Work smarter, not harder

According to the Global Productivity Study conducted last year by local enterprise software firm Unit4, office workers in Singapore were the least productive among 11 countries polled, including the United States, Australia, and Sweden.

GRAPHIC: BRENDAN TAN

The study found that Singaporean workers spend only 60 per cent of their time attending to their primary responsibilities, compared to the 72 per cent average among the other countries polled.

It also found that Singaporeans spend an estimated 380 hours a year, or 47.5 work days, completing tasks such as administrative and logistics work that are secondary to their key work responsibilities.

This loss in productivity has cost the local service industry more than S$36.5 billion annually, according to Unit4.

In a bid to understand how best to increase productivity, DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, studied its data to survey the behavior of its most productive workers.

It found that the highest-performing 10 per cent of workers tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes, followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer — by talking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers.

Ways to increase productivity

Multi-tasking may be seen by many as a way to increase productivity. But according to research conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2015, multi-tasking can cost up to 40 per cent of productive time to be wasted instead.

Mr Eatsham Ahsan, 24, combats this by having a checklist.

“I used to be extremely disorganised — I would accidentally arrange for two or even three meetups on the same day, and often forgot about my assignments completely,” said the fresh graduate from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“In the second semester of my freshman year, I read a book on ways to be more efficient, and one of the aspects was being organised. They (the book) suggested having a checklist, so now I keep a daily list of things that I need to do,” he added.

Starting the day right also sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Duke University behavioural economist Dan Ariely found in 2014 that most people are productive in the first two hours of the morning after waking up.

This is due to the body producing moderate levels of the hormone cortisol at those hours, which improves alertness and concentration.

“My morning routines have always been very important to me since young. It was a habit my mother cultivated (in me). When I was younger, my mother used to insist that I read the newspaper after breakfast and it’s a habit that has stuck with me. Doing so helps set the tone for the rest of my day,” said Mr Ng Zi Xuan, 25, a Nanyang Business School alumnus who graduated last year.

Taking short breaks throughout the day can help keep up one’s momentum at work. According to research conducted at the University of Illinois in 2011, brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.

Short breaks, of about five to ten minutes every hour, reset the brain’s focus and ready it for the work ahead.

Ms Shankari Balakrishnan, a secondary school teacher, said: “It may be hard to catch a breather when I have back-to-back classes, but I always make it a point to take short breaks in between long lessons.

“It also helps the students in my class to refocus when I give them short 10-minute breaks. It benefits the both of us,” added the 27-year-old, who graduated from the National Institute of Education in 2016.

Engaging in physical activities also helps improve productivity. Exercise increases the oxygen supply to the brain, providing a surge of energy. Simple activities, like walking around the office or engaging in “deskercises”, are enough to help people break out of mid-day slumbers, said Dr Noel Duncan, a health consultant in Australia.

Copywriter Nur Liyana, 25, who graduated from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in 2016, has been going for yoga classes during her lunch breaks at work for about a year. She finds that the exercise helps her be more awake and attentive after lunch, rather than feel sluggish after eating.

“When I take the time out to exercise during lunch, it is almost as if I’m getting a second fresh start to my day. I am revitalised and ready to take on the later hours of the afternoon rather than giving way to fatigue mid-day,” she said.