Fun: the unsurprising secret to productivity

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The interior of an office with cool breakout spaces

Tales of Silicon Valley offices have become part of office folklore. Slides! Ball ponds! Ping pong tables in company colours! But while they certainly look enjoyable, surely they’re just a distraction from the actual business of Getting Stuff Done?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that happier employees are more productive and Hope Bastine, the psychologist and mindfulness expert from Fresh Perceptions, knows why. “We all need rest and recovery in order to perform, and taking periods of rest is important to break up the day,” she explains. “Based on neuroscientific evidence our brains want to work in four-hour chunks, so you can really only sustain a level of productivity for that amount of time before you need a break.”

“The general rule of thumb is to do something completely different to what you were doing for work,” says Hope, who works with companies and individuals to help them achieve their potential. “Getting away from your desk, taking a walk, taking time to refresh you brain and your body. Sometimes it’s simply having a chat with somebody and bouncing off ideas. Actually, conversation can be a great stimulus in that way.” That all sounds appealing – and far more fun than wrestling with that spreadsheet we need to create – but is there a danger that we’ll have too much fun and neglect our tasks? “We are actually highly motivated to work: we know that work gives us what we need to live a certain lifestyle, but it also contributes to who we are and our place in society – and the way we contribute to society is through work,” says Hope. “But sometimes it is hard work! Our brains like to go the easy way and sometimes the easy way isn’t feasible.”

“Work doesn’t always have to look like it’s hard work all the time. We do a lot of background processing, a lot of thinking, so even when you go for a walk it’s all contributing to the project.”

If you’re struggling to complete a task – like that nightmare spreadsheet, for example – Hope recommends taking a step back and thinking about why you’re doing it. “First of all, I would ask people to think about their level of motivation for their activity. We all need short, medium and long-term goals. If the reason you’re doing the work feels out of reach, your motivation levels could be low.”

“We’re also shaped by reward and punishment, so if you’re working on a task that is boring or hard to do it’s important to motivate yourself with small rewards – not just big ones – in order to get you through.” Hope also has a clever hack for cheating procrastination: “I believe the reason we procrastinate is that we’re actually just not ready to do that task yet, and we need to manipulate ourselves a little bit. For example, at the beginning of the week I will write a to-do list and I will prioritise it against time and task. If there’s something in there that I feel I’m avoiding I will put a few smaller tasks in front of it to give myself a boost and make me feel I can do it,” she explains. Don’t leave it until the very end, however, as you may no longer have the energy to tackle it.

Inside Google offices with bean bags, vending machines and pac-man games

Since Hope believes that we all ultimately want to work (even if you don’t feel that way at 3pm on a Friday), she says employers need to trust their teams to manage their own productivity. “Work doesn’t always have to look like it’s hard work all the time,” she says. “We do a lot of background processing, a lot of thinking, so even when you go for a walk it’s all contributing to the project. The industrial revolution has shaped our working day, but that’s changing rapidly now.”

Indeed, a growing number of businesses – especially start-ups – are embracing more fun and flexible working patterns. There’s a strong case for doing so, according to Hope: “There are two things going on: we have some economy issues and there’s a push in the UK to extend the retirement age – but we also have a burnout phenomenon, which we’ve never had in the history of our evolution.” She continues: “If we had shorter work days or weeks, if we enjoyed our work more and if we lined up our productivity windows with our circadian rhythms, for example, we would be in a much more sustainable position.”

Overhauling your company’s hours may sound too much like hard work, but there are some simpler steps to make the 9 to 5 more enjoyable. “It’s partly about creating in an environment that facilitates flow state or facilitates relaxation. Many people work in an environment that is stressful, it’s tense, even on a sensory basis it’s distressing. I go to many places that don’t even have a living thing in the office, yet we know that simply looking at a picture of nature relaxes us,” she explains. Sticking a succulent on your desk could make you on task as well as on trend, it seems.

So, who are the companies getting it right? Hope points towards British multinational tech company Improbable, where she leads meditations once a week. “They have a very different work environment. For example, they offer lunch to their employees and there’s a policy of no phones or computers in the kitchen. They all sit at this big bench table and chat and eat together, so lunchtime is a completely work-free zone,” she says. It all sounds worlds away from a sad sandwich eaten ‘al desko.’ “Plus they have bean bags, and quiet rooms so you can do a bit of meditation or yoga. And there are ping pong tables – of course!”

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Image credits: Getty Images, Shutterstock


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