I have a confession to make: I don’t obey any of the major productivity commandments. I often do work in my pajamas. Sometimes I work for hours without taking a single break. And I have yet to find a morning routine that sticks.
One thing I really hate is the preachy attitude of a lot of self-improvement content. Many productivity bloggers have this sort of tone which implies that the reason you’re so unproductive is that you haven’t followed their blog post instructions. Shame on you!
This leads people to try random productivity “hacks” that don’t work, and feeling like it’s their fault when they haven’t gotten that thing done yet.
If these work for you, great! But if not, I’m here to tell you that you can safely ignore these seven productivity rules. I’ve searched peer-reviewed study databases and found little to no evidence that these actually boost productivity. All they are is a massive guilt trip.
1. Don’t check email as soon as you wake up
This is the one I struggled with the longest. I tried and tried. I felt guilty when I failed. I convinced myself I was more productive when I managed. But just this morning, I rolled out of bed and checked my email.
The sky didn’t fall down.
Sometimes when I do this, I do get a niggling sense of unease. It prompts me to get up, get my coffee, and deal with the email that came in. But most often, it lets me have a way more relaxed morning. I’m not dreading whatever is sitting in my inbox — I’ve looked, and I’ve taken care of it.
It’s true that checking email less altogether reduces stress. Kushlev & Dunn found in their 2014 paper that of the 124 participants in their study who only checked email thrice daily were less stressed. (You’ll notice below, the benefits of less email touch on a bunch of things, only one of which is perceived productivity.)
When you’re a freelancer, your day starts when you want. For me, my day starts as soon as I wake up. If you check your email as soon as you wake up, set aside your guilt. It’s not ruining your productivity and it’s not going to ruin your day.
2. You need a highly specific morning routine
This is one of the most pervasive productivity ideas out there: that you have to nail down what you do in the morning to have a great rest of the day. My mornings do typically have similar elements. I wake up, I checked my email, I put the coffee on, I play with my cats, not necessarily in that order. Sometimes I go for a run, sometimes I don’t. But I don’t have anything resembling the regimented morning routine the most productivity bloggers recommend.
This myth is SO pervasive that I checked on Google Scholar to see where the original source was. Who came up with the “science-backed” morning routine? The only evidence I could find was an article that cited Beethoven’s quirk of making coffee with exactly 60 beans as a morning routine.
The study did show that disruption to someone’s morning routine (e.g. not drinking coffee when they normally do) affected their day, but failed to take into account the fact that any kind of disruption is kind of jarring. Why did they miss their coffee? Did they wake up late? Did they have a fight with their partner? That kind of stuff throws you off your game — not just not getting your coffee.
There’s no peer-reviewed study that shows the productivity of people with morning routines with people without one. There’s no peer-reviewed study that says you have to nail down exactly what you do, in what order you do it, in order to have a great day.
3. You can’t wear pajamas to get sh*t done
I love my pajamas! I love the feeling of being in a cloud. I actually became more productive when I allowed myself to wear my pajamas during my day. Before, I used to force myself to put on makeup and a nice dress for my YouTube videos. Now? I give the camera my normal face and my ratty t-shirt. Nobody cares. I certainly don’t.
I was unable to find any empirical studies from a reputed journal on Google Scholar, but I was able to find a pop-sci article with quotes from alleged experts decrying lazy people who wore their pajamas all day.
Dr. Dragonette, a psychologist PureWow got to provide a quote for their pseudoscientific article, says: “What many might deem insignificant can actually lead to dwindling motivation and productivity as you subconsciously associate your pajamas with bedtime or relaxation time. So, by wearing relaxed clothes, your brain might start to feel sluggish too.”
(She’s the Executive Director from a rather expensive teen rehab clinic.) (The article also used an affiliate link to sell you clothes you can wear instead.)
She offered no potential neurological mechanisms for brains to become sluggish. She did not offer any empirical studies that say the same. The best she was able to provide was a study from a publication literally called Human Resource Development Quarterly that shows people feel nicer if they wear nice clothes.
All in all, there’s no scientific proof I was able to find that you accomplish less in your pajamas. And frankly, I find this productivity myth ableist, as with a lot of these other myths.
If you’re still in your pajamas at lunchtime, don’t beat yourself up. You’re doing just fine.
4. You can’t take breaks, AKA Deep Work
This is such a weird one because prevalent productivity hype has two theories. One, that you need to take regular breaks in order to get anything done; and two, deep work only happens if you manage to work uninterrupted for hours and hours.
(These are contradictory.)
Let’s start with the idea that productive work for hard tasks has to happen in big blocks.
Cal Newport came onto the productivity scene with his book, Deep Work, in 2016. In it, he collects a series of anecdotes from people he admires and respects, such as himself. I was unable to find any peer-reviewed scientific studies that back his claim up.
It’s a nice idea — the internet has ruined our attention span, we keep checking emails, it throws us off-kilter when we lose focus, etc. But it ignores the basic realities of living. Most of us simply cannot block the internet for hours at a time. When I’m creating products for my email list, which I’d consider a prime candidate for “deep work,” I need the internet open to research examples and formats. When I worked as an account manager, I had to be responsive to email.
Show me the peer-reviewed, well-methoded study that proves deep work works and I’ll take it all back. But until then? I’m calling bullsh*t.
5. You have to take breaks, AKA Pomodoro
Set aside everything you just heard about Deep Work, because the midnight sister to Deep Work is the totally contradictory Pomodoro technique.
The idea is you focus for 25 minutes and give yourself a five-minute break. While I was able to find many papers for the Pomodoro Technique™, I wasn’t able to find any empirical studies designed to prove or disprove its effectiveness. One PhD thesis from 2020 I found did say that “[m]ost participants found the PT® helpful for addressing their multitasking. However, there was little consensus on how the PT® helped participants or which aspects were helpful, with the same aspects (e.g. ticking timer, deferring potential interruptions) identified as helpful or ineffective by different participants.”
This roughly translates to, “It worked for some people, but it didn’t for others. I don’t know why.” The thesis did not include any potential neurological mechanisms why working for an arbitrary 25 minutes should make you more productive.
I often shock people when I announce my typical day is a long one. I start around 7:30 or 8 AM, and then I work until everything on my to-do list is done. If I stop to take any kind of longish break, like reading a book, playing a video game, or even lunch, I often lose my motivation to continue.
Instead, I take tons of microbreaks, as I described above. Then I get back to work. I do sometimes use an app called Forest which helps me focus when I want to, but only on my phone, which lets me check my laptop for whatever I like.
My method is not a scientific technique, but you also don’t see me peddling it to others and trying to claim it’s scientific. It works for me.
6. You need a consistent bedtime
“Go to bed on time every single night for healthy sleep!” insists just about every single productivity blogger.
Honestly, I go to bed when I’m tired. Sometimes that’s 9:30 PM. Sometimes it’s 11 PM. I searched for a study that could prove once and for all the consistent bedtimes boost productivity and performance, but all I could find was a study reviewing the time management habits of academically successful students, and those on academic probation (Hensley, 2018).
The study found that “course-takers with a history of academic struggles do not differ substantially from their classmates when it comes to when they study during the week or when they sleep and wake.” (Bolding mine.) The authors also noted “inconsistent sleep schedules for nearly all students, in contrast with prevailing recommendations to go to bed and awake near the same time throughout the week.”
Rough translation? High performers and low performers alike have irregular sleeping habits and it doesn’t seem to matter much.
7. Give up caffeine to attain peak productivity
It’s an addiction, OK? I love my coffee. Occasionally I’ll do a day without it to prove I still can, but most mornings include my French press.
I find productivity bloggers split on this issue. Some turn their love of coffee into a personality trait, referencing their steaming mug of java throughout their idealized morning routines and highly productive breaks. Others decry it as a dirty habit that’s holding you back from true productive potential. Honestly? I don’t think it’s true one way or another.
This is the one productivity rule that does actually have real science behind it. I just don’t think it’s persuasive. Intaking caffeine has been clinically demonstrated to “release the pre- and post-synaptic brakes that adenosine imposes on dopaminergic neurotransmission,” according to a rather dense paper from 2007.
(To be honest, I struggled reading that paper, so I looked for a rough translation. This textbook section explains the effect of caffeine on the brain, and concludes that “you get some stimulating effect from every cup of coffee you drink, and any tolerance you build up is minimal.”)
You should also recall that 62% of all Americans drink coffee every single day, according to the National Coffee Institute. And society hasn’t collapsed. (Well, maybe that’s debatable? But I doubt it’s due to the coffee consumption.)
Most productivity rules are pseudo-scientific BS
I hate to admit it because I bought into it for so long, but I genuinely believe most productivity “rules” are myths. And furthermore, people telling you about them are usually hypocrites. I don’t know a single person IRL who has a consistent morning routine. I don’t know of any real people who religiously go to bed at the same time. And yet most of us still manage to go about our days, getting stuff done.
Authors and bloggers will try to persuade you that their way is not only scientifically backed, but actually, the only right way to do things. (They also position productivity as a moral virtue which I find problematic all on its own, but that’s a separate issue.)
There are a few irrefutable rules: going outdoors makes you feel good. Relaxing is vital for health. Water is good for you. Sleep and eat when your body tells you. But beyond that, everyone is kind of making it up as they go along.
When you read those productivity articles, look for the source material. Don’t accept “science says so” — look for the science. Look for peer-reviewed studies describing potential neurological pathways and mechanisms to explain why this might be so. Look for people who don’t have anything to sell.
Take what you can from productivity gurus and ignore the rest. If it works for you? Great. If not? Don’t feel guilty.
Zulie Rane is a reader and a writer who believes in the power to change the world through the written word. You can find her writing on ZulieRane.com, posting selfies and art on Instagram at @zulierane and tweeting bad puns on Twitter at @zulierane.
Image courtesy of cottonbro.