How To Be More Productive At Work Via Self-Care Practices

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If you're like me, diving back into work after the holidays has been a hilarious struggle. Just when you start getting comfortable wrapping yourself up in ugly sweaters, the Sisyphean task of managing your inbox demands all your energy once again. Still, even when you really don't feel it, strategies to help you be more productive at work can make catching up on all five hundred emails much less unpleasant.

Rather than forcing yourself to work harder, being more productive has a lot to do with being kinder to yourself. According to licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Russell Thackeray, self-care is key to being more productive. "People that look after themselves [and practice self-care] do have better cognitive ability. They do have better focus and they do have better concentration," Dr. Thackeray told the productivity app Trello in March 2019. People who prioritize their own well-being "tend to actually produce more."

This is especially important when you're trying to decide whether to ask for that extension or call in sick (which, for the record, you should). If you want to work more sustainably, taking a break for yourself now can make your work day feel much more satisfying overall. These nine productivity hacks can help you get better at your job while also being kinder to yourself — so really, everybody wins.

1. Take More Breaks

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The pressure to not take a lunch break (or any break, for that matter) can be especially intense in a culture that emphasizes go go go-ing. According to a 2019 survey by the workplace hygiene brand Tork, actively taking breaks during the work day dramatically improves productivity, with 90% of surveyed North American employees reporting that they feel more refreshed and ready to work after taking a lunch break away from their desk. Next time you're preparing to dive into a daunting work task, getting away from your desk or work space to eat a meal and relax can help your body and brain recharge and get ready to focus.

2. Do What You Hate Most First… Or Not

Everyone has their own energy patterns throughout each day and each week. Paying attention to your own rhythms — when do you tend to have the most energy to update spreadsheets? draft a mission statement for next year? — can help you find out what time of day you can be most productive. If you're the kind of human who has a burst of energy in the morning, you might want to knock out your least favorite tasks first. That way, when your energy starts to fade, you'll at least have fun work to look forward to and tackle.

On the flip side, you might prefer starting with the things you love; the adrenaline rush of a job well done can help you carry a good mood through the rest of the day. Whatever your rhythms and preferences, finding what works best for you might take some trial and error, but can be well worth it.

3. Spend More Time On Your Hobbies

Dealing with the assumption that you have to be productive all the time to be a worthwhile human (pro tip: you don't) is tough. It can be hard to assert boundaries and tell your work no, but it's a critical skill to develop. Not only does increasing your leisure time improve your mental health, but focusing on your hobbies also makes you more productive at work by recharging your mental energy levels and happiness.

By focusing more on what you want to do and not just what you have to do, you'll store up more emotional energy for getting through things you might not love as much. So whether it's reading fan fiction or underwater basket weaving, get after it to make yourself both happier and more productive.

4. Make Aesthetically Pleasing To-Do Lists

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The more you like your physical workspace, the more productive you'll feel, according to a 2015 article published in the journal Nature. Aesthetically pleasing offices and work environments stimulate emotional investment in your tasks, as well as your resulting productivity, the study found. Even if you don't control the physical space you work in, you can control little things like the design of your to-do list. It'll inspire more creativity and less stress if you make sure the pieces of your job that you can control are relaxing to look at. Whether you do this through color coding, arranging your post-its into different shapes or patterns, or whatever else makes you happy, your to-do list and work day will be emotionally easier to engage with.

5. Go Outside

According to an interview with University of Melbourne researcher Kate Lee in Harvard Business Review, just looking at greenery can increase your productivity and concentration levels. Lee's research found that you could quantify this increase by a whole 6%, while staring at a concrete roof dropped participants' concentration levels by 8%.

What are you to do if you work in the middle of a concrete-filled city? Walking around outside can still be helpful. According to the L.L.Bean 2018 Work and the Outdoors Survey, 74% of people who typically work inside reported improved moods when they spent time outside. Even if it's only for a few minutes, it'll be worth it.

6. Hang Out With Some Plants

If you can't or don't want to go outside, having indoor plants can spark some extra productivity and focus, too. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that actively interacting with indoor plants through looking at them, watering them, and even talking to them can have extremely calming effects on people's nervous systems. People who interact with indoor plants are more likely than those who do not to report feeling calm and soothed during the day, the study concluded. Just think: get yourself a couple indoor plant friends and you, too, can be one of those chilled-out people during the day.

7. Stretch A Little (Or A Lot)

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Stretching isn't just something for the super flexible among us to enjoy. Even extending your arms high overhead while sitting at your desk can give you the benefits of stretching at work. You don't have to even be able to touch your toes for stretching to improve blood flow throughout your body, which increases the amount of nutrients circulating through you. The more nutrients your body is getting, the more focused you'll be able to be. Plus, it just feels really good.

8. Set Boundaries

If you're not at work, you can definitely (and probably should) vent about it. But if you're looking to really carve out some time just for yourself, taking your mind off work completely can also be helpful for your overall productivity. You don't have to avoid talking about work if you want or need to, of course, but you should always feel free to create boundaries in your social life about work talk. Maintaining whatever boundaries you need, both in and out of work, can help you really unplug and clear your brain and body from the demands of your job. The more your headspace gets cleared from work on your off hours, the more energized you'll be when you dive back into it.

9. Socialize A Little More

Sure, being friends with your colleagues can be distracting, but it can also help improve your mental health and job performance. A 2015 study published in the journal Personnel Psychology suggested that while work friends might make office life more complicated, it can also boost your overall productivity. The study found that having friends in the workplace makes you more likely to ask for help when you need it, which is always a good thing.

Being awesome at your job doesn't have to come at the expense of your mental health. Figuring out how to make your work life more sustainable, even in seemingly small ways, can be key to making sure you're crushing it at work and in the rest of your life.

Studies Referenced:

Stuckey, H.L. (2010) The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of rurrent literature. American Journal of Public Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/.

Seresinhe, C.I. (2015) Quantifying the impact of scenic environments on health. Nature, https://www.nature.com/articles/srep16899.

Torres, N. (2015) Gazing at nature makes you more productive: An interview with Kate Lee. Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2015/09/gazing-at-nature-makes-you-more-productive.

Lee, M. (2015) Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4419447/.

Methot, J.R. (2015) Are workplace friendships a mixed blessing? Exploring tradeoffs of multiplex relationships and their associations with job performance. Personnel Psychology, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/peps.12109.