5 Behavior Science Tricks to Increase Your Productivity

Tired of being tired? Trying to figure out how to keep your motivation going throughout the day?

Have you had a burst of energy and then felt your urge to do work just evaporate over the course of the day? If any of these problems sound familiar to you then I have some solutions to fix these issues. The best part? This is backed with Behavior Science! 

Behavior Science lets us tackle the exact problem behind productivity – your unproductive behavior and your productive behavior. We won’t rely on vague concepts like increasing motivation or making people happy. The job here is to keep you productive through your workday, and science will provide you with the numbers to monitor yourself with. 

Be aware, while a lot of this article will walk you through how to keep track of your own data, it’s important to know that you are trying to work your way into a place where you won’t need to record your own data anymore. Think of the data more like a road map to the behavior you want to get to.

Here are 5 easy tricks you can do to increase your productivity!

5. Analyze what is making you unproductive with the ABCs of Behavior Science

The ABCs of Behavior are easy as 1, 2, 3!

The Science

I’m sure everyone has told you to clean your desk or clean your room. But why? Why is this even remotely helpful?

From a behavior standpoint, what we’re accomplishing is based on a model called Antecedent Behavior Consequences (ABC). The main idea behind this is that there’s a trigger or something that precedes the target behavior – the antecedent – that usually leads to the target behavior. From there, we can observe the behavior being controlled by the antecedent, and finally, what the behavior has accomplished (consequences). The consequences of the behavior will also help tell us what is keeping this behavior going.

A real-world example of this would be the struggles associated with alcoholism. There are several reasons why alcoholics can relapse, but one of them is just falling into old habits, or not having a support network to replace the one they had in therapy. The antecedents (such as the lack of friends and companionship) for their old behaviors would still be there once the patient exits rehab and re-enter their old life. Thus, it’s easier to fall into these old habits again. As a result, behaviorists would look at these same antecedents and suggest ways to fix it. 

An ABC analysis, in this case, would look like this: 

The Antecedent to a lonely recovering alcoholic would be not having friends or a support network around them. The Behavior is drinking, and the Consequence is feeling better.  Now when the recovering alcoholic feels lonely from not having friends or a support network nearby, they are more likely to relapse again.

Applying it to you

Changing your antecedents should start by asking yourself a few questions. First, what happens before you start being unproductive? What do you do to be unproductive? And finally, what did your unproductivity accomplish?

Recording data for this isn’t too difficult. Simply make a chart with 3 columns at the top and label them “Antecedent,” “Behavior,” and “Consequence”. Now, whenever a behavior you want to target like slacking off occurs, just write everything that happened before in the antecedent column, how you did your behavior, and then finally what your behavior achieved. 

Once you’ve done that, you can identify the antecedents that help you be productive and antecedents that help you be unproductive, and increase how often you’re around the productive antecedents while limiting how often you’re around the unproductive antecedents.

4. Clean your Desktops so the most important work is the easiest to access

Cleaning can be a hassle, but the pay off is always worth it.

The Science

This builds off of Antecedent Control, but I’ve found it to be invaluable in changing human behavior so it gets its own section. The idea is to increase the work it would take to perform the unwanted behavior while decreasing the amount of work it would take to perform the wanted behavior.

In real life, we see this in how people design web pages. According to data, business websites have noticed that the more barriers they add between the customer and their purchase, the fewer sales they make. In that same sense, the more barriers you add between something that will lead to you being unproductive and yourself, the less likely you will be to engage in unproductive actions.

Applying it to you

The first step is to identify what objects are distracting you while you work. In the previous section, these could either be antecedents leading to distracted behavior or object you’re using while distracting yourself. But once you’ve identified them, all you have to do is add as many barriers as you can between yourself and those distractors. 

For example, if you know your phone is going to distract you, a simple way to apply this concept is to just put it far away from you and your keyboard or put it in a desk drawer so it’s out of sight. Now it requires more effort to reach across the table or open the drawer to get your phone while working on your keyboard is easy to access. 

The next step is to remove as many barriers as you can between yourself and what you need to be productive. If you’re doing computer work, keeping your keyboard closer to you than your phone will help. You could also invest in a small upgrade for yourself like buying a better keyboard, or a new keyboard tray so it’ll be even easier and more pleasant to do work.

3. Work on expanding your thresholds

Thresholds are key to training dogs and training yourself.

The Science

In Dog training, we have to learn what an animal’s thresholds are – as in, how long they’re willing to work with us. Knowing how long we have the animal’s attention helps us learn how to pace breaks, and pace when to introduce new behaviors. As a trainer, we’re also taught to always end the session before we cross that threshold so each session remains a fun experience. In effect, this makes our subject more willing to come back and learn more. 

Applying it to you

Figuring out your own thresholds is as simple as just asking yourself how you’re feeling. First, take note of the time you started working. Afterward, if you feel like you’ve hit your limit and need a break, record how long you’ve been working with no interruptions and take a break. After that, in your next bout of productivity, try going for the same amount of productivity time or longer. If you reach that goal, then reward yourself with a break or something you enjoy.

Be aware, this will not take into account the quality of work. You could be working on a particularly difficult problem for a shorter amount of time. Take note of these days and keep recording your data. In these scenarios, I personally like finding a way to create a line chart of my work over the course of the week/month. This way I get a visual representation of what my average threshold is and how much a particularly difficult problem can affect these.   

2. Figure out what is breaking your concentration, and add a system of punishments and reinforcements

Sometimes it’s okay to reward yourself with some sweets. Go ahead. You’ve earned them.

The Science

Increasing productivity also comes with learning how to break your bad habits. In this scenario, Behavior Science would tell you to create a series of punishments and reinforcements for each time you remained productive vs times you weren’t. 

Behavior Modification is practically built on these concepts of reinforcement and punishment. Explaining these concepts would make this article way longer than it needs to be. So here’s a brief summary: Reinforcement is giving something that will increase the target behavior’s frequency. Punishment is giving something that will decrease the target behavior’s frequency. That’s it. These definitions will always be relative to the subject, so something that sounds like a common reinforcer like candy or food, may not be a punisher for someone else.  

Applying it to you

Up to this point, I’ve mentioned “reward yourself” or “give yourself a break” in the other sections. From a behavior science point of view, what I mean is to reinforce yourself for performing the behavior you want to increase. Find what works for you as a punisher or a reinforcer. After that, apply the reinforcer when you’ve done a good amount of work (like expanding a threshold for example). You can then reward yourself with a small break, or some phone time. Alternatively, when you find yourself slacking off, you can schedule a punishment like doing an extra 5-10 minutes of work afterward.

Be aware, this solution is going to be based on the individual. Most people, as they work, will begin to work for longer and harder hours without the need for reinforcers. In fact, I would argue that the feeling of accomplishment that comes with work and the pay you receive is enough of a reinforcer for them. In these scenarios, it’s important to just note ways you can strengthen your productive behavior while weakening your unproductive behavior with more immediate reinforcers and punishers.  

1. Don’t short-circuit these plans.

Reinforcement is a good idea. Short-circuits destroy said good idea.

The Science

I’ve talked a lot about “taking a break” or different forms of reinforcement, but one of the most important points to remember is never, ever, short-circuit these plans. In Behavior Science, a short-circuit is when you give a reinforcer before the target behavior, or in rarer circumstances, providing a punishment before the target behavior occurs. 

What this does is it makes your subject not want to do the target behavior cause they already got reinforced. In fact, you could also be reinforcing another behavior or ways to avoid doing the target behavior. 

Applying it to you

Be strict with when you give yourself a reinforcer. You have to earn every single one. With that in mind, all of the above ways of identifying problem areas or applying reinforcement will remain relevant for you.

This is number 1 because this is where most people fail in self-implementing these ideas. They have a day where it seems like they can get away with doing something fun or enjoyable before they’ve earned it by doing work.

Don’t fall for it. Stay strong. Earn your reinforcer.

If you are still interested in reading different Behavior Science techniques, or just more concepts in Behavior Science, then feel free to click around this blog. I also recommend this video series.

Thank you for reading.

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