The Hidden Reason These Common Productivity Habits Help Your Brain

Your brain works harder than you’re aware in order to help you stay focused. Here’s how common hacks like to-do lists and vision boards can help it out.

The Hidden Reason These Common Productivity Habits Help Your Brain
[Photo: Jamie Templeton/Unsplash]

There’s a lot of productivity advice out there, much of it quite similar: to-do list hacks, vision-board making, desk-decluttering, journaling. The fact is that these same familiar techniques do work a lot of the time for a lot of people. The reason why is because they all leverage an unconscious process that your brain undertakes countless times throughout the workday. Here’s how it works and what it takes to tap into it–no matter which productivity habit you opt for.


Selective Filtering

Every day the brain is bombarded with billions of bits of information from all five senses. In order to sift through that data, it resorts to what’s known as “selective filtering,” whereby only the most relevant information reaches our conscious thought. To do that, your brain needs to decide what counts as “relevant” in the first place–no easy task when sorting though competing messages.

Related: How Writing To-Do Lists Helps Your Brain (Whether Or Not You Finish Them)

That’s where a related process called “value tagging” comes in. This is where the brain assigns a value to each sensory cue from the world around you–shaping your thoughts and, consequently, your behaviors in response to those cues. When the cortex receives a snippet of information that it’s value-tagged as high priority, it sends a signal back to a part of the brain where sensory neurons meet. Information deemed to be irrelevant is selectively filtered out–it’s not transmitted, so that the relevant information can be.

Of course, it’s just about inevitable that this process gets in the way sometimes. Anyone who’s overlooked a major piece of information in a presentation or failed to spot a resume typo probably wishes their conscious minds hadn’t skated past those things. Indeed, while selective filtering can help you focus on what’s important, it may also be preventing you from seeing things that are right in front of you–including the tasks, challenges, and opportunities that impact your productivity.

Any effective productivity technique, in other words, should help you tap into this brain process strategically.

Related: Your Brain’s Personal Trainer Would Give You This Advice


[Photo: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay]

This Is Your Brain On A Productivity Hack

Fortunately, you don’t have to look far for methods that do. Here’s how a few of the best-known techniques help your brain selectively filter in the things you do need to focus on, and filter out the things you don’t:

  • To-do lists: Writing out the items you want to achieve for the day raises those goals and objectives from unconscious thought to conscious thought. You’re doing the value-tagging here, and you’re doing it intentionally–a process that your brain would otherwise perform all on its own.
  • Vision boards: Creating visual references for what you want to achieve over a certain time span focuses your attention in much the same way that a to-do list does. Plus, being able to see your goals dampens the brain’s automatic response to something new, which is to treat it as a threat.
  • Desk decluttering: When there’s less junk in your workspace, there’s less stimuli for your brain to process, value-tag, and deliver (or not) to your conscious thought. A simple filing system can a clean desktop can help your brain stay focused and avoid getting distracted from the goals you’re trying to achieve.

Related: The Psychology Behind All That Clutter You Can’t Get Rid Of

The unifying principle here is intention. When your unconscious mind isn’t working so hard in the background, it’s easier for your brain to home in on the desires, goals, and priorities you actively want–but it takes some deliberate, conscious effort to help it do that. These productivity habits are effective simply because the ratio between low effort (how hard is it to bang out a quick to-do list?) and high outcome is strong.

Of course, thought alone isn’t enough to bring about real change in your work or life. But the regions of the brain involved in intention are closely connected to the regions of the brain involved in action, so we’re more likely to do and feel things when we approach them with purpose–and actually intend to do them.

Of Blood Flow And Behavior Change

This principle extends far beyond productivity. Selective filtering can help you change all kind of behaviors, just as long as you’re directing your brain’s attention to a particular priority. The four steps to maintaining any sustainable behavior change are:

  1. raising attention
  2. focusing attention
  3. deliberate practice
  4. accountability

And when you complete these four steps as a set of consecutive tasks–rather than by multitasking–you help blood flow to the parts of your brain associated with each of those cognitive skills, rather than letting it move diffusely around your brain. Indeed, blood flow is the key resource here, and the way you think about and approach a given task can affect how it’s allocated across your brain.


So take some time to consciously bring to the forefront of your mind what you want to achieve, how you want to feel, and the type of person you want to become. Then focus your attention on a goal that can help you achieve it, set up a practice regimen, and hold yourself accountable to it. In that order!

If that sounds daunting, just start a fresh to-do list.

Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor. Follow her on Twitter at @TaraSwart.