The Key to Productivity Isn't Your Mind, It's Your Body

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Caroline Forsey
Caroline Forsey



Welcome to The Science Behind Success -- a new blog series that explores the best ways to help our brains perform better at work. With psychological research and interviews with leaders in the field, we're showing you how psychology can help you overcome workplace obstacles and excel in your career. Because a little mindset change could go a long way.


If you're anything like me, you don't feel like the day is over until your to-do list is complete.

You wake up in the morning with a long list of everything you need to get done, and you move on autopilot throughout the day, checking off tasks as you go.

When you feel you've hit a good spot to pause (after a few hours laboring away), you eat a quick meal and maybe grab a second cup of coffee. Then it's back to work.

You finish most days around 5 or 6 PM, wishing you had more hours to tackle your projects. You hit the gym for an hour, and then head home for a quick dinner and maybe some TV.

Oftentimes, the only real break you give yourself is when your head hits the pillow.

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Here's the problem -- in our quest for optimal productivity, we often ignore our body's needs. But, unbeknownst to most, that actually makes us far less productive.

Josh Davis, Ph.D., the Director of Research and Lead Professor at the NeuroLeadership Institute, addresses this very paradox in his international best-seller, Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done.

In his book, Davis writes, "Staying on task without a break and working longer hours are wonderful solutions for a computer or machine. But … We are biological creatures. Continually demanding one kind of work -- and a consistent level of effectiveness -- from our brains is like continually demanding the same speed from a runner under any circumstances."

Davis argues we don't take our biological factors into consideration enough when making decisions regarding our efficiency and productivity at work.

He's not wrong -- when was the last time you stopped and said, "Hang on a minute, I bet I'd be better in this meeting if I got my blood sugar levels up with a snack?" Or, when was the last time you considered jogging in place at your office desk, just to relieve some stress? Probably never.

Davis's research is based on the theory of embodied cognition, a psychological phenomenon that suggests our biological needs should be considered more prevalently when we structure our days.

Essentially, Davis surmises that if we can change how we treat our bodies at work, we can change how our brain functions as well.

I spoke with Davis to gain unique insights into his research regarding how our bodies affect our productivity.

He told me, "The more we can all become educated about what really leads to being most effective, the more we can create work cultures that support the right behaviors. Rather than reinforcing cultures that reward trying to be busy all the time, we can support one another in becoming our best, most effective selves."

Here, we're going to dive into Davis' tips for learning how to use our biology to achieve better results in the workplace. But first, in order to fully grasp the concept of Davis' research, it's critical you understand what embodied cognition is, and how it affects the decisions we make every day.

Embodied Cognition -- What Is It, and How Can It Help You?

Embodied cognition is essentially the idea that our bodies can influence our minds just as much as our minds can influence our bodies.

Rather than assuming your brain is the center of all knowledge and command, embodied cognition proposes that any solution we come up with when we're decision-making includes elements from our physiological and neurological systems, as well. In other words, our brain isn't solely responsible for our thoughts and behavior -- our body plays a part, too.

There have been numerous studies to support the notion that our body influences our thoughts. For instance, the way you sit can increase your testosterone levels, a concept known as "power posing". You might think your confidence and assertive behavior comes solely from your brain, when really, your body language and hormones have a lot more to do with it.

In another example, John Bargh, a social psychologist at Yale, conducted an experiment and found participants who interviewed job candidates took their roles more seriously if they held a very heavy clipboard, versus a light one.

Ultimately, understanding your environment's impact on your body is critical for knowing when and how you'll perform best at work. Productivity isn't only a matter of willpower, or telling yourself, "Come on, I've got to focus now." It's more than that -- it's linked to your body, and how your environment affects it.

Davis's Tips for Tricking Your Brain Into Working Better in Less Time

The premise of Davis' book centers around the notion that staying on task and working long hours without breaks is a fundamental misunderstanding of how our brains work.

We don't need more hours in the day, or to work faster. We simply need to create optimal conditions for our bodies, and brains, to function at peak efficiency for shorter periods of time.

When I spoke with Davis, he mentioned a familiar scenario -- "There is a culture in many places where people try to impress one another with how exhausted they are from work. Endless hours, no down time. They pride themselves on being responsive to every email within minutes at any time of day. It helps them look and feel busy, and the culture of many workplaces rewards them. Coworkers are impressed by it and often feel embarrassed that they have not done the same."

But, he goes on to note, "I can usually correctly expect that those same people who are constantly working and are primarily being reactive are feeling like they are treading water and hardly get a chance to come up for air."

Ultimately, the solution for feeling overworked is simple. If you learn how to listen to your body, and use your natural biological needs to your advantage, you can structure your day to ensure you're working when your body's at its peak efficiency level, and taking breaks when it's not.

Let's dive into some examples of these strategies to see how you can put them to use immediately.

1. Exercise for immediate, daily benefits.

We often think about exercise in the long-term: "I want to live longer, I want to lose weight, I want to lower my cholesterol".

This type of thinking makes us feel like exercise must happen, but it can happen after work. We compartmentalize our lives -- we tell ourselves we can exercise at 6 PM, after our workday.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with this way of thinking, Davis explains it can cause us to miss a more immediate benefit of exercise.

"The cognitive and emotional benefits include reducing anxiety and making it easier to focus or be present. Various studies put it around 20 minutes, and some as little as about 10," Davis told me, adding, "It was surprising that moderate, rather than intense, exercise was actually better for the cognitive and emotional benefits."

There are plenty of short-term benefits of exercise for daily productivity. A brief, 20 minute workout, like walking up and down the stairs at your office, can decrease your stress hormones, and allow you to think more clearly.

Next time you have an important meeting or upcoming deadline you're stressed about, give yourself some time for moderate exercise. Take a walk, jog in place, or walk up and down the stairs to reap the benefits. While it might make you feel like you're procrastinating or wasting time, remind yourself you're not -- you're actually setting yourself up to perform better.

2. Eat and drink for increased productivity.

While you might not think about it a lot, food is critical for stable blood sugar, which is necessary for productivity and focus.

If you don't believe me, consider this: in one 2012 study, employees with unhealthy diets were 66 percent more likely to report losing focus.

If you think of food as the fuel for your career success, it might increase your motivation to eat small, healthy snacks throughout the day. Rather than waiting until you're starving at lunch and then quickly eating a Chipotle burrito, Davis recommends potentially splitting up a healthy lunch into two parts, and eating them at different times. By splitting up your food breaks, you're more likely to reap the benefits all day long, rather than only right after lunch.

If you don't want to split up your lunch, Davis also recommends eating snacks to maintain energy, like a handful of nuts. When you're losing focus at work, it's critical you consider eating food that can help you get back on-track. Rather than considering food a nuisance to your productivity, you should begin viewing it as a necessary component to your efficiency.

Davis also urges people to stay away from too much caffeine. Your third cup of coffee might make you feel like you're a superhero, but in reality, the increased caffeine could distract you and make you less focused.

3. Use mindfulness to assess your body's cognitive energy.

In his book, Davis describes a situation where a man is sitting at his desk with ten minutes until an important meeting, and he knows he should be preparing for the meeting, but then he sees an email in his inbox.

The temptation to feel accomplishment is too much -- he ends up wasting time trying to respond to the email, and before he knows it, he only has one minute until the meeting, he hasn't finished the email, and now he's rushing off, frustrated and unprepared.

We've all felt this similar desire to check things off our list for the sake of checking them off. That sense of accomplishment can make you feel productive, but in reality, it's not important enough to necessitate time during your peak productivity window.

Davis' advice for combatting this is relatively simple, but it requires practicing mindfulness when making decisions, and assessing how your body actually feels. He says we often behave on autopilot -- we respond to that email because that's what we do whenever we see an email in our inbox.

As Davis described to me, "What is absolutely key [ … ] is pausing. For example, I know I can easily tell myself after working for two hours, 'I still feel energetic. I'll just keep going.' But most of the time, when I pause and walk away for a minute or two, I realize how much harder it is to think than when I'm fresh."

If the man sitting at his desk who received an email took a moment to intentionally connect with his priorities, he'd recognize that the email could wait until after the meeting. That action -- pausing -- could be the difference between wasted time and ultimate productivity.

4. Let your mind wander.

In his book, Davis writes, "Our attention systems are designed to regularly refresh -- to be ready to discover what is new in the environment and help us navigate a constantly changing world."

You can't fault yourself for losing focus when you hear colleagues chatting behind you, or when a car drives by the window. Those are primitive and healthy responses. Biology has given us the advantage of awareness to the outside world.

It's important to recognize how biology might work against our preconceived notion of what it means to be productive. We might feel frustrated when we are distracted by our environment, believing it to reflect a lack of focus or willpower -- but it's our body's natural response, and doesn't need to be fought.

When you're distracted, Davis says it's important you let your mind wander. Then, when you return to your work, you will be cognitively refreshed from the momentary distraction.

5. Create an ideal physical environment.

In his book, Davis talks about how the mood we set can genuinely affect our performance. There's a lot of research to support your environment's impact on your productivity.

You'll want to create a restorative rather than distracting workplace environment. Choose bright and cool lighting (rather than warm and dim), keep your desk clean, and whenever possible, find a quiet place to focus.

Ultimately, the benefits of tricking your brain into working harder aren't just obvious in the workplace. Increased productivity can lend itself to a happier lifestyle overall, as you make space for hobbies, passions, and people.

Davis writes, "We must choose to either enjoy life or succeed. The good news is this is a false choice. We feel pressured to choose when we mistakenly assume that productivity depends on finding enough hours in the day."

Hopefully, his research gives you hope that productivity and career growth don't have to come at a cost to your passions, family, or genuine enjoyment. If we learn to work with our biology, rather than in spite of it, we can become more efficient at all facets of our life, in far more balanced ways.

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