Highlights from "Slow Productivity"

By Cal Newport

Cover of the book Slow Productivity

The relentless overload that’s wearing us down is generated by a belief that “good” work requires increasing busyness—faster responses to email and chats, more meetings, more tasks, more hours. But when we look closer at this premise, we fail to find a firm foundation.

PSEUDO-PRODUCTIVITY The use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort.

I think that’s where the burnout really hurts—when you want to care about something but you’re removed from the capacity to do the thing or do it properly and give it your passion and full attention and creativity because you’re expected to do so many other things.

PRINCIPLE #1: DO FEWER THINGS Strive to reduce your obligations to the point where you can easily imagine accomplishing them with time to spare. Leverage this reduced load to more fully embrace and advance the small number of projects that matter most.

In knowledge work, when you agree to a new commitment, be it a minor task or a large project, it brings with it a certain amount of ongoing administrative overhead: back-and-forth email threads needed to gather information, for example, or meetings scheduled to synchronize with your collaborators. This overhead tax activates as soon as you take on a new responsibility.

The knowledge sector remains defined by the demands of pseudo-productivity. To the unenlightened, your commitment to do less might be received as laziness or diminished work ethic.

I recommend, at first, when considering a new project, you estimate how much time it will require and then go find that time and schedule it on your calendar. Block off the hours as you would for a meeting. If you’re unable to find enough blank spaces in your schedule in the near future to easily fit the work, then you don’t have enough time for it. Either decline the project, or cancel something else to make room. The power of this approach is that you’re dealing with the reality of your time, not a gut feeling about how busy you are at the moment.

There exists a myth that it’s hard to say no, whether to someone else or to your own ambition. The reality is that saying no isn’t so bad if you have hard evidence that it’s the only reasonable answer.

work on at most one project per day.

Once you get used to accomplishing a specific type of task at the same times on the same days, the overhead required for their execution plummets.

But systems like GTD, though helpful, were not able to really solve the issues of anxious overload that began to afflict knowledge workers like Mann in recent decades.

As she writes in her book Free Time, one of the steps she took to reconfigure her business toward a slow productivity model was to spend more money on “going pro” with useful software services, instead of, as she put it, “squeezing everything I could out of their freemium editions.”

When a new project is pushed toward you, place it in the holding-pen section of your list. There is no bound to the size of your holding tank. The active position of the list, by contrast, should be limited to three projects at most. When scheduling your time, you should focus your attention only on the projects on your active list.

The great scientists of past eras would have found our urgency to be self-defeating and frantic. They were interested in what they produced over the course of their lifetimes, not in any particular short-term stretch.

In the sixteenth century, Galileo’s professional life was more leisurely and less intense than that of the average twenty-first-century knowledge worker. Yet he still managed to change the course of human intellectual history.

PRINCIPLE #2: WORK AT A NATURAL PACE Don’t rush your most important work. Allow it instead to unfold along a sustainable timeline, with variations in intensity, in settings conducive to brilliance.

If you’re too ambitious, your intensity will remain pegged at a high level as you scramble to try to hit your targets. If you instead give yourself more than enough time to accomplish your objectives, the pace of your work can fall into a more natural groove. A simple heuristic to achieve this latter state is the following: take whatever timelines you first identify as reasonable for upcoming projects, and then double their length.

To create more reasonable workdays, I have two suggestions: first, reduce the number of tasks you schedule, and second, reduce the number of appointments on your calendar.

“one for you, one for me” strategy. Every time you add a meeting to your calendar for a given day, find an equal amount of time that day to protect.

Forgive yourself. Then ask, “What’s next?” The key to meaningful work is in the decision to keep returning to the efforts you find important. Not in getting everything right every time.

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