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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why Looking at BuzzFeed Helps You Focus (and Other Awesome Studies)

As a psychology magazine editor, I’m rarely at a loss for fun fact fodder. At Sunday afternoon football watching parties, for example, I may tell you about the study finding that cities with NFL teams sell significantly more junk food on the Monday after their teams lose than on other days of the week, while residents in cities with winning teams seem to eat a little healthier on post-game Mondays.

If, at a networking event, you confess you’re terrible with names? I’ll understand because research shows that names are particularly tough to recall since you either get it right or wrong—you can call a “daffodil” a “flower,” but you can’t call “Jane” “Linda.”

Even my preference for a happy hour drink over a nightcap is evidence-influenced.

And while some fun facts—such as one of the most highly cited in my daily life about how looking at pictures of cute animals makes people squeeze more bubble wrap than looking at funny or serious pictures—are mostly just fun, many are functional, too. Here are some of my favorites from this year, which might also help you out in the workplace.

1. A Clean Desk Isn’t Always the Best Desk

In one experiment, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers asked participants—half of whom sat in a neat room and half of whom were in a messy one—to brainstorm new uses for ping-pong balls. A panel of reviewers who didn’t know who was in which room then rated the ideas.

The result? They scored the ideas of messy room residents as more creative and interesting than their tidy room counterparts; think funky earrings versus beer pong balls (they said new ideas!). In another experiment, messy surroundings also made participants more likely to prefer a product touted as “new” than one advertised as “classic.”

Another experiment in the series, however, demonstrated the benefits of cleanliness: Participants who had completed a questionnaire in a tidy atmosphere were more likely to take an apple on their way out and to donate more money to charity than those leaving a messy room, where they more often opted for chocolate and held onto their bucks.

What’s the takeaway for you? If you’re a graphic designer or entrepreneur, don’t stress about a little mess—it may help you think outside of the box. But if you work at a more traditional company that values following the rules? A clean desk could keep you on track.

Related: 5 Ways to Be More Creative (in a Non-Creative Job)

2. Eating at Your Desk Isn’t Always Bad—So Long as it’s Your Choice

For 10 days, researchers at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management asked admin-types how they had spent their lunch breaks. Those who chose something relaxing appeared to their colleagues most energized at the end of the day, but the key word was “chose:” Employees who chose to work through lunch also seemed less tired than those who felt forced to do so. Even a little cafeteria socializing with colleagues can lead to employees seeming more drained because they may be talking about work or staying on their professional toes while the boss is around, the researchers speculate.

The bottom line: Feeling like you have control over your break might be more important than what you do during it. So whether it’s water cooler chatter or quiet time alone, take your lunch to do whatever energizes you.

Related: 5 Creative Ways to Spend Your Lunch Break


3. Hope is a Surprisingly Powerful Predictor of Job Success

In an article in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers reviewed 45 studies including more than 11,000 employees to find out what effect hope has on work performance and employee well-being. According to my colleague who wrote an article for our magazine published by the American Psychological Association on the topic, the study found that hope is more responsible for workplace productivity than optimism, self-efficacy, and even intelligence. "Basically a hopeful person does one day a week more work than a less hopeful person in a seven-day work week,” one study co-author told her.

So, put on your best Positive Patty face, set your goals—and then believe that you can make them come true. I have a (research-backed) hunch you'll succeed.


4. Habits—Both Good and Bad—Rule When Willpower is Low

For 10 weeks, researchers tracked the breakfast-eating and newspaper-reading habits of 65 students at UCLA. They found that those with strong healthy habits—such as consistently eating oatmeal for breakfast and reading the local news section—did not slack on these habits under the stress of exams, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In fact, they were even more disciplined.

Turns out, though, the students with less healthy but still strong habits—think pancakes for breakfast and reading the comics every day—also stuck to their routines more rigidly when exam week hit, indicating that stress doesn’t make our habits better or worse, it just makes us stick to them even more. (So, yes: The next time you blame a big deadline for your donut binge, consider it a reflection of how you’re eating every other day of the year.)

5. A “Good Multitasker” is Often an Oxymoron

In a study in PLOS ONE, University of Utah students answered questions about how much they multitask and how good at it they thought they were. Researchers found that participants who were actually good at multitasking—as measured by a test of executive functioning—were the least likely to report doing it, while those who often reported doing a lot at once were often the least mentally equipped to do so. Multitasking, the findings suggest, is a product of an unfocused, distractible mind, not a masterable skill.

Think you’re a master of juggling a lot at once at work? Try doing one thing at a time for a few days. You’ll probably find that you’ll do each task just a little bit better.

Related: Distracted by Social Media? 4 Ways to Stop Getting Sucked In


6. Looking at Baby Animals May Improve Your Attention to Detail and Focus

In one particularly “kawaii” (the Japanese word for “cute”) experiment published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers in Japan gave college students a task that tested their fine motor skills, then showed them either photos of puppies and kittens or photos of adult dogs and cats before testing them again. The students who had looked at baby animal pictures improved their scores more than those who had seen grown-up animal photos.

What about non-animal photos? Students who viewed pictures of appealing foods—think a juicy steak—didn’t improve their scores at all, a follow-up study found. And in another experiment, cute pictures seemed to help students focus better than did pictures of adult animals or neutral objects.

The researchers speculate that precious little things may make us more careful—a great response the next time your boss catches you on BuzzFeed.