It’s the start of a new year and many of us are aiming high. All of us have at some point said: “This year I want to be more productive, more structured, and feel less stress at the same time.“ We love the feeling of having a blank slate where everything seems possible. As a matter of fact, this is not an unreachable dream as these three often go together: productivity, structure, and healthy stress levels. Sometimes we call it flow. It's that nice feeling of being completely in the zone that psychologist Csíkszentmihályi talked about already in the 1970s. The question is: can flow be used to improve your productivity while at the same time lowering your workplace stress?
If you are a NudgeLabs user, you probably have noticed that while you experience flow and are very productive, you often have low-stress levels. And while we may not reach full flow all the time, we can strive to be as close to it as possible. Wouldn't it make you a much more productive person if you could enter this state more often? So how do we reach the state of flow more often?
Look for new behaviours to increase your productivity and handle your stress
Here’s a great tip: Look for behaviours that you can choose to do. As an example, if you’d come to see me as a psychologist because you sleep poorly, I wouldn’t tell you to “sleep more”. Because that is not something you can do simply by free will (although you probably tried!). Instead, I’d ask you to go to bed at a certain hour, do a specific relaxation exercise, and catch some daylight. All of those are things that you can do at will. You just have to choose to do it, put some effort into it, and it will be done. If you pick and do enough right behaviours you will start to sleep better.
Let’s transfer the idea of looking for things we can do at will to the challenge at hand: what can we do to be more productive, more structured, and still feel less stress? Firstly, if I told you to “be more productive” that’s not a very specific instruction that you easily could follow at will, and neither is the advice “stress less”. But if I’d tell you to be more structured, perhaps a few ideas come to mind?
Improve your productivity and get relief from stress with the help of a structure
The structure is many things: time structure, methodology, and routines. It’s not about being rigid. It’s about finding the comfort of a predictable-enough process where you fall into a helpful and effort-saving rhythm. A rhythm where you don’t have to pull things from thin air, reschedule, squeeze in, or pretend you’re on top of things all the time.
Spend five minutes on setting up a supportive structure for yourself. Start with the step you think might help you the most:
Better sleep means increased productivity and lower stress
It sets a structure on the day that everything else can rest upon if your sleep is regular. It has social, emotional as well as biological benefits to have a regular sleep schedule. Remember the Nobel prize of 2017 about all those circadian rhythms that we have in all organs and all cells in our body? To be efficient, they try to predict when they need to be active or when they can rest. For their predictions to come true you need to be regular with things such as sleep.
All adults should sleep 7 hours or more (read more about recommendations related to sleep habits here) and a recent study found that going to bed between 22-23 o’clock is best for your heart health. However, but just adjusting your bedtimes to be as regular as many nights as possible will be helpful. It’s better to have a routine that you keep coming back to than to not have any routine at all.
How do you create a sleep routine to become more productive and to lower your stress?
How to do it:
- Identify the time you want or need to get up
- Count backwards to add your sleep need (7-9 hours) to that. Then add a 30-minute margin to that, and clearly state your bedtime to yourself
- Set a reminder for yourself 30-60 minutes before your bedtime to start winding down for bed.
Example: I want to get up at 7 am. I need 7h30 minutes of sleep. Then add 30 minutes to that which means I need to go to bed at 23 pm. I have set an alarm at 22 pm to stop doing more active things such as checking mail and social media, to start winding down, and to instead have a nice and relaxing last part of my day.
Improve your productivity and manage your stress with the help of mealtimes
If your sleep is regular, strive to get your mealtimes to be regular as well. The rest often fall into place rather easily. You can plan 3 or more or fewer meals. However, I would recommend you plan for them even if you just take a cup of black coffee. Regular mealtimes can have several benefits not only for your digestive system but also for fewer mood swings and improved energy levels.
While it’s a challenge for some to even make the choice to set something that sounds as boring as mealtimes, for most people the challenge is to stick to them. You will probably have to plan ahead a bit, some days more than others. Dear reader, this is what structure is about. Your investment in preparing the lunch in advance isn’t without effort. However, it pays off with less stress around lunchtime and/or better mood and energy in the afternoon.
Improve your productivity and decrease your stress levels with a work routine
If your job is flexible, set your own start and finish times for work. One of the great advantages of this is that you know when you are not working. The time when you are not working is spent recharging so that you can be productive when you start working again. It is related to your well-being as well as other beneficial outcomes.
You need to make sure that you are not covertly working outside of your working hours, such as just checking your mail, or just problem-solving an issue in your mind. If you feel you need to do such tasks between your workdays, schedule them in and make a routine of them. If not, stick to recharging for work by resting, socializing, playing, doing hobbies, spending time with your family, and all the other things in your life.
How about my goals for productivity and stress management?
We started this post talking about wanting to start afresh and be more productive, more structured, and feel less stress. We identified being more structured as easier to translate into behaviours we can do at will. What if we had chosen to target increased productivity? And what if we started to identify behaviours you could do to reach that goal? I think we just might have reached the same conclusion - that implementing a structure is a good way to improve your productivity. If you sleep, eat, and rest regularly, your more stable mood, focus, and energy levels will boost your productivity. The same goes for decreasing stress, as the added structure to your life often diminishes stress and “feeling out of control” and is a common stress management technique.
Go ahead and try what increased structure in your daily life can do for you. You will find out how it can improve your productivity and decrease your stress levels enormously!