ScienceSpiegeloog 407: Motivation

The Scientific Code of Productivity

By October 21, 2020No Comments

Being aware of the amount of work that needs to be done, and actually finishing this, is separated by a bridge that – among other things – depends on energy, motivation, and state of mind. By including three important elements – sleep, nutrition and exercise – this article will give an insight of biological- and psychological health factors that contribute to productivity. After all, don’t we all want to be able to finally finish off our never ending to-do list? 

Being aware of the amount of work that needs to be done, and actually finishing this, is separated by a bridge that – among other things – depends on energy, motivation, and state of mind. By including three important elements – sleep, nutrition and exercise – this article will give an insight of biological- and psychological health factors that contribute to productivity. After all, don’t we all want to be able to finally finish off our never ending to-do list? 

Illustration: Chitra Mohanlal

‘Tomorrow, I will set my alarm early in the morning, exercise for an hour and then study throughout the entire day. I will work through my to-do list and get a considerable amount of work done’ – at least, that is the general idea. In reality, one might end up going to bed later than expected the evening before, due to a movie, a few drinks, an interesting book or the well-known ‘this will really be the last episode tonight’ excuse. As a result, the snooze button will be pressed, hit or smashed numerous times and the motivated attitude from the day before is not as vividly present anymore. Despite being aware of the fact that there lies a full agenda waiting for us, we lack motivation: in what manner do we get that back? How can we achieve a productive day? 

One major factor that affects one’s productivity is energy: a high amount of energy eases the achievement of chores, tasks and goals. In this article, I will address three topics that can affect your energy level, and therefore productivity. These factors are sleep, nutrition and exercise.

Sleep

Regarding the first topic that shall be discussed – sleep – I have buried myself into the work of Matthew Walker, who offers a neuroscientific perspective on sleep, wrapped up in a 360-paged book titled Why We Sleep. Walker emphasizes the importance of sleep and the danger of a lack of sleep by discussing it on the very first page. ‘Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer’, he writes. In the first few paragraphs, one is welcomed by a reality check that makes you realize the importance of a good night of sleep. Furthermore, inadequate sleep – even moderate reductions for just one week – disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that one would be classified as pre-diabetic. Besides briefly discussing the consequences of deficient sleep, it is worth focussing on the beneficial effects of sleep. Sleep restocks the armory of our immune system, which helps prevent infections and wards off sickness. Sufficient sleep correlates closely with the fitness of our cardiovascular system, helping to lower the blood pressure and keeping the heart in fine condition. Despite these facts, two-thirds of adults throughout all the developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. 1 (The World Health Organization and the Nation Sleep Foundation both stipulate an average of eight hours of sleep per night for adults.)

In addition to the obvious increase of energy after a good night of sleep and its undeniably valuable biological effects, sleep also benefits cognitive functions. Various functions of the brain are restored by sleep (Walker, 2017). Each stage of sleep – light NREM (non-rapid-eye movement) sleep, deep NREM sleep, and REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep – offer different brain benefits at different times of night. Sleep has proven itself as a time and again as a memory aid, before learning, to prepare your brain for initially making new memories, and after learning, to cement those memories and prevent forgetting. 

What can you do?
Now that the benefits of sleep are clear, what can we do to make it easier for ourselves to get a sufficient night of sleep? One straightforward approach is reducing the time spent looking at electronic screens. The reason for this is as follows: Your suprachiasmatic nucleus (a tiny region in the brain in the hypothalamus) communicates its repeating signal of night and day to your brain and body using a messenger called melatonin – also called ‘the hormone of darkness’ (Walker, 2017). Melatonin is a hormone that influences the circadian rhythm and is released at night and starts soon after dusk. It helps regulate the timing of your sleep schedule by systemically signaling darkness throughout the organism. It provides the official instruction to commence the event of sleep: as melatonin rises, another sleep event is called to the starting line. The release of melatonin can be interrupted by light, such as the blue light coming from one’s smartphone, laptop, television, et cetera. It interferes with the melatonin secretion, a person’s circadian rhythm and thus causes an interrupted night of sleep. You could say that blue light has a dark side. Therefore, the following interventions could significantly improve your quality of sleep and are easy to achieve (Harvard University, 2012): 

  • Use dim red lights for night lights. Red light is less likely to shift the circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin.
  • Avoid looking at bright screens at least two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Expose yourself to lots of bright light during the day, which will boost your ability to sleep at night, as well as your mood and alertness during the day.

In conclusion, do not hesitate to turn off your phone or other mobile devices (or filter out the blue light) a few hours before going to bed to achieve – and enjoy– a good night’s sleep to start your day well rested, productive and motivated.

Nutrition

Now that we have discussed how sleep among other things is essential for physical health and optimal cognitive functioning, the next paragraph will continue with the effect of nutrition on daily functioning and energy.

Most foods can be divided into slow carbohydrates or fast carbohydrates. Examples of fast carbohydrates are glucose sweets, white bread, baked goods and white rice. They are all fast-releasing carbohydrates and they make blood sugar rise and peak quickly. When your levels drop as your cells absorb the sugar, you may feel tense, jittery and anxious (a.k.a. the dreaded ‘sugar crash’) (Hughes, 2017). On the contrary, slow-releasing carbs (e.g. wholegrain bread, basmati rice, quinoa, vegetables and fruits) provides your body with energy for a longer period of time. Your bloodsugar does not rise as quickly and you do not experience the disturbing ‘sugar-dip’ as much.

Along with an increase in energy, lowering your refined sugar intake also affects your mood. In 2017, Knüppel, Shipley, Llewellyn and Brunner concluded that sugar intake from sweet food/beverages has an adverse effect on long-term psychological health and suggest that lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health. Additionally, Aucoin and Bhardwaj (2016) suggest a relationship between diets high in refined (fast) carbohydrates and the development of anxiety and depression symptoms, whereas the addition of protein, fat and fiber may result in a decrease in anxiety symptoms. 

What can you do?
To enjoy a higher level of energy in the morning and throughout the day, it is advised to start the day with a rich breakfast containing slow carbohydrates. For example, substitute your white bread and white crackers with whole grain alternatives. Change sugary toppings to vegetable- or fruit-based substitutes. To contribute to a positive mood state, you could make an attempt to reduce your refined sugar-intake: instead of buying a candy bar at the campus as a study snack, try a piece of fruit or some sliced-up vegetable snacks. One of life’s joyful moments is enjoying a sweet snack. But make it a special occasion rather than a habit on a daily basis, and tame your sweet tooth. 

Excercise

Finally, I will complete this article by discussing the positive effect of exercise on mood and energy. It is widely known that exercise is beneficial for our health, but how does it contribute to a better state of mind and a get-up-and-go mindset?

Whether you run, swim or play tennis, after a good workout we feel more energized and ready to tackle the day because endorphins have boosted our physical energy level (Rodriguez, 2019) ‘Endorphins are our body’s natural hormones that get released when we are doing something that requires a burst of energy – they are the things that make us perform, make us move’, says Dr. R. Gotlin, a specialist in sports medicine. ‘Exercise tends to increase those levels.’ It is the endorphin release that contributes to the feeling of euphoria commonly known as ‘runner’s high’ (Rodriguez, 2019).

What’s more, endorphin also helps relieve pain and stress (Collins, 2017). Besides this neurotransmitter, physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These brain chemicals play an important part in regulating your mood. For example, regular exercise can positively impact serotonin levels in your brain. Raising your levels of serotonin boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being.

What can you do? 
Ultimately, the benefits of exercise seem to be twofold: exercise boosts your body’s fitness and energy, and also your mood, both of which contribute to your overall health and well-being. But how can one achieve this? For instance, go for a run or simply a nice walk in the morning for your blood to flow, to get your mind running and to give your mood a positive boost. Experiment with different exercises until you find one you truly enjoy, that might  – in my humble opinion – even be the secret to maintaining a sport rhythm: achieving your regular exercise goals becomes much easier when it is something you take pleasure in.

All in all, the key to a productive day might be not as secretive  – or coded  – as one might think. Increasing our vitality can be as simple as having a blue light-filtered satisfying night of sleep, and a healthy sugar-reduced breakfast after which a nice walk in the sunny outside world follows. Adjustments being small as they are, can have major outcome effects on our energy level, state of mind, motivation and therefore: our productivity. One simply has to open up their mindset and take these into consideration. <<

References

– Aucoin, M., & Bhardwaj, S. (2016). Generalized anxiety disorder and hypoglycemia symptoms improved with diet modification. Case reports in psychiatry, 2016.
– Collins, R. (2017, 25 juli). Exercise, Depression, and the Brain. Healthline. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/exercise#Exercise-and-brain-chemistry
– Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, 7 juli). Blue light has a dark side. Harvard Health. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
– Hughes, L. (2017, 30 maart). How Does Too Much Sugar Affect Your Body? WebMD. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/features/how-sugar-affects-your-body
– Knüppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C. H., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1–10.
– Rodriguez, D. (2019, 1 mei). Why Exercise Boosts Mood and Energy | Everyday Health. EverydayHealth.com. Retrieved from: https://www.everydayhealth.com/fitness/workouts/boost-your-energy-level-with-exercise.aspx#:%7E:text=Any%20exercise%20or%20physical%20activity
,and%20give%20you%20more%20stamina.
– Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep. Scribner.

‘Tomorrow, I will set my alarm early in the morning, exercise for an hour and then study throughout the entire day. I will work through my to-do list and get a considerable amount of work done’ – at least, that is the general idea. In reality, one might end up going to bed later than expected the evening before, due to a movie, a few drinks, an interesting book or the well-known ‘this will really be the last episode tonight’ excuse. As a result, the snooze button will be pressed, hit or smashed numerous times and the motivated attitude from the day before is not as vividly present anymore. Despite being aware of the fact that there lies a full agenda waiting for us, we lack motivation: in what manner do we get that back? How can we achieve a productive day? 

One major factor that affects one’s productivity is energy: a high amount of energy eases the achievement of chores, tasks and goals. In this article, I will address three topics that can affect your energy level, and therefore productivity. These factors are sleep, nutrition and exercise.

Sleep

Regarding the first topic that shall be discussed – sleep – I have buried myself into the work of Matthew Walker, who offers a neuroscientific perspective on sleep, wrapped up in a 360-paged book titled Why We Sleep. Walker emphasizes the importance of sleep and the danger of a lack of sleep by discussing it on the very first page. ‘Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer’, he writes. In the first few paragraphs, one is welcomed by a reality check that makes you realize the importance of a good night of sleep. Furthermore, inadequate sleep – even moderate reductions for just one week – disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that one would be classified as pre-diabetic. Besides briefly discussing the consequences of deficient sleep, it is worth focussing on the beneficial effects of sleep. Sleep restocks the armory of our immune system, which helps prevent infections and wards off sickness. Sufficient sleep correlates closely with the fitness of our cardiovascular system, helping to lower the blood pressure and keeping the heart in fine condition. Despite these facts, two-thirds of adults throughout all the developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. 2 (The World Health Organization and the Nation Sleep Foundation both stipulate an average of eight hours of sleep per night for adults.)

In addition to the obvious increase of energy after a good night of sleep and its undeniably valuable biological effects, sleep also benefits cognitive functions. Various functions of the brain are restored by sleep (Walker, 2017). Each stage of sleep – light NREM (non-rapid-eye movement) sleep, deep NREM sleep, and REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep – offer different brain benefits at different times of night. Sleep has proven itself as a time and again as a memory aid, before learning, to prepare your brain for initially making new memories, and after learning, to cement those memories and prevent forgetting. 

What can you do?
Now that the benefits of sleep are clear, what can we do to make it easier for ourselves to get a sufficient night of sleep? One straightforward approach is reducing the time spent looking at electronic screens. The reason for this is as follows: Your suprachiasmatic nucleus (a tiny region in the brain in the hypothalamus) communicates its repeating signal of night and day to your brain and body using a messenger called melatonin – also called ‘the hormone of darkness’ (Walker, 2017). Melatonin is a hormone that influences the circadian rhythm and is released at night and starts soon after dusk. It helps regulate the timing of your sleep schedule by systemically signaling darkness throughout the organism. It provides the official instruction to commence the event of sleep: as melatonin rises, another sleep event is called to the starting line. The release of melatonin can be interrupted by light, such as the blue light coming from one’s smartphone, laptop, television, et cetera. It interferes with the melatonin secretion, a person’s circadian rhythm and thus causes an interrupted night of sleep. You could say that blue light has a dark side. Therefore, the following interventions could significantly improve your quality of sleep and are easy to achieve (Harvard University, 2012): 

  • Use dim red lights for night lights. Red light is less likely to shift the circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin.
  • Avoid looking at bright screens at least two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Expose yourself to lots of bright light during the day, which will boost your ability to sleep at night, as well as your mood and alertness during the day.

In conclusion, do not hesitate to turn off your phone or other mobile devices (or filter out the blue light) a few hours before going to bed to achieve – and enjoy– a good night’s sleep to start your day well rested, productive and motivated.

Nutrition

Now that we have discussed how sleep among other things is essential for physical health and optimal cognitive functioning, the next paragraph will continue with the effect of nutrition on daily functioning and energy.

Most foods can be divided into slow carbohydrates or fast carbohydrates. Examples of fast carbohydrates are glucose sweets, white bread, baked goods and white rice. They are all fast-releasing carbohydrates and they make blood sugar rise and peak quickly. When your levels drop as your cells absorb the sugar, you may feel tense, jittery and anxious (a.k.a. the dreaded ‘sugar crash’) (Hughes, 2017). On the contrary, slow-releasing carbs (e.g. wholegrain bread, basmati rice, quinoa, vegetables and fruits) provides your body with energy for a longer period of time. Your bloodsugar does not rise as quickly and you do not experience the disturbing ‘sugar-dip’ as much.

Along with an increase in energy, lowering your refined sugar intake also affects your mood. In 2017, Knüppel, Shipley, Llewellyn and Brunner concluded that sugar intake from sweet food/beverages has an adverse effect on long-term psychological health and suggest that lower intake of sugar may be associated with better psychological health. Additionally, Aucoin and Bhardwaj (2016) suggest a relationship between diets high in refined (fast) carbohydrates and the development of anxiety and depression symptoms, whereas the addition of protein, fat and fiber may result in a decrease in anxiety symptoms. 

What can you do?
To enjoy a higher level of energy in the morning and throughout the day, it is advised to start the day with a rich breakfast containing slow carbohydrates. For example, substitute your white bread and white crackers with whole grain alternatives. Change sugary toppings to vegetable- or fruit-based substitutes. To contribute to a positive mood state, you could make an attempt to reduce your refined sugar-intake: instead of buying a candy bar at the campus as a study snack, try a piece of fruit or some sliced-up vegetable snacks. One of life’s joyful moments is enjoying a sweet snack. But make it a special occasion rather than a habit on a daily basis, and tame your sweet tooth. 

Excercise

Finally, I will complete this article by discussing the positive effect of exercise on mood and energy. It is widely known that exercise is beneficial for our health, but how does it contribute to a better state of mind and a get-up-and-go mindset?

Whether you run, swim or play tennis, after a good workout we feel more energized and ready to tackle the day because endorphins have boosted our physical energy level (Rodriguez, 2019) ‘Endorphins are our body’s natural hormones that get released when we are doing something that requires a burst of energy – they are the things that make us perform, make us move’, says Dr. R. Gotlin, a specialist in sports medicine. ‘Exercise tends to increase those levels.’ It is the endorphin release that contributes to the feeling of euphoria commonly known as ‘runner’s high’ (Rodriguez, 2019).

What’s more, endorphin also helps relieve pain and stress (Collins, 2017). Besides this neurotransmitter, physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These brain chemicals play an important part in regulating your mood. For example, regular exercise can positively impact serotonin levels in your brain. Raising your levels of serotonin boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being.

What can you do? 
Ultimately, the benefits of exercise seem to be twofold: exercise boosts your body’s fitness and energy, and also your mood, both of which contribute to your overall health and well-being. But how can one achieve this? For instance, go for a run or simply a nice walk in the morning for your blood to flow, to get your mind running and to give your mood a positive boost. Experiment with different exercises until you find one you truly enjoy, that might  – in my humble opinion – even be the secret to maintaining a sport rhythm: achieving your regular exercise goals becomes much easier when it is something you take pleasure in.

All in all, the key to a productive day might be not as secretive  – or coded  – as one might think. Increasing our vitality can be as simple as having a blue light-filtered satisfying night of sleep, and a healthy sugar-reduced breakfast after which a nice walk in the sunny outside world follows. Adjustments being small as they are, can have major outcome effects on our energy level, state of mind, motivation and therefore: our productivity. One simply has to open up their mindset and take these into consideration. <<

References

– Aucoin, M., & Bhardwaj, S. (2016). Generalized anxiety disorder and hypoglycemia symptoms improved with diet modification. Case reports in psychiatry, 2016.
– Collins, R. (2017, 25 juli). Exercise, Depression, and the Brain. Healthline. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/
depression/exercise#Exercise-and-brain-chemistry
– Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, 7 juli). Blue light has a dark side. Harvard Health. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu
/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
– Hughes, L. (2017, 30 maart). How Does Too Much Sugar Affect Your Body? WebMD. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/diabetes
/features/how-sugar-affects-your-body
– Knüppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C. H., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1–10.
– Rodriguez, D. (2019, 1 mei). Why Exercise Boosts Mood and Energy | Everyday Health. EverydayHealth.com. Retrieved from: https://www.everydayhealth.com/
fitness/workouts/boost-your-energy-level-with-exercise.aspx#:%7E:text=Any
%20exercise%20or%20physical
%20activity,and%20give%20you
%20more%20stamina.
– Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep. Scribner.
Elise van Graven

Author Elise van Graven

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