7 Scents That Boost Productivity And Help You Focus—Even When You're Exhausted

The sweet smell of success is real.

April 12, 2017
steaming cup of coffee
Ines Perkovic/getty

Get a whiff of this: Breathing in certain smells can fire up your focus and make your 9 to 5 way better. “Scents have a powerful effect on the brain and can give us an instant boost in productivity and focus,” says Cary Caster, Certified Clinical Aromatherapist and founder of 21 Drops Essential Oil Therapy.

That’s because the right aromas can amp up alertness, boost brainpower and even squash anxiety. So whether you have a big presentation or a speech to memorize, we have a scent for you!

(Sign up for our FREE newsletter to get clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more delivered straight to your inbox!)

Achim Sass/getty

The wise men were onto something with frankincense, a scent that’s long been used to relax an overactive mind. “The essential oil contains numerous sesquiterpenes which oxygenate and stimulate the limbic system, the seat of our memory and emotions, to improve memory retention and clarity of thinking,” says Caster. The woody aroma could relax you too. A study published in the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that burning frankincense could have a Prozac-like effect on the brain by activating anti-depressive pathways and lowering anxiety.

Try this: Burn these frankincense incense sticks in your bathroom before work, keep a reed diffuser on your desk, or add a few drops of frankincense essential oil to a cotton ball and keep it in a baggie to take sniffs of throughout the day.

Related: 7 Mental Health Benefits Of Being Outside

ylang ylang
Tier Und Naturfotografie J und C Sohns/getty

Whether you have a deal to close or a job interview to nail, ylang-ylang can help. According to researchers in Brazil, the floral scent derived from flower petals of the tropical tree, can give you a self-esteem boost. Another study found that it boosted alertness and harmony with others—great for group projects.

Try this: If you have a private office, add a few drops of the essential oil to an electric diffuser; for communal workspaces, try this USB aromatherapy diffuser that plugs right into your computer, suggests Carole Berg, Registered Aromatherapist and founder of Wonderful Aroma.

Related: 5 Essential Oils You Should Always Have In Your Medicine Cabinet

zesting a lemon
photo by Kristin Zecchinelli/getty

Doing a complicated crossword or taking a tough test? Sniffing the citrusy scent could be just what your mood and motivation need. Research from Ohio State University found that sniffing lemon improved people’s moods and raised levels of norepinephrine, a brain chemical linked to executive decision-making and motivation. Another study found that students exposed to a citrus-scented cleaner were more likely to clean up after themselves, while in a Japanese study the scent of lemon improved typing accuracy, with workers making 54% fewer errors.

Try this: Add a few drops of lemon essential oil to your shower gel in the morning or create a lemon-scented room spray by adding a few drops of essential oils to a spray bottle filled with distilled water.

Related: Make This 3-Ingredient Room Spray To Boost Your Mood In Seconds

jasmine flowers
Charlotte Bj?rnstr?m / EyeEm/getty

Not only does breathing in jasmine trigger feel-good beta waves in the brain, it can speed up your reaction time. According to a study done by the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, baseball players who wore jasmine-scented armbands hit the ball better than those wearing non-scented bands, while also enjoying an improved mood. Other studies have linked jasmine to feeling simultaneously switched on and serene, an ideal head space for meetings and interviews.

Try this: Sip a morning cup of jasmine tea (we like Numi Organic Jasmine Green Tea) or keep a naturally scented jasmine candle on your desk.  

Related: The 8 Best Plants To Boost Your Productivity

smelling rosemary

Trying to memorize a speech? Reach for rosemary. The herb has been found to increase concentration and memory while dialing down stress. According to research by Dr. Mark Moss, head of the department of psychology at Northumbria University, inhaling the aroma of rosemary essential oil improved speed and accuracy during demanding mental tasks, and increased memory test scores by more than 10%. “Memory is tied to the limbic system, which associates scent with memories, so inhaling oils when one is studying or reviewing information for a presentation is an added advantage,” adds Caster.

Try this: Keep a rosemary plant on your desk or windowsill and pluck a needle to smell throughout the day or rub 1-2 drops of rosemary essential oil between your palms, then inhale.

Related: The Spice That Boosts Your Memory In Just One Hour

smelling peppermint
Frederic Cirou/getty

Invite peppermint to your next brainstorming session. “The uplifting oil is well known for its ability to awaken and refresh the mind, aiding in focus and mental clarity,” says Caster. It can also get you through your commute and workday with less fatigue and frustration. One study found that the scent of peppermint cut annoyance in drivers, while another study found that it reduced mental fatigue and burnout.

Try this: Put a natural peppermint air freshener in your car, and diffuse peppermint essential oil at your next brainstorming session.

Related: 10 Quick And Easy Ways To De-Stress In Under A Minute

pouring coffee from french press

Wake up and smell the coffee… or is it smell the coffee and wake up? A study published in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that just breathing in coffee’s bitter scent could reverse the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and bust stress. When sleep-deprived rats were exposed to coffee bean aroma, genes connected associated with stress-reduction were activated—no sipping required.

Try this: Make a DIY coffee scrub for your morning shower (combine 1 cup coffee grounds, ½ cup sugar and 3 tablespoons coconut oil), and keep a jar of coffee beans on your desk.