Master these 5 productivity fundamentals before you try another tip, tool, or hack

If you’re reading this, it’s a safe bet that you want to be more productive. After all, using apps like RescueTime has a clear benefit on your productivity. However, productivity tools, tricks, and hacks are only a small part of a much bigger story. 

Productivity fundamentals like your health, lifestyle, and work environment contribute more to your focus, energy levels, and overall productivity than any tool or hack. 

Yet most of us don’t examine these factors with the same detail. That’s because it’s easier to try a new tool or productivity app than change your lifestyle.  

But without a solid foundation, you’ll always be searching for the next small hack instead of building your productivity fundamentals and work habits from the ground up. 

In this post, we’re going to dig deep into how to optimize the ‘real world’ productivity fundamentals, from what you eat to where you work to the science behind supplements and drugs.  

Ready to master the fundamentals? Download our free Real-world Productivity Fundamentals Cheatsheet!

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Exercise: Boost your energy and focus in a few minutes a day

We all know the benefits of exercise (losing weight, decreasing the risk of health problems, etc…) And most of us know we could be spending more time in the gym or outside. 

Yet according to research from the CDC, only 23% of adults hit the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week

Our sedentary lifestyles have led to a health epidemic, with sitting being compared to smoking. However, if that isn’t enough to get you moving, all that sitting isn’t doing your productivity any favors, either. Long sitting time at work was linked to lower productivity and mental well-being

It’s easy to skip workouts when you’re busy and your to-do list is stacked. (I know I’ve used that excuse many times!) However, exercising doesn’t just help you physically, there’s increasing evidence that it’s also a productivity fundamental that can help increase your mental strength, discipline, and ability to get more done in less time. 

How exercising makes you more productive and creative (according to research)

Let’s start with a bit of empirical proof. 

Researchers from the University of Georgia found that people engaging in low-intensity and moderate-intensity exercise both enjoyed increased energy levels and less fatigue.

In other studies, exercise has been shown to help decrease the symptoms of clinical anxiety and combat depression—two factors that have an outsized impact on our productivity.

Many of the things that get in the way of your daily productivity—like stress, procrastination, and a lack of motivation—are emotional issues and can’t be solved with tools or technology. 

While I’m not recommending replacing prescribed treatments with a gym membership, the research clearly shows that the more active you are, the more focused, energetic, and productive you’ll be.  

But that’s not all. Even the most basic exercise—walking—can increase creative output by 60%. And that number only goes up if you’re walking outdoors or in nature. 

Exercise even changes how employees experience their work, with gym-going workers reporting more effective time-management, smoother interactions with colleagues, and higher satisfaction levels. 

Simple ways to add more exercise into your weekly routine

From the research, it’s clear that exercising can lead to an increase in productivity, including related traits such as increased creativity and decreased stress. 

However, you need to be sensible. Hundreds of thousands of people are injured in the gym each year, not including those injured playing sports. The good news is that you don’t need to take up CrossFit or look like Schwarzenegger to get the benefits. 

Here are a few ways to update your exercise routine and increase your productivity:

  • Stand more. While standing desks (or it’s scary sibling, the treadmill desk) may be an option, they’re not essential. Simply take short breaks throughout the day to stand up and move about. 
  • Focus on ‘low intensity’ exercise. You don’t have to get all sweaty to benefit from exercise. Low-intensity exercises, such as taking a walk during your break or opting for the stairs rather than the elevator, are all easy ways to get a little more exercise each day. 
  • Favor small, intense workouts over longer ones. With high-intensity interval training (HIIT), you can get massive benefits in a fraction of the time. Rather than spend an hour on the treadmill, spend four minutes doing Tabata sprints. How’s that for being productive?

Tools & Apps to help you change your exercise habit 

  • Google Fit/Apple Health. If you’re looking for a simple way to track your steps or a way to consolidate all your fitness data from different apps, chances are you already have a fitness tracking app that’ll do all that preinstalled on your phone.
  • A timer. Whether it’s setting an alarm to remind you to stand up and shake it off or using a stopwatch to time those Tabata sprints, you don’t need a fancy app. The simplest clock is all you need. 
  • Seven Minute Workout (Android/iOS). Still complaining about not having enough time to fit in a workout? The seven-minute workout involves 12 different exercises, performed at high intensity for 30 seconds with a 10-second break between each. You don’t need any equipment (unless you count a chair and a wall), but its high intensity means it’s not suitable for beginners.
  • Bodyspace. The Bodyspace site and app serve as an exercise database, tracker, and community. While generally aimed at bodybuilders, the site can help you with any fitness goal you have and includes detailed instructions on carrying out exercises with proper form and safety. 

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Sleep: Let your mind (and body) recharge

Sleep and productivity have always had an awkward relationship. We easily skip our 8 hours to hit a deadline, caffeinate ourselves when we should be taking a nap, and generally try to ‘cheat’ our need to sleep. 

Despite the National Sleep Foundation’s recommendation that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep, a recent survey shows that, on average, no country is hitting 8 hours of sleep per night.

Yet being tired does more than just make you want to curl up and go back to bed. It’s also been shown to inhibit your decision-making skills, make it harder to learn, and, in extreme cases, even increase the risk of migraine or possibly epileptic attacks

We all have to sleep at some point. So how can we optimize our sleeping time to help us be more productive? 

How sleep (and the lack of it) impacts your productivity

It’s generally accepted that it’s not a good idea to turn up to work drunk (even if you’re a writer). However, you may be getting the same effect if you’re not getting enough sleep. 

According to Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, people who average four hours of sleep a night for four or five days become significantly impaired; equivalent to legal drunkenness

That lack of sleep is also hitting your creativity, according to a recent study of interior design students. Students who didn’t get enough sleep, who had highly variable sleep durations, or had fragmented sleep scored worse on laboratory measures of creativity.

On the other hand, regularly hitting your recommended hours of nightly sleep unlocks your creativity, productivity, and energy. As former AirBnB developer, Jonathan White told us

“It seems too basic, but once I started getting into a schedule of going to sleep at the same time every night and getting 8 hours without compromise, I started to see results. While I had less absolute time to work, I had much more time in terms of focused work.”

Simple ways to fix your sleep schedule

While it’s clear that a lack of sleep has adverse effects, you don’t want to get too much either. Obviously, your productivity is going to take a hit if you spend all day in bed. But too much sleep is also connected to depression, mental health issues, and many of the same problems as insufficient sleep. 

Instead, if you want to be more productive during the day, you need to prioritize your sleep hygiene and build a regular, healthy nightly sleep schedule.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Prioritize sleep. Despite knowing the importance of sleep, when we’re under pressure and facing deadlines, the temptation is to keep going. Remember, you need to sleep to be productive, so make sure you’re getting enough. 
  • Focus on the quality of your sleep. Not all sleep is equal. Make sure you’re getting a good quality night’s sleep by having an uncluttered bedroom kept at a comfortable temperature and avoiding caffeine/alcohol/screentime late in the day.
  • Keep a regular bedtime/wake-up time. It’s tempting to get less sleep during the week then try and make up for it by sleeping in over the weekend. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Sticking to the same bedtime and wind-down routine will help your body fall asleep and wake up easier. 

Tools & Apps to help with your sleep

  • A comfortable mattress. I knew I’d officially become an adult when I was more excited about buying my new mattress than getting a game console. A good night’s sleep starts with a good mattress, so if yours has springs sticking out of it, it’s time to invest in a new one. I’m a big fan of memory foam, but it’s worth trying out a few and seeing what works best for you. 
  • Sleep tracking app. What gets measured gets managed. Along with seeing how many hours of deep sleep you’re really getting, you can even set the alarm to wake you at the optimal time in your sleep cycle. I personally recommend Sleep as Android, while Apple users may like Pillow
  • Sunrise alarm clock. I hate alarm clocks. I hate the blaring noise that shatters your dreams with all the subtlety and empathy of a tornado. However, a sunrise alarm clock helps you wake up gently, gradually increasing the light in the room so you’re more likely to wake up naturally. 
  • Blue light filters. We all know that we shouldn’t be staring at our screens at night. The blue light can seriously mess with your quality of sleep. That’s when a blue-light filter comes in handy. My favorite is f.lux, which automatically adjusts the light settings on my laptop, perfect for those when I really do need to hit those last-minute deadlines. 

Diet: Give your mind the right fuel for all-day productivity

Some people eat to live, others live to eat. Whatever your attitude towards food, it’s the fuel we need to get things done.

But while most people focus on the general health aspect of their diet, few think about the impact it has on their cognitive abilities. We’ve all had a big lunch and ended up feeling sluggish and victim to the dreaded afternoon slump

Instead, the right diet can have a huge impact on your daily energy and focus levels throughout the day. 

How your diet impacts your productivity (according to research)

Let’s start with the basics. When it comes to food and productivity, your brain is only really interested in glucose, ignoring virtually all other fuel sources.

Not only that, but researchers have found our brains work best with a consistent 25 grams of glucose in our bloodstream. When we hit this ‘magic number’ we’re energized, focused, and more productive. So where do you get it from?

A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the best option is protein (such as a supplement, nuts or nut butter, or small serving of chicken or beef). 

Unlike carbs or fat that only provide a 15-20 minute boost in energy after ingesting, the study found that protein provides enhanced cognitive abilities for much longer.

So protein is important. What else? 

My mother always insisted I eat more fruit and veg, and it turned out she was right all along (nobody let her know I said that, okay?)

In one study, the more fruit and veg people ate (up to 7 portions), the happier, more engaged, and more creative they were. This is because they contain nutrients that foster the production of dopamine—the chemical that controls our reward-focused behaviors and help promote curiosity, motivation, and engagement with work. 

Lastly, don’t forget about how much you drink if you want to stay productive. Researchers found that dehydration led to participants ‘making more goofs.’

How to change your diet to make you more productive

A healthy and balanced diet provides us with more energy, as well as improves our mental health, which makes it easier to tackle our to-do list. However, it’s vital to get the balance right.

Too much food or the wrong kind of diet can lead to sluggishness and fatigue, and taken too far can lead to major health problems. 

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need. As we’ve seen, certain foods with a lower glycemic index (such as some fruit and veg, wholegrain foods, and protein) break down slowly and provide a consistent source of glucose, making them generally a healthy option. 
  • Don’t shop when you’re hungry. If you’re waiting until lunchtime before deciding what you’re going to eat, you’re going to make a bad decision. Studies show you’re a lot better at resisting salt, calories, and fat when we’re making decisions for the future, rather than right now. 

Tools & Apps to help change your diet

  • A water bottle. It’s recommended that you drink 2 liters of water a day, but it’s often hard to keep track of how much you’re actually drinking. Carrying a water bottle so you can see at a glance how much you’ve drunk makes it a lot easier. 
  • Healthy snacks. We all snack. So you should have healthy options around. Keep it simple. Get rid of junk food and replace it with fruits, nuts, and healthy alternatives. 
  • MyFitnessPal. I’ve found tracking the calories and making good dietary choices is a lot easier with an app. The MyFitnessPal app contains over 6 million different foods in its database and is available on Android and iOS

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Environment: The invisible hand that guides your productivity

Not long ago, every office looked the same. You’d have your desk, your cubicle, and the same beige paint on every wall. Then companies like Google and Facebook came along, and suddenly every office needed slides and ping pong tables. More recently, the rise of the remote worker means more people are working from home or the local Starbucks. 

Our working environment has changed rapidly, but what effect is it having on our productivity?

We’ve already covered on the site how clutter, sound, pets, and plants can all affect our productivity, but is there anything else we need to know to make the most of where we work? 

How your work environment impacts your productivity (according to research)

Where we work has more of an impact than we might first think. For example, a recent study found that the usual bland gray, beige, and white paint on office walls had an effect on employee’s moods, causing feelings of sadness and even depression.

Along with the color of your walls, the temperature, lighting, and even smells can directly impact your productivity. Research has revealed the optimal temperature for a typical workplace environment is around 22 °C (that’s approximately 71.6 °F). 

While another study found that workers with natural light sources stayed focused on tasks for 15% longer than those who worked in artificial lighting only. Employees who worked in a windowless environment reported less vitality and less sleep. 

Finally, according to one report, what we smell can affect our productivity for the better. A lemon scent apparently resulted in 54% fewer mistakes.

How to change your environment to be more productive

The hardest part about changing your work environment is that it isn’t always up to you. (Unless you work from home, but even then, sounds, smells, lighting, and temperatures might be out of your control.) 

We all have specific preferences, and what helps you become more productive might hurt someone else. Some people prefer to work in silence, while others need sound. Some prefer a colder room that keeps them on their toes, while others want to be comfortably warm. 

However, certain factors are just common sense and can have a positive effect on everyone’s work. Here are a few places to get started:

  • Choose a window seat whenever possible. Reading the research, one thing is clear: windows are amazing. Along with being a source of natural light, you can also open them when you need some fresh air. As someone who once was stuck in a windowless office for nearly a year, I’ll never take them for granted again. 
  • Find a comfortable temperature. The research found that productivity started decreasing when the temperature went above 23-24 °C (or around 73-75 °F), so make sure you sort out the thermostat with your coworkers. If you can’t find a solution, bring in your own tools such as a USB fan (if it’s too hot) or a sweater (if it’s too cold). 
  • Try to get outside. Even if you can’t control your office environment, you can usually make the most of being outside. Taking a walk at lunchtime doesn’t just get you moving, it also helps you get more of that natural light and clean air.

Tools & Apps to help improve your work environment

  • An air purifier. Don’t settle for stale air and pollutants in your office. By purifying the air you’re breathing in, you can improve your health and your productivity. 
  • An air freshener. The research suggests the scent of lemon will help you make fewer mistakes (although jasmine and lavender also helped). 

Drugs: Is there a ‘magic pill’ for productivity?

And now for something completely different. 

Recent headlines from both Wall Street and Silicon Valley show how workers are willing to do anything to get a productive edge. Even if that means microdosing LSD or taking ‘smart drugs’ (aka nootropics). But do they work? And maybe, more importantly, are they safe?   

What the research says about ‘smart drugs’ and productivity

‘Smart drugs’ cover a whole range of substances from vitamins to class A narcotics. But let’s start with everyone’s favorite performance-enhancing drug: caffeine. 

Whether it’s your daily cup(s) of coffee, a can of Red Bull, or some other source, most people will grab some form of caffeine every single day. Evidence shows that caffeine has clear beneficial effects on attention, as well as alertness, vigilance, and reaction times

Vitamins are another potential productivity booster. Research has shown that chronic stress can eat into your vitamin B6 reserves, meaning that topping up with B6 vitamins could help reduce stress. However, before you get too enthusiastic, a review of various nutrients/supplements found no ‘convincing evidence’ they improved cognitive performance

What about more… ‘exotic’ (i.e. illegal) options? 

While the research on microdosing is still in its early stages, initial studies have found potential benefits, including increased focus, happiness, creativity and productivity. It also reportedly helped reduce levels of depression, stress, and distraction. However, it wasn’t all good news though, as they also found a link with increased neuroticism. 

Not to mention the legality issues as well as potential health dangers of taking any narcotics. Proceed at your own risk. 

Finally, what about the fabled ‘smart drugs’ (aka nootropics)? 

While the idea of a magic super-pill is appealing, the topic is complex and the research that exists is often inconclusive. Understanding every single way a substance can affect us, for better or worse, is going to take a lot more than one blog post. 

Even where there are potential benefits, there’s always the risk of serious side-effects. 

For example, even though some studies suggest drugs made for treating ADHD, such as Ritalin and Adderall, can help improve concentration, they have also been linked to insomnia, hallucinations, seizures, heart trouble and sudden death

As things stand, the benefits to productivity are unclear and are often outweighed by the negatives. They’re also not a substitute for the fundamentals we’ve already mentioned: Sleep, exercise, diet, and environment. 

Simple (and legal) ‘drugs’ that will help with your daily productivity

While the more extreme ‘smart drugs’ we’ve talked about are full of potentially dangerous side effects and legal issues, there are some substances that are easily available and have been shown to help you be more productive. Here are a few: 

  • Caffeine with L-Theanine. As you’re probably already on caffeine, a good first step is adding L-Theanine to the mix. Commonly found in tea, L-Theanine combines well with caffeine to give you all the advantages of that double espresso, but without the jitters. 
  • Ginkgo Biloba. This tree’s leaves and seeds are popular in traditional Chinese medicine. Today, it’s supporters claim it can treat headaches, reduce anxiety, and improve brain function. 
  • A healthy balanced diet. Yes, I’m totally cheating here. Still, all the multi-vitamins and supplements in the world aren’t a substitute for eating properly. Taking the latest nootropic on a diet of junk food is pretty much pointless. By eating properly, you can get most of the advantages without worrying about side-effects. 

Start with the productivity fundamentals

We all want to squeeze more into our day. But to perform at our optimum we need to focus on more than just the latest productivity ‘hack’. 

By carefully considering the factors that affect our productivity—primarily our exercise, sleep, diet and environment—and being sensible with the supplements we take, it’s possible to truly be more productive. 

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