Increase productivity with these 31-day experiments

Whether it’s waking up extra early or unplugging from social media, learn how to be more productive this year

increase productivity hacks face looking into phone with runner behind them
Image Credit: Samantha Mash

Headlines about highly successful people and how to be more productive often revolve around waking up early or removing yourself from distracting technology. But who has the time (or willpower) to invest in such behaviors, even if it is to increase productivity?

Well, it turns out we do. Four members of the content team tested out early wake-up times, morning workouts, and banning all social media consumption at the start of the new year to find out once and for all if these productivity tricks are worth it. These are their stories.

5 a.m. wake-up call (Matt Haughey)

The experiment: To prove that productivity gurus telling you to get up at the crack of dawn were peddling nonsense.

As a person who loves sleep and despises alarm clocks, I was fully prepared for a month-long dreary experience. The first day, I awoke a minute before my alarm and then spent time leisurely suiting up to meet a 6:00 group for a five-mile run. I got home, got ready for the day, started a load of laundry, and took myself out for a nice breakfast as a treat.

When I pulled up to my desk to start cracking on work, it was 7:55 a.m. I couldn’t believe it. I was instantly converted.

My stress levels dropped like a rock, because for the past few decades I’ve perpetually gotten up 18 minutes before I needed to be somewhere. So instead of rushing around and being constantly late to my first meetings, I had hours to get up to speed and savor the mornings.

The results: All told, it was a month of slow, dark mornings with plenty of time to get started, get some exercise, and get more done than when I slept through it. I hate to say it, but productivity gurus might actually have something here.

An underachiever’s guide to morning workouts (Nic Vargus)

The experiment: Studies show that employees who exercise before work are happier, more productive, and less likely to call out sick.

Unlike Matt’s plan to become a super CEO by waking up at 5, I opted for the much smarter lazier goal of simply getting to the gym before work. To get to the office between 9 and 9:30 a.m., I needed to lay out my things the night before, then wake up at 6:45—a mere 15 minutes earlier than usual. Though a simple enough plan, three issues surfaced immediately.

First off, plan for delays. Every time I had a 9:00 meeting, there were hilariously long lines for the showers. On many mornings, the bus just didn’t come. Once, I forgot to pack pants, so I had to walk to a nearby store in athletic shorts to buy jeans.

Also, you’re going to get self-conscious. Rushing to work after exercising is a foolproof way to ensure that you’re lightly sweating and out of breath for the first 10 minutes of every meeting.

Finally, caffeine is your friend. Before this experiment, I never really experienced that afternoon slog. But during it, my caffeine intake skyrocketed.

The results: Overall, I did feel healthier and more productive. And I think I was happier, especially when I left the office without contemplating an evening workout. I don’t know if it affected my likelihood to play hooky, but I did come to work every day.

Taking on “Dry January,” but for social media (Amanda Garcia)

The experiment: Increase productivity by cutting off all social media consumption for the first 31 days of the new year.

I’ve always admired people who participated in “Dry January”—not consuming alcohol for the first month of the year. It’s a challenge aimed at altering a habit you might be indulging in a little too much. Considering that people will spend the equivalent of five years and four months of their lives on social media, I figured going without it for a month could only help increase my productivity at work.

I had my first Oh my god, I can’t scroll through Instagram anymore moment the next day when I was waiting to catch the BART train into San Francisco and reached for my phone out of boredom. So I just stared out the window instead, trying to look deep in contemplation.

Later that same day, I had my first Aw man, I can’t post anything on Facebook experience on a hike with friends. I took a panoramic picture at the summit during which I caught myself thinking, Oh wow, this will make a great cover photo. I also took group photos throughout the hike that I thought would look so cute with the right Instagram filters. Gross, I know.

Back in the office, I fought the urge repeatedly throughout the week to check my Facebook or Instagram on my phone in the morning as I was loading up my desktop. But every time I was ready to cave, I would think back to this message a coworker shared on Slack, giving me hope that maybe this social media ban is actually a good thing.

how to be more productive screenshot of conversation

It was around the end of the second week that I noticed I no longer reached for my phone in between tasks. I also didn’t feel the need to share any meals I consumed or vistas I gazed upon during my commute. Even passersby with cute animals were able to walk past me without so much as a frantic, “Wait, can I take a picture of your pet?”

The results: The only time I ever really bemoaned not being on social media was when I missed the latest photos or videos of my baby niece. Other than that, I didn’t miss it so much, and I feel like I’ve definitely broken the habit of checking my phone or posting social media content every free chance I’ve got.

Be here now: unplugging from social media (Mallory Brown)

The experiment: Increase productivity by saying goodbye to social media for a month.

I used to scroll through social media before bedtime, which isn’t surprising: One in every five minutes spent online is on social networking accounts. It often left me wired and anxious. Without it, I fell asleep faster, and generally felt more productive and happier.

Ironically, the lack of social media made me more social. Since I couldn’t keep tabs on loved ones online, I found myself texting, emailing, and calling friends and family more. Plus, without the option to capture and post content to social, I felt more in the moment and less concerned about the validation of likes.

I also read more. Two books and three magazines front to back, which is significantly more than I would normally read in any given month. My magazine subscriptions usually end up being purely decorative, sitting unread on my coffee table until I recycle them or use them for vision boards.

Come February 1, I did get back on Instagram, and it was totally anticlimactic. I felt like I didn’t miss anything other than a couple of event invitations and a good friend announcing she’s having twins. I have yet to touch the other three social apps I used to spend time on daily: Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook.

What’s more, no one noticed I was off social media. Curious to see what would happen, I purposely didn’t tell friends I was taking a break. Would they miss me? Would they say, “Hey, where ya been?” Well, they didn’t—and it reminded me that my life isn’t defined by maintaining an active social media presence.

The results: Since doing this experiment, my appetite for social media has steeply declined. I feel both less interested in social media and more aware of myself when I do reach for my phone to scroll mindlessly. Going forward, I’m implementing a rule of no social media consumption at work and after 8 p.m.

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