Team Productivity

Five Bizarre Productivity Hacks that Any Manager Can Start Using

Daniel Threlfall
November 30, 2015
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Sometimes, productivity looks like streamlined systems that are purring along, maximizing efficiency, abolishing wasted time, and resulting in flawlessly executed days.

Other times, productivity looks like weird hacks that raise suspicion and invite skepticism.

Here’s why.

There are two categories of productivity.

  1. One is system-driven and process-oriented. Think David Allen and Getting Things Done.
  2. The other category is driven by mental processes, neuroscience, and the underutilized method of maximizing energy. Think Tony Schwartz and Leo Babauta.

Both categories are necessary to becoming a full-fledged productivity ninja. In the messy middle between the two categories is a variety of hacks, tricks, methods, and secrets.

Savvy project managers use these hacks to streamline team planning, keep projects on budget, and maintain control over work schedules.

Here are those hacks.

1. Pick a system, any system, and stick to it.

Often, we stress out over what productivity system to use and end up choosing none, allowing our schedules to implode under the pressure.

You’ve seen this happen before. The well laid plans of mice and men are obliterated in a firestorm of blown deadlines, in-the-red budgets, and frustrated clients.

It’s better to pick an imperfect productivity system rather than no system at all.


When the mind is in a state of indecision about a large and significant issue, that indecision tends to be distributed to other areas.

You’ve probably heard the following Maimonides quote:

"The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision."

True, “the only bad decision is indecision,” but why? There’s a body of psychological research that backs up such inspirational truisms.

In one study, researchers at Ohio State examined the confidence levels of 354 college students who were facing career decisions. Subjects who exhibited high levels of confidence in tasks of lesser significance had much higher levels of confidence in larger decisions, too.

The takeaway is this: Making a firm decision in a small area can lead to effective decision-making and management in larger issues.

Parallel studies affirmed such findings, such as a research project led by scholars at the University of North Dakota. They discovered that anxiety and indecision were closely related in a multivariate examination. Inability to make a decision led to greater levels of anxiety, which contributed to an overall loss of control.

The bottom line is this: If you don’t make up your mind about a productivity system, then you’ll be worse off than if you chose the wrong productivity system.

The simple act of selecting and sticking with a given productivity system will enhance your productivity and your team’s productivity.

Your team members will benefit vicariously from the confidence you exhibit and the system you implement.

What kind of systems are we talking about here?

  • A productivity system — An established method of dealing with the things you need to do.
  • A project management system — An efficient and scalable method of tracking the people, prices, projects, and deadlines that are required. It should accommodate visual project planning, project communication, and work schedule issues.

Pick a system, implement it, stick with it, and watch your team’s productivity soar.

2. Give your team members more leash.

Few things kill productivity as swiftly and decisively as micromanagement.

If you’re a micromanager, I beg of you to consider your ways and repent.

Why does micromanagement happen? Harvard Business Review contributor Ron Ashkenas shares two reasons

  1. Managers worry about being disconnected.
  2. Managers stay in a familiar operational territory.

The common denominator here is fear. The first is fear of getting left out of the loop. The second is fear of change and disruption.

In my management roles, I can attest to the tug of these feelings. Yet in both cases, the remedy is massive disruption — facing the full realization of those fears.

Here’s how to do it practically:

  1. Except for obligatory meetings (the fewer the better), do not require your team members to clock a certain number of hours. Instead, create a definite project-based expectation.
  2. Do not require your team members to work in the office. Allow them to work from home.
  3. Establish a date and time for a meeting with each employee. Tell your employee what you expect him or her to have completed by that time.

Details and application will vary, but those are the broad brushstrokes:

  • Don’t require certain hours.
  • Don’t require their presence.
  • Just require them to get stuff done by a certain time.

For the micromanagers among us, this will be agonizing. However, once you’ve made it through such a hair-pulling ordeal, you’ll discover the liberating glories of not micromanaging.

Let me share why this approach could be successful for you.

First, allowing your team members to set their own hours accomplishes two positives. First, it gives them the ability to work according to their own productive rhythms and cycles. They get to pick a personal system for successfully doing their work. Second, it’s a form of reward. They will feel responsible, fulfilled, and satisfied.

The result? Better quality of work delivered on time.

Second, studies have shown that working from home raises productivity. Admittedly, evidence exists on both sides of this debate. However, my personal experience with remote work, and the studies I have read, lead me to conclude that remote work enhances productivity, job satisfaction, and quality of work.

TeamGantt’s co-founder, Nathan, shares his thoughts on the subject in one of our most popular blog posts: The #1 Reason that We Work Remotely at TeamGantt. Check it out. (And get inspired.)

Finally, a project-based approach is much more cohesive and logical than an hours-based approach. Workers are capable of identifying the best method of completing the project.

Fast Company’s Lisa Bodell shares the productivity-slaying potential of a process-driven, micromanaging mindset.

True, you need to have management process. Yet you also need to have management laxness about the right things. Lisa explains,

It’s not a good thing when there are so many processes in place that they restrain the people they’re supposed to help.

3. Choose one task to kill every day.

When it comes to being a good project manager, setting priorities is your secret sauce. Prioritization is the only way to succeed.

Now, let me share the secret sauce behind prioritization: negative prioritization.

Instead of trying to float your most important tasks to the top (prioritization), choose which tasks to eliminate (negative prioritization). The result is the same — you determine the most important tasks to accomplish each day.

The only thing that has changed is your way of looking at the situation.

In psychology, this is known as framing. Here’s a description of framing:

The framing effect is an example of cognitive bias, in which people react to a particular choice in different ways depending on how it is presented; e.g. as a loss or as a gain. People tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented.

Killing one task every day is extraordinarily freeing. By boldly crossing through a “to-do” for the day, you’ve done several things to your mind and your schedule:

  • Created margin
  • Created mental space
  • Created time for other people
  • Created time to work on more important projects

To me, that is some significant winning.

4. Put potted plants in your office.

If boosting productivity were as easy as a few potted plants, would you do it?

Science says it is.

Here’s what happened in a 2010 study. Researchers put subjects in two different conditions for testing:  An office with four indoor plants, and an office with no plants.

(It was the same office. They just took the plants away for the control group.)

Scientists analyzed the subjects’ attention capacity at three points during the experiment. The task they asked their subjects to do was a demanding cognitive attention task that required the brain’s central executive function of attention.

The results? Subjects who were in the room with the potted plants had superior cognitive performance.

The researchers came away from their study with the following research highlights:

  1. Indoor plants in an office can prevent fatigue during attention-demanding work.
  2. Attention restoration does not depend on a defined “five-minute” break.
  3. Benefits of plants can occur in offices with a window view to nature

If you don’t want to water the plants, then you can at least open up the windows and (hopefully) see some green.

Maybe your view does not include the Alps, but you get the idea.

In another study from Urban Design Research, scientists explain that “even the view from the window can have a positive impact with respect to well-being.” These researchers encourage employees to help their workers “increase contact with vegetation.”

What kinds of improvements happen when you’re in closer proximity to nature? The upsides include happiness, energy, attention, and productivity.

My personal experience backs this up. Since I’ve been a remote worker for six years, I’ve tried working in a lot of different places. The worst place I ever set up my office was in a windowless basement. I nearly lost my mind.

Right now, my office overlooks an undeveloped forested area.

Screenshot 2015-11-30 17.06.20

One summer, I spent several hours every morning outside. (Yes, I was working like a boss.)  It dramatically improved my productivity as I managed team members, performed marketing, and wrote articles like this one.

Screenshot 2015-11-30 17.06.06

Nathan, one of TeamGantt’s cofounders has a sweet dig with potted plants. Three are visible in this picture. One such plant is actually on the very desk where Nathan unleashes his awesomeness. This probably explains Nathan’s insane levels of productivity.

5. Watch cat videos on YouTube.

Hey, I told you it was going to be bizarre.

If you want to amp up productivity, cue up your favorite cat video reel.

It might not be completely accurate to pigeonhole cat videos as the only productivity booster. The science behind the subject explains that “viewing cute images” is good enough.

Japanese researchers tested three groups of subjects performing several tasks that required careful motor skills. Subjects were shown a set of pictures. The pictures were of baby animals (puppies and kittens), adult animals, and pleasant food.

The result? The highest performance came after viewing the images of cute animals.

If you find your team members trolling BuzzFeed for cute animals, praise their behavior and expect their productivity to soar.

While you’re at it, why not send them a link to these articles and ask them to please be productive?

Don’t get too carried away. I’m sure there’s a point at which looking at too many cute animals could take away from the time that you should actually be doing productive work.


Productivity comes from unexpected places and through surprising methods.

It’s not all about lightening up, kicking back, and Googling “cute puppy pics.” Productivity does require moments of jaw-clenching determination, process-driven tasks, and brain-numbing effort.

But now and then, it’s good to try a few bizarre methods.

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