The Psychology of Productivity

Americans want to work. They like to work. It’s not uncommon for some business professionals to put in well over 50 hours of work per week, and statistics show that the U.S. is one of the small number of nations that do not require time off each week.

People in some cities work more hours than others. Columbia, Missouri was labelled as the hardest working city by Forbes, followed by Hartford, Connecticut and Norfolk, Virginia.

But does being a workaholic equal being productive? What makes Americans so consumed with being productive and what factors encourage productivity?

The business definition of productivity is defined as a measure of the efficiency of a person, machine, factory, or system in converting inputs into useful outputs, and by that definition, productivity among American workers has increased in recent years. However, wages — which Americans directly correlate to productivity — have remained stagnant.

Experts and studies have found that human productivity is affected greatly by different psychological factors. And the answer is more than just looking at cute pictures of cuddly baby animals.

Productivity in the Workplace

Functions of the brain play a large role in how and why people are productive at work or not so productive. A series of experiments conducted at a factory outside of Chicago from 1924-1932, later dubbed the Hawthorne Effect, revealed that worker productivity increased due to the psychological stimulus of being singled out and made to feel important.

“This intervention makes sense for the average person since on average people (consciously or unconsciously) feel a bit insecure and have vulnerabilities of self-esteem, and therefore, any intervention which reduces that insecurity and improves self-esteem (especially if not implemented in a childish manner) is going to improve mood, reduce anxiety, improve motivation and improve productivity,” said David M. Reiss, MD, a psychiatrist with more than 25 years of experience. “If the ‘singling out’ is done in a way that feels parental, people who are basically more dependent are generally more likely to respond positively, whereas people who are more narcissistic will feel demeaned and it will be counterproductive.”

Reiss added that people with extremely low self-esteem may feel that they don’t deserve the attention, triggering conscious or unconscious guilt or anxiety that may be counterproductive. People who have mild narcissistic tendencies, which includes the average person, will thrive on the attention; people who are severely narcissistic or antisocial may smugly feel that it’s about time they are recognized which could result in resentment, a subtle counterproductive rebellion or a reaction to ‘rest on their laurels’ after the attention and ‘ease up’ rather than becoming motivated to be more productive.

Keeping Busy vs. Being Productive

Students and workers alike dread hearing the term “busy work.” The accepted meaning of busy work among Americans is assignments or projects designed to take up time, but that aren’t necessarily constructive or productive. This happens not only in educational settings, but in the workplace environment as well.

The problem with busy work, other than frustrating employees and possibly lowering company morale, is that people often mistake being busy with being productive. Even if some work evokes a sense of urgency, it doesn’t mean it’s productive. This blog identifies some common nonproductive tasks such as checking emails, holding meetings, and reading/updating social media. These tasks are important, but can be endless and time-consuming and the blog author suggests the problem doesn’t lie so much in the task itself, but in the amount of time dedicated to doing it.

Using the scenario of a person being able to sort through more than 200 emails in less than 15 minutes if needed, he questions why it takes hours every day to check half as many emails if there’s no need to do so.

He deduces: “I believe it’s because you’re accepting email as an interruption and stopping something productive to respond. You’re focused on accomplishing something, just about to have a breakthrough, and [you receive an email]. It’s from your boss, colleague, or grandma. You stop what you’re doing and respond.”

These slight interruptions break concentration and focus, and if they happen several times a day, can significantly impact one’s level of productivity. In order to be productive — not busy — the author suggests:

  • Only check emails a few times per day.
  • Minimize time spent on the phone.
  • Keep meetings brief or stay out of them completely.
  • Stop “keeping yourself updated” with news and blogs.
  • Stay off social media.

However, there are numerous jobs where constant use of social media and perusing of blogs for different trends is the norm, expected even. These workers, as well as those that work extensively with computers, may be part of a growing number of digital-era workers who use two or more computer screens. Whether working at the office or at home, multiple monitors allows users to look at multiple data streams with simply a shifting of the eyes.

There have been studies that find multiple monitors can increase productivity. But experts maintain it really depends on the type of work a person does and the characteristics of the person.

The psychological effect of multiple monitors on an average person, Reiss said, is that they’re likely to make a person feel more important, thereby improving self-esteem, creating a feeling of respect from employers, and increasing motivation and productivity.

“From another point of view, multiple screens may actually be less distracting in that [the average person] who is going to wonder what is happening in another area (i.e. on a different screen) will have a tendency to switch back and forth more frequently out of curiosity, which may decrease productivity or even be tiring — probably most of the time checking the other screen will not provide anything useful,” he said. “If all the information is immediately available, a simple glance over may provide reassurance that nothing important is being missed rather than having to actually stop what they are working on and change screens which may allow for better focus and productivity and may reduce a subtle anxiety regarding possibly missing something.”

How Food and Diet Affect Productivity

Diet and nutrition are large components of an individual’s lifestyle. The types of food people eat, the portion size, and what time of day they eat it all factor in — directly or indirectly — to productivity.

For example, there’s the argument for breakfast, commonly referred to as the “most important meal of the day.”

Experts say that eating breakfast provides the blood with glucose, which is needed for energy. Since people do not eat during the night, the body’s glucose levels drop during that time period and an early morning breakfast allows the body to break down food into simple sugars that are absorbed into the bloodstream where they travel to the body’s cells to produce energy.

For this reason, experts advise against skipping breakfast because people could be losing out on several hours of productivity until they take their first bite of food for the day.

But which foods encourage productivity? There has been much talk of brain foods — foods that have been said to improve brain function. Here are some foods that have been identified to bolster productivity:

  • Berries: The antioxidants found in various berries are supposed to help counteract stress and researchers have found women who ate more blueberries and strawberries were more likely to display less rapid cognitive deterioration as they aged.
  • Eggs: Eggs, the yolks specifically, are full of choline, a nutrient often classified with B-complex vitamins. Choline helps maintain the structure of brain cell membranes, which aids brain function.
  • Salmon: This fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory agents. These help build up the central nervous system in the brain and helps cognitive function overall.
  • Dark Chocolate: Who said chocolate is bad for you? Studies have found that consuming dark chocolate can not only lower blood pressure and increase blood flow to the brain, but it also contains caffeine which is a mild stimulant.


It’s widely known that regular exercise can improve a person’s health, but it’s also known to boost productivity.

“Exercising releases endorphins in the brain,” said clinical psychologist Ingeborg Hrabowy.

Endorphins are chemicals that are produced in response to certain stimuli and can originate in various parts of the body, including the pituitary gland, spinal cord and other parts of the brain and nervous system.

“Exercising four times a week for approximately 20 to 30 minutes is the equivalent of 20 milligrams of Prozac. What a boost!” Hrabowy said. “Exercising also de-stresses you, clears the mind, and gives a great break to work and play — all known to increase and boost productivity.”

Recovering from Illness and/or Injury

How productive an individual is often depends on his or her circumstance and certain factors such as illness and disability can hinder productivity.

For example, people who suffer from severe anxiety or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) would have a tendency to recheck their work, which may drag on their productivity, Hrabowy said. Their tendency to become stressed and overwhelmed can also be a barrier to productivity, even if the work is more accurate because the performance would be slower.

Reiss breaks down the psychological factors influencing productivity into four areas:

  1. Level of maturity and resolution of dependency issues: “Those who are more childlike, immature, or those who are openly or covertly needy and dependent are going to tend to unconsciously nurse an injury longer, and remain disabled longer than a person who has no conflicts regarding being autonomous and productive, or who highly values or even over-values independence and autonomy.”
  2. Family dynamics: Reiss identified two different types of families: those that will overcompensate and overreact to a person with an injury, providing more attention and caring than would otherwise be available, thus increasing unconscious motivation to maintain the injured role; and dysfunctional families who may react in a negative or hostile way to an injured person, seeing them as useless or worthless. “While at times this will motivate the person to ‘get better’ more often, it will engender anger and a defensive rebellion which will lead to the person unconsciously wanting to prove that they are indeed injured/disabled.”
  3. Peer relationships/enjoyment of work: “People who enjoy their work and have good relationships with peers at work will obviously be better motivated to return to normal functioning; whereas those who are resentful at work, uncomfortable with peers, feeling put-upon or taken advantage of, etc. (even if not intentionally or consciously), will perceive an injury as a ‘ticket out’ and tend to ‘make the most of it.’
  4. Sincerity: “A certain percentage of overtly manipulative people or people with antisocial tendencies will see an injury as an opportunity to intentionally manipulate and misuse the disability system. As opposed to what is commonly assumed, in my experience, among people with who do not respond well to injuries, this group of outright ‘malingerers’ is far, far smaller than those who have difficulties in one of the other three areas.”

A person’s productivity level can be influenced by numerous psychological factors. With the U.S. being a society that is inherently focused on productivity, knowing ways in which to improve productivity can be beneficial in the workplace as well as to a person’s overall health and well-being.