These Are The Weirdest Productivity Hacks That Really Work

From skydiving and surfing to paper boat races and reminders to drink more water, these professionals swear by the odd array of hacks to get more done.

These Are The Weirdest Productivity Hacks That Really Work
[Photo: Flickr user Tony Fischer]

There’s a lot that can get in the way of progressing toward your goals.


In a new State of Enterprise Work Report from Workfront, a project management software company, the majority of the 2,001 employees surveyed placed meetings and email at the top of the heap of productivity busters. Fifty-seven percent of those polled said meetings are the worst time suck, and 53% voted for email. Millennial workers have an average of 234 unopened emails in their inboxes at any given time. If you feel like CNN push notifications are derailing you, you’re not alone: 48% of respondents said a major news event affected productivity in their office.

Nearly three-quarters (69%) of those surveyed believe that automation of rote work will give them back the time needed to tackle their primary responsibilities better. But until automation and AI are more fully integrated, many employees are relying on productivity hacks to get their work done. Some of the most common productivity hacks are things like taking a walk, reorganizing to-do lists, or using a timer.  

But when traditional methods fail, some professionals and leaders go above and beyond to tap into their most productive selves. Here are a few of the strangest methods they swear by.


Design, Build, And Race Paper Boats

Darrin Brege, the current VP and creative director for the marketing agency HelloWorld, runs a studio team of artists creating original art for numerous Fortune 500 companies. He works an average of 40 hours a week unless there are major projects. Brege still uses a method developed during his tenure at a previous employer: Hold a paper boat regatta. Participants design and build paper boats and then race them in a nearby stream.

The goal of the event is not to generate specific creative ideas, but to bring people together and get them out of their routine. At his former employer it built more open collaboration and let “non-creatives” express their artistic side. Now, when Brege and coworkers are feeling stressed, they take an hour to decorate their boats and see which can travel 50 yards. The result is not only a pressure reliever, it inspires a surge of creativity.

Choreograph A Dance Routine

Adrienne Weissman, chief customer officer of G2 Crowd, a Chicago-based startup, similarly taps her creative side while going about her day. The former cheerleader, who typically puts in 50-55 hour workweeks, will choreograph a dance routine to her favorite song in her head. “Coming up with these insane choreographed dance routines helps me visualize what I need to get things done, all while having fun doing it,” she explains, “It’s how I strategize.” With five direct reports and 30 people on her various teams, Weissman says she sometimes wishes she could share her choreography and see them perform. “I’ll let you know if I can talk them into it,” she says.


Focus While Hula Hooping

Marcey Rader, founder of the Work Well. Play More! Institute, also uses movement to focus on certain tasks throughout her day. In Rader’s case, she multitasks with a hula hoop. “I will hoop while I read blog posts, articles, and white papers on my Kindle or saved to Evernote in my phone,” she says. Because hooping takes time, Rader says it makes her read entire articles or watch complete webinars. “I am good enough that I don’t have to think about it,” she concedes, “but it keeps me from clicking on my screen because I need to be doing something and not just watching.”

Taking Calls While Surfing

Perhaps the most extreme example of multitasking we heard about was from Nest Bedding’s CEO, Joe Alexander. “I am a surfer, but with the success of Nest Bedding, if I am away from the internet and the phone for more than a few hours, I have literally hundreds of emails, he explains. “This cuts into my surf time, which is my way of getting away from things.” So Alexander keeps a waterproof phone in my surf trunk pocket and takes calls when he’s riding the waves in San Onofre, Waikiki, and Manhattan Beach. “Reception is fine,” he contends. As for having his downtime cut into by a phone call he says, “There are lots of dead spots between waves. It’s mostly about being available for my staff to help them when dealing with a customer issue or closing a big sale.”

Brainstorming While Swimming

Tom Zimmerman of IBM’s Alamden Research Center in California heads to the water for a different purpose. Swimming for an hour or more at a stretch allows him to feel like he’s in an isolation tank. “My body keeps swimming and my mind keeps working,” he tells the authors of I Hate People. His most ambitious idea to date that he thought of while underwater is a circuit board that could eventually stimulate the brain.


Channeling Your Adrenaline

Media entrepreneur Peter Shankman’s forthcoming book Faster Than Normal is all about how he’s channeled his ADHD “challenges” into productivity tricks. “My ADHD is one of the key reasons I’ve been fortunate enough to have the success in my life that I’ve had so far,” Shankman says. The benefits include having a quicker brain that reacts much stronger to dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline than most people, because they don’t get as much of it as those without ADHD.

So while the ADHD doesn’t necessarily fuel Shankman’s creativity, what he does to utilize it does. For instance, as a licensed skydiver, Shankman will take his laptop to the drop zone and do a jump. Upon landing, he says, he immediately writes 10 blog posts, or two chapters of a book, without stopping. “I’m so “high” from the dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline flowing through my body from that skydive that my focus and deep concentration is at an all-time high,” he says. That’s how he launched a company and took it from concept to production to revenue within a day or two.

 For less thrilling pursuits of productivity, several executives have created hacks that take mundane tasks and decisions off their plates.


Push Notifications For Downtime

Sapho founder and CEO Fouad ElNaggar built himself an app that sends him a push notification for “pants” or “no pants” (read: gym shorts) to start his usual 13-hour workdays. As the company continues to grow–with staff ranks increasing to 75 and scoring $14 million in Series B funding this past April– EINaggar and his entire staff use the app to save a little time each day by telling them when they need to button up to see clients or be comfortable to deal with interoffice issues.

Blasting Heavy Metal

Lior Rachmany is the CEO and founder of Dumbo Moving. He oversees over 200 employees, and says they don’t seem to mind when he blasts “extreme heavy death metal.”  He says it helps combat the dreaded midday crash, or when he’s having a hard time being productive. “Oddly, it really helps me get focused and puts me at ease.”

Setting An Alarm

Heather Monahan, a women’s empowerment mentor and speaker, sets an alarm for a certain time each day. “When the alarm goes off, it reminds me to check in with what I am doing versus what I was focused on accomplishing for the day,” Monahan says. That little reminder to refocus on your goals, she says, is often the only thing you need to get them checked off the list.


Chugging Water And Checking Email

Finally, Amy Ogden, senior vice president of brand development at J Public Relations, echoes the woes of those bogged down by checking email. However much she dislikes it, she dislikes drinking water more, even though she knows she needs both. So she created a hack to deal with both more efficiently.

“I fill a bottle of water, and my rule is that I can’t check my email until I drink it all,” she explains. If she downs it all quickly, she’s back to checking the average 250 emails she gets a day. Sipping more slowly means she can’t check the inbox, but she’s also entirely more productive.  “So it’s either more water or more productivity,” she says. “I’ve never gotten to inbox zero,” Ogden admits, “but I once got to 20 and almost passed out, out of sheer excitement.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.