We’ve all seen those productivity studies circulating out there: Some claim that a certain mood will create a boost in productivity — “happiness,” for example, clocks in at a 12 percent boost. Other studies credit a food or beverage (or the lack thereof) for increased productivity — coffee is said to improve your alertness.
And still more studies have even prescribed a specific habit for a productivity increase, e.g., working for 52 minutes, then resting 17.
All these research results sound insightful, and we may be tempted to to take them at face value. Unfortunately, though, we may be better off ignoring productivity studies altogether, as they’re not always as accurate or helpful as they claim. Here’s why:
Problem 1: What counts as “productivity”?
First, not all of these studies are measuring the same thing. Productivity can be defined in multiple ways. One of the most obvious methods is to measure raw output, such as tasks completed; one study that found remote work to be more productive than office work, for example, took measurements in the form of number of calls completed.
So, it’s tempting, but illogical, to apply this increase in productivity to, say, making sandwiches, writing articles or training as a professional athlete.
Problem 2: marginal (or contradictory) effects
The “happiness” productivity study cited above illustrates the sometimes exceptional productivity numbers in these studies: It marked an average increase of 12 percent.
The problem is that in most studies, average productivity increases have been marginal at best, barely breaking into double digits. This is potentially significant, but still probably isn’t going to revolutionize how you work.
Problem 3: Sensationalism
When good studies are conducted and published in scientific journals, they undergo significant scrutiny for accuracy and presentation. After that, they’re vulnerable to sensationalism from the media.
For example, a 2015 study that found a link between red meat consumption and cancer immediately led to headlines implying that eating red meat is as bad for you as smoking — which isn’t true at all.
Problem 4: Confirmation bias
After reading a study and following its advice, you might see results, but that’s probably just confirmation bias. Once you’ve shifted your assumptions to expect a certain outcome, you’ll disproportionately value evidence that agrees with that outcome.
Problem 5: the placebo effect
Along the same lines, there’s a good chance you actually will see an increase in productivity once you change your habits, but not because of your new habit. It may be due to the placebo effect, which is so powerful that it can kick in even if you know you’re taking a placebo. Since that’s the case, literally anything you do will boost your productivity.
Problem 6: individual differences
Finally, consider that no matter what the studies find, or what new information is rolled out, its relevance to you is going to depend on several factors, all of which are unique to you. No two people work the same way or have the same working preferences, so your productivity gains and losses will depend on your disposition and circumstances, including where you work, what you do, your physical health and your mental health.
So, does this mean you should instantly disregard any new study that purports to have the “secret” to productivity? Not necessarily. These studies are fascinating to learn from, and their suggestions are worth a try — especially if they’re easy. Just don’t be too quick to assume that what they preach is an absolute and measurable truth. You’ll need to find those results for yourself.