8 Ways Creative Types Can Increase Focus and Productivity

Filed in Boost Creativity, Productivity and Time Management by on March 7, 2016 • views: 3003

Productivity 2Everyone wants to be more productive these days.

We all have so much to do. Is it possible to do more in less time?

Whatever apps you may use or tasks you may delegate, there’s one thing you must do if you want to stay on top of your “to-do” list—keep your brain functioning on a high level.

Maybe one day we’ll have computer parts in our skulls, but until then, the brain remains a living organ, much like the heart. That means you need some good daily habits to support your brain’s ability to keep up.

1. What you eat matters.

Fast foods, fried foods, and other heavy foods slow you down. Researchers now know that food is like a pharmaceutical compound affecting the brain. Want to boost focus and productivity?

Eat more:

  • Salmon, walnuts, flaxseed, and olive oils: They’re full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids that improve learning, help fight against depression, and keep the brain healthy.
  • Blueberries: They’re high in antioxidants, which protect brain cells.
  • Spinach: It’s a good source of folic acid, which is essential for brain function. A deficiency can lead to depression and reduced cognitive performance. Folic acid supplementation has been shown to help reduce the risk of dementia in seniors.

Eat less:

  • Excess calories reduce mental flexibility and increase risk of brain cell damage.
  • Junk food and fast food: They actually affect the brain’s synapses, and reduce short-term memory.
  • Donuts: High-sugar foods have been found in studies to slow learning and damage memory. (Watch out for the high fructose corn syrup as well—it’s been shown to slow brain function.)

Be careful with carbs: Modern-day wisdom says to limit (or eliminate) carbs. A low-carb diet can backfire on your brain, though. According to a study from Tufts University, women who eliminated carbs performed poorly on memory-based tests. Low-carb diets have also been linked with depression and anxiety.

Diets that reduce overall calories, but that allow some healthy carbs (like whole grains, whole-grain pasta, popcorn, whole fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and tubers like sweet potatoes) are your best bet if you want to lose weight but stay sharp.

2. Some supplements can help.

Particularly when you’re going through periods of stress, supplements can be helpful in maintaining the brainpower you need to stay productive. Though some studies have been mixed, the following have evidence behind them and are good options to try:

  • Ginkgo biloba (don’t take with anti-inflammatory drugs or other blood thinners, as gingko has a blood-thinning property)
  • Fish oil (for those healthy omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Phosphatidylserine—a “new” brain supplement shown promising in studies so far
  • Creatine—shown in studies to improve short-term memory and reasoning skills
  • L-tyrosine—improves cognition when you’re under stress, and may counteract mental fatigue
  • B vitamins—important for brain function and help manage mood
  • Magnesium—great for digestion as well, it helps protect brain cells and is even recommended by some doctors to patients getting ready for brain surgery

3. Exercise is vital.

Exercise is a non-negotiable when it comes to staying productive. It directly affects the brain. A number of studies have found this to be so. One reported that aerobic exercise increases the neuron reserves in the hippocampus that are responsible for learning. Other more recent research shows that exercise stimulates growth of new connections in the brain.

If you’re at work all day, though, it can be tough to enjoy the benefits of exercise. Short bursts are all you need—a minute or two of aerobic exercise can get your blood pumping and your brain working better. Or, if you’re trying to write and your brain isn’t cooperating, try a quick burst of activity—enough to get your heart going—and then try writing again. Some suggestions:

  • Jump rope for one-two minutes, rest, and jump again if you have time. Do it while the hot water for your tea is boiling!
  • Run in place for 1-2 minutes.
  • Do a few push-ups—as many as you can before resting.
  • Try some old-fashioned jumping jacks—as many as you can in one sitting.
  • Take a fast walk around the building.
  • Take a flight of stairs up and down a few times.

4. Plan “do-nothing time.”

Working too much can wreak havoc on your productivity. Recent research found that those who worked over 55 hours per week were no more productive than those who worked 50 hours or less. After so many hours, we simply become less efficient. (Say nothing of research that links longer work hours with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.)

Meanwhile, other research shows that the brain needs downtime, particularly if you want to be creative. Daydreaming, boredom, and simply “staring off into space” have all been linked with increased problem-solving ability and creativity.

That means you need breaks—short ones during the day, and longer ones throughout the year. Some tips:

  • Make time every day to get away from it all—work, phones, everything. A 30-minute walk, lunch with a friend, meditation, etc.
  • Make a time each evening to forget about work. Our smartphones and gadgets allow us to stay connected 24 hours a day. Your brain needs time off completely.
  • Keep a list at home—if anything is still bothering you at the end of the day, add it to the list so you can allow yourself to let go of it.
  • If you’re guilty of working too many hours a week, make it a personal goal to cut back.
  • Don’t neglect your yearly (or twice-yearly) vacations. They are critical to your creativity!
  • In addition, try to get away at least once a quarter to someplace new, even if it’s only an hour away from home. The creative brain craves novelty.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you don’t “have time” for a break. Take the time—you’ll be more productive, and be able to get your projects done in less time.

5. Trick your mind into getting started.

When we’re tired or stressed and then try to sit down to write, the brain sometimes doesn’t want to accommodate us. Productivity goes down the drain.

If you’re in that situation, try these tips:

  • Decide you’ll do the very least you can on the project: This is one of the most effective ways to get started, particularly with writing. Promise yourself you’ll do very little. Ten words. Or even just open the file and label it. Five minutes in front of the page. Your choice. Tell yourself that’s all you have to accomplish. Most of the time, once you get going, you’ll stick with it. But you don’t have to. Do the least, and then do it again the next day. The results will start to stack up, and they’ll motivate you to keep going.
  • Start first thing in the morning: This can be particularly effective for writers. Get up, sit down, turn on the computer, and write. You’ll get 500 words out before your brain even realizes what you’re doing, and it may be some of your better writing because your brain is still in half awake/half sleep creative mode.
  • Decrease your expectations: Your goal is to publish a bestselling novel, but if you think about that when you’re ready to work, your brain will likely resist. Lower your expectations. You don’t expect anything out of today’s work. All that matters is that you put in your 30 minutes, or your 500 words, or whatever. All you’re doing is practicing.

6. Enjoy your coffee!

It used to be that we thought coffee was bad for us. Now we know it has healthy antioxidants that reduce risk of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, and more. We also know that some of coffee’s benefits can be attributed to the caffeine. (Read more about coffee’s benefits for writers here.)

If you’re a coffee drinker, fix a cup when you find your brainpower lagging. Research shows that up to four cups a day can be beneficial. More than that may create unhealthy side effects, but it depends on the individual. Don’t overdo it, but don’t be afraid to use coffee when you need it.

7. Create a pleasing working environment.

Many writers tend to use only the most Spartan of work areas. We’re not rich, most of us, and we have to fit writing into the rest of our lives. Having certain things in your office or writing area, however, can help increase productivity. Here are a few:

  • Plants: They improve air quality and contribute to overall well-being. A 2014 study, for example, found that workers performed better (15% better) when houseplants were added to workplaces.
  • Pictures: It’s up to you what pictures to put up, but consider this: a 2012 study found that workers exposed to pictures of adorable baby animals were more productive on a subsequent task than workers shown pictures of adult animals or pleasant foods. Other good options include pictures of nature (especially green things like forests and flowers), pictures of your writing heroes (to motivate you), and pictures that illustrate your goals (such as that new desk you want to get when you publish your novel, etc.).
  • Quality office furniture: Some research shows that boring office equipment makes for bored workers. Don’t skimp on your office furniture, particularly your chair. Make sure it’s supportive and that you’re comfortable in it.
  • Lighting: Fluorescent lights can give off UV radiation and can cause some sensitive people to suffer more headaches. Old-style incandescents or LEDs are the best options for artificial light. Natural light is even better for productivity.
  • Bright colors: However you employ them (pictures, paint, furniture, knick-knacks, etc) vibrant colors are linked with better brain activity.

8. Cultivate a hobby.

Hobbies improve your mood. They actually increase “feel-good” neurotransmitters in your brain, restore your energy, and stimulate creativity. They also increase your self-esteem and self-confidence, and are the perfect counterpoint to your work, as they stimulate a different part of your brain and help you increase your ability to make important connections in your thinking.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you don’t have time for your hobby. All work and no play really does make you dull—and your writing is likely to suffer. Schedule in time at least once a week to spend on hobbies that you enjoy.

Do you have other ways to stay productive? Please share them with our readers.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Chere Hagopian says:

    Wonderful tips!! I definitely need your class. I especially like the idea that rest begets creativity and productivity. I tend to feel like I have too much to do to rest, and guilty when I do.

    • Admin says:

      Same here, Chere. Helps to see real science showing us that more work is the wrong approach! :O)

  2. Kate Spencer says:

    Having my cup of coffee while I reading this! Great tips and most are easy to implement. 🙂

  3. April Moore says:

    I love these tips! And I’m so excited to have you part of the NCWC faculty! Recently, I got a standing desk and I can’t say enough about how wonderful these desks are. If i’m going to spend as much time as I do in front of the computer, I don’t want to be on my butt all day. A great investment in my “writing health!”

    • Admin says:

      Oh sweet, April. Can’t wait to see how you like it and what kind you got. I’ve been standing a lot more lately, but so far I’m just using a box. Standing desk may be in my future…