Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine

Summer 2018

Evidence-Based Work Productivity: Lessons from Behavioral Medicine

Heather Jim, PhD and Heather McGinty, PhD, Evidence-Based Behavioral Medicine (EBBM) SIG

The SBM Annual Meeting is a wonderful opportunity to take a step back from our busy lives and think about the big picture – how our work can make a positive impact on the world. This year, the meeting in New Orleans got us thinking about how to manage the daily minutiae of our work lives (emails, disruptions) to ensure we are setting aside time for projects that are important to us (grants, papers). Is there an evidence base for how to work with intention and efficiency? As we searched academic and lay literature, we were surprised by the overlap with evidence-based behavioral medicine: 

Goal setting and accountability: Many of the strategies we use to help people change their health behaviors can also be applied to setting and achieving our own goals at work. Setting intentional goals increases motivation and productivity.1 Clear, written goals with a rationale and specific steps to achieve them are more motivating than ambiguous goals.2 For example, set aside time to set your goals for the coming week, month, or quarter and check in on the progress you are making regularly. It only takes a few minutes, but may help you focus on the truly important tasks or how you need to plan to achieve your longer-term goals.

Small changes make a big difference: Changing our habits to automatically engage in desired behaviors can produce significant productivity over time. All habits consist of three parts: the cue, activity, and the reward.3 We can develop new habits by inserting them into existing habit routines, using existing cues and rewards. For example, if you want to cut down on the time you spend on emails, place a sticky note on the edge of your computer screen where you normally open your email, limit email checking to predetermined times of the day with a set time limit, and reward yourself with 10 minutes of something you really enjoy every time you meet your goal.

Decision-making and setting priorities: A common mistake is to allow "the perfect to become the enemy of the good," meaning maximizing resources (time, effort) on all selected tasks in the hopes of achieving excellent results rather than allocating moderate resources to achieve a satisfactory result more efficiently (and likely on more tasks). Accepting the reality that we can’t do everything and deciding what to deliberately neglect can be a powerful way to focus on what matters. A similar concept is “satisficing,” or aiming for a satisfactory (quicker) result rather than the optimal (time consuming) solution.4 The concept of “satisficing” was first introduced in 1947 by Herbert Simon, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on decision-making.

Mindfulness: A smartphone-based study of people’s thoughts and activities found that participants’ minds wander 46.9% of the time.5 Interestingly, people rated themselves as significantly less happy when their minds were wandering. Even thinking about pleasant topics did not increase happiness over focusing on their current activity. Additional research suggests that people are more productive when they focus on a single activity rather than multitasking;6 a later meta-analysis confirmed no benefit to multitasking.7 Behavioral medicine professionals can do this by engaging in mindfulness meditation exercises for 5 or 10 minutes at least a few times per week; downloading an app or taking a local or online class can help you learn this skill.

In summary, we already know a lot about developing good work habits from our research. Do you have additional thoughts and suggestions about work productivity? Would you like to see more on this topic or others from the EBBM SIG? If so, email EBBM SIG Chairs Heather Jim at heather.jim@moffitt.org or Heather McGinty at heather.mcginty@osumc.edu.



  1. Locke EA. Motivation through conscious goal setting. App Prev Psychol. 1996;5:117-124.
  2. Ferguson Y, Sheldon KM. Should goalstrivers think about 'why' or 'how' to strive? It depends on their skill level. Motiv Emot. 2010;34:253-265.
  3. Lally P, Gardner B. Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review. 2013/05/01 2013;7(sup1):S137-S158.
  4. Simon HA. Administrative Behavior 4th ed. New York: Simon & Schuster; 1997.
  5. Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science. Nov 12 2010;330(6006):932.
  6. Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Sep 15 2009;106(37):15583-15587.
  7. Wiradhany W, Nieuwenstein MR. Cognitive control in media multitaskers: Two replication studies and a meta-Analysis. Atten Percept Psychophys. Nov 2017;79(8):2620-2641.