5 Scientific Studies That Will Change Your Productivity Habits Forever

Karola Karlson |  June 7, 2016 |  Last updated: October 10, 2016

studies about productivity

Warren Buffett once said:

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything.”

In which group do you belong – successful people of very successful people? If you’re like the most of us, the answer is: Neither.


Luckily, there are many interesting pieces of research that yield amazing discoveries on how our productivity works.


Up next, we’ll look into 5 scientific studies whose results have surprised many time management and business coaches.


Are you ready to find out what science has to say about your productivity?


Study 1: Rewards work magic on our motivation


Want to motivate yourself to stay at work for longer hours, hit the gym more often, or finish all tasks on time?


Then you need to hear about this study.


Researchers Katherine L. Milkman, Julia A. Minson, and Kevin G. M. Volpp wanted to see whether the right motivation would make college students visit the gym more often.


So they gathered together 226 students who were having trouble going to the gym as often as they would have liked to.


Next, they broke the students into 3 groups:
1. Group One got an iPod loaded with popular audiobooks. They got it as a 10-week loan and were allowed to only listen to it in the gym

2. Group Two got the audiobooks for free, and they could load these to their personal iPods. They were encouraged to listen to the tracks in the gym but could also do it anywhere else.

3. Group Three was the control group. They got a gift certificate and were encouraged to hit the gym more often.

productivity study

The audio novels included cool books such as The Hunger Games trilogy, the Da Vinci Code trilogy, the Twilight series, etc. – highly addictive books that are hard to put down.


Guess which group worked out the most?


It was Group One, the students that got the iPod as a loan and could only listen to it in the gym. They were a lot more motivated to work out as they had a reward accessible only while being physically in the gym. This lead the first group to outperform the second one by 29% and the third one by 51%.


By physically restricting access to the tempting desire the students got a 22% boost compared to their average productivity.

productivity study

The rewarding system worked so well that when being asked whether they’d like to keep paying to use iPods, 61% of the group members said yes.


How to apply the findings to your personal daily routine:

  • Find something you love doing (e.g. listening to a new album, reading online articles, eating chocolate)
  • Tie the reward with an action – you’ll get the good stuff whenever you finish a task or work on one.
  • Don’t let yourself have the reward before you’ve completed the task.

Source: Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling, see the link


Study 2: A planned life equals a happy life


Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, has said: a wandering mind is not a happy mind.


We spend over 45% of our waking hours thinking about multiple tasks at once. Moreover, we’re unable to focus on the thing we’re doing at the moment. This kind of mind wondering can lead to increased unhappiness in the long term.


In order to live a happier and more fulfilling life, we need to plan our time accordingly.


A study from the Journal of Happiness Studies discovered that people who manage their free time have a better quality of life.


So what are the best ways to get the most out of your time?


In her book What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career, author Laura Vanderkam wrote:


“Preliminary analysis from CEOs in India found that a firm’s sales increased as the CEO worked more hours. But more intriguingly, the correlation between CEO time use and output was driven entirely by hours spent in planned activities. Planning doesn’t have to mean that the hours are spent in meetings; it’s just that CEO time is a limited and valuable resource, and planning how it should be allocated increases the chances that it’s spent in productive ways.”

Laura has also said that


“Successful people know that hours, like capital, can be consciously allocated with the goal of creating riches—in the form of a changed world, life’s work—over time.”

According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and the guy behind the Study Hacks Blog, scheduling every hour of the day is one the biggest factors of success.


The best way to set up your day for success is to schedule EVERY SINGLE MINUTE of it.


Every Friday after work or every Monday before starting your week, take the time to review your to-do list and assign a time period to each. A simple yet effective tool for planning your time is Notion. Check it out!

productivity tool Notion

Planning your days hour-by-hour is beneficial in many ways:

  • You have a clear task list and know what to do after finishing the previous task
  • Limited time brackets help to finish tasks faster, avoiding overthinking some little details
  • You’ll get so much more work done as you know exactly what tasks needs to be completed


Source: Free Time Management Contributes to Better Quality of Life: A Study of Undergraduate Students in Taiwan, see the link here
Read more: Time-tracking Tips and Best Practices for Teams and Individuals

Study 3: You can achieve ANY goal by NOT doing these things

Are job-seekers more likely to find work if they visualize themselves as future CEOs, or question whether they really will attain the ideal position?


A popular guess is that visualizing one’s future success will lead to higher achievements. In fact, the opposite is true.


Research shows that positive fantasies about future success yield poor results as they do not generate the energy needed to pursue the desired goals. Instead, positive dreams have a negative psychological effect on people, making them indulge in their fantasies and not focusing on achieving them.


So here’s the verdict: Do not waste time thinking about your future success and daydreaming of positive fantasies.


You also shouldn’t tell about your goals to other people. A study conducted by Peter M. Gollwitzer indicated that individuals feel closer to having achieved their identity goals when their identity-relevant activities (e.g., getting a promotion) are noticed by others.


As you tell other people about your goals, you’ll feel like you’ve already accomplished them. This leads to poor work performance and unfinished goals.


How to set attainable goals and achieve them:

  • Avoid fantasizing about your future success and create an actionable plan to get to where you want to be
  • Keep your goals to yourself. Telling others about your goals decreases the likelihood of achieving them
  • Break a big goal into smaller objectives that are easily completed and attainable shortly


Sources: “Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy from Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, see link here


Striving for Specific Identities: The Social Reality of Self-Symbolizing, see link here

See the list of 12 productivity tools to make your day at work even more productive.

Study 4: Find your “signature strengths” (and do it fast!)

Want to know how to be more motivated, happy, and productive at work?


Research that examined Americans’ happiness and energy levels found that when people work on something that they’re good at, they feel happier and more energetic.

There are many studies showing that “signature strengths” make people happier.


And why wouldn’t they? – Being good at something boosts confidence and makes the tasks more enjoyable.


According to the research, the more hours per day Americans get to use their strengths; the less likely they are to report experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, or physical pain. Working on something that you’re good at raises energy levels and self.confidence, leading to a happier mood.


The more signature strengths were applied at the workplace, the more positive experiences the subjects had at work.

signature strengths

The easiest way to feel happier and more driven at work is to find a job you love. Using your strengths helps to create a flow of work, and you won’t even notice as the hours pass by while working on tasks.


This study also showed that character strengths matter in vocational environments irrespective of their content. This means that we should apply as many of our strengths as possible, regardless of their nature (strong communication skills, advanced technical knowledge, etc.)


How to make the “signature streghts” work for you:

  • Find your “signature strengths.” These might be related to your job or simply things you’re good at, such as communicating with other people
  • Create new “signature strengths” by learning a new skill
  • Be creative about your work tasks and think of new ways to apply your best skills to every activity at work (make the tasks more like you)


Source: When Americans Use Their Strengths More, They Stress Less, see link here



Study 5: If you can’t eliminate bad habits, replace them


Studies show that as we decide to quit a bad habit, we’re likely to indulge in it even more often.


Resolving what you would not do in the future (as opposed to what you would) can lead to a “behavioral ironic rebound effect.”


A study found that “negation implementation intentions” did, ironically, strengthen the habit one aimed to break. So simply quitting a bad habit is not a good choice if you want to get rid of it.


Additionally, the research found that negation implementation intentions are most likely to result in rebound effects when the habit to be negated are strong.


Here’s what you should do instead.


First, we need to recognize the problem. Up next, we need to find the source of the bad habit.


In many cases, your bad habit is a simple way to cope with stress. For example, eating chocolate, biting your nails, etc.


Sometimes, we think a habit is productive while in reality, it’s making us less energetic and shortening our attention span. Think about reading emails – it makes us feel connected but distracts us from serious work.

signature strengths
To break a bad habit, we need to find a substitute for it. You need an alternative action for the time when boredom or stress kicks in. For example, instead of eating a bar of chocolate, you could brew yourself a cup of tea.


Whatever your substitute might be, you need a plan of what to do when feeling like indulging in a bad habit.


More ideas for quitting a bad habit:

  • Cut out all the triggers. Usually, bad habits are triggered by another action. Learn to avoid these or replace the second act with something new instead of the old habitual action
  • Find a partner in crime. It is easier to quit a bad habit if someone stands beside you and tackles with the same issues
  • Visualize yourself succeeding – think how great it would feel to have quit the bad habit. You can do it!


Source: Planning What Not to Eat: Ironic Effects of Implementation Intentions Negating Unhealthy Habits.


Get inspired: 20 TOP Productivity Blogs 2016 (Only The Best)

There are so many different possibilities of how to make your life and work more successful and productive. Taking small steps in the right direction will lead to long-term achievements and a fulfilling life.


If you’d like to read more on productivity, see this article: 5 Easy Steps to Be More Productive (And Work Smarter Instead of Harder)

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