this 30-day challenge model, Cutts wrote a novel, cut out sugar, and laid the foundation to hike Mount Kilimanjaro.
Climbing a mountain may not be on your list of goals, but you can use 30-day challenges to cut unproductive behaviors from your repertoire.
2) “Got a Meeting? Take a Walk” by Nilofer Merchant
Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest differences. Nilofer Merchant, an author, speaker, and management consultant who has launched more than 100 products globally, has a message for office workers everywhere: Sitting is killing us.
The average person sits for 9.3 hours a day (compare that to 7.7 hours of sleep!), and this lack of physical activity is directly tied to increased risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
But when are we supposed to find the time to get moving? In her TED talk, Merchant suggests turning meetings -- the other scourge of the American worker -- into an opportunity to walk. Watch her TED talks to discover more benefits of walking, and why getting some fresh air could lead to your next big idea.
3) “Flow, the Secret to Happiness” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Growing up in Europe during World War II taught Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term “flow,” an important lesson -- many of the adults around him weren’t resilient enough to lead normal lives during the war. When he arrived in America, Csikszentmihalyi, now a psychologist, dedicated himself to discovering what makes us happy.
Why is this relevant to you? Because happy people perform better at work, and Csikszentmihalyi thinks the key to true happiness is “flow” -- a creative state where you’re completely immersed in what you’re doing.
Csikszentmihalyi suggests three conditions are necessary to achieve flow -- deep expertise, enjoyment of what you’re working on, and a challenging project that stretches your comfort zone. In his TED talk, you’ll learn why “flow” is an important concept for professionals to understand -- and could be the secret to productivity and happiness in one fell swoop.
4) “What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?” by Dan Ariely
Solving the productivity question isn’t just important for individual contributors -- it’s something that’s on business leaders’ minds, too. Everyone wants to know how to create conditions that are optimal to getting the most quality work done.
Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke who coined the famed “IKEA effect” that causes us to place a high premium on projects we labored especially hard to complete, thinks he knows how leaders can motivate their teams. In this talk, you’ll learn why it’s so important to value people’s efforts, and how small changes in how you give feedback can be crucial for keeping employee morale high.
5) “How Too Many Rules at Work Keep You From Getting Things Done” by Yves Morieux
Yves Morieux, director of Boston Consulting Group’s Institute for Organization, strives to answer one question -- why are people so unproductive? During his time with BCG, Morieux has worked with over 500 companies, and despite advances in technology and increasing efforts to develop good company culture, the question still plagues him.
Morieux thinks we’re facing a “productivity crisis.” Half a century ago, workforce productivity used to grow 5% a year. It grew 3% annually in the 1970s, 2% in the 1980s, and since 1995 has grown less than 1% per year. For the first time in decades, future generations will have less of everything because their predecessors -- us -- have failed to produce more.
But it’s not too late to turn the boat around, says Morieux. In his TED talk, you’ll hear how the traditional principles of efficiency -- clarity, accountability, and measurement -- have resulted in overengineered, excessively complex workplaces and why leaders need to focus instead on fostering and rewarding effective cooperation.
6) “How to Make Stress Your Friend” by Kelly McGonigal
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal spent the last decade teaching her patients that stress is harmful to your health. And while an eight-year study revealed that people who reported being more stressed had an increased risk of dying, it also found that only the subjects who believed stress was detrimental saw this increased risk.
Yep, that’s a real finding: Only people who believed stress was harmful to their health actually suffered. Pretty crazy, right?
When you’re in the thick of it at work, it can often feel like the sky is falling and no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to accomplish everything you have to. And that can have some pretty nasty effects on your health. But McGonigal argues that through social contact, we’re able to “hack” our brains and literally rewire the way our bodies respond to stress. In her TED talk, you’ll learn her secret to tapping into your body’s natural defenses against stress-induced damage.
7) “Smash Fear, Learn Anything” by Tim Ferriss
Bestselling author Tim Ferriss and a “six-double-espresso-per-day” friend made a pact -- his friend would forgo any type of stimulant for a year if Ferriss, who had never learned to swim, could complete a one-kilometer open water race. Over the course of his life, Ferriss has also taught himself Japanese and made it to the semi-finals of the world tango championships. And he accomplished these feats he’d previously thought were impossible by learning how to approach his fear through deconstruction.
In this TED talk, you’ll hear about how Ferriss breaks down complex challenges into manageable chunks, then proceeds to crush his goals. And the next time you’re facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge at work, adopt Ferriss’ mindset to summit obstacles that suddenly won’t feel so impossible anymore.
8) “How to Stay Calm When You Know You’ll Be Stressed” by Daniel Levitin
It’s all well and good to say that we should revise how we think about stress, but it’s quite another thing to actually change how we think about it. Thankfully, neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin has some advice for how to minimize the impact stress has on your daily life.
Levitin advocates practicing “prospective hindsight,” a term coined by psychologist Gary Klein. Also known as the “pre-mortem,” this strategy calls on people to imagine everything that could go wrong as a result of a certain decision, then act accordingly to prevent those things from happening -- a technique akin to a decision insurance policy. In this TED talk, you’ll learn techniques you can use to gather all the information you need to understand those negative possibilities and create systems of thought that help minimize the fallout from unfortunate situations.
What are your favorite TED talks about productivity? Let us know in the comments below.
Originally published Mar 14, 2016 8:00:00 AM, updated June 10 2021