Fast Productivity is Killing You, Here’s the Alternative
I want to tell you about something that re-energizes your work like it has mine.
It’s called slow productivity.
Slow productivity is not new. It’s actually how humans are wired to work. The modern world has tainted what work should be.
A lot of people are waking up to the stupidity of modern work. Endless checklists, pointless meetings, and your work living in your pocket are just a few of the ways work is giving us chronic overload.
We can fix this. We can have a better life by achieving more, all while working less. Work can be a good thing, but to do that we need to change the way we do it, not how much we do it.
Going back to the old way of doing things is what the future of work is all about. And you’ll see why in a second.
The promise of technology isn’t going to solve the problem of chronic overload.
It starts with slowing down.
What Work Should Feel Like
In the past, work was slow, physically demanding, but satisfying.
Skilled hunters and gathers would go out into nature and make use of the land and its resources. They had an insane level of knowledge about animal tracks and botany.
Long hours would be spent, on foot, skillfully searching for food of the highest quality. The peace of nature was all around.
During the day’s trek, it wouldn’t be uncommon to have a 2–3 hour break at noon! This made sense because you couldn’t perform if you were exhausted. Even they knew that then.
If there was a bountiful hunt, the village would celebrate the arrival of the men and their meat. Work was a celebrated activity. It was respected. It was satisfying. You went to bed happy.
Work was slow, mindful, skilled, and peaceful.
What Work Actually Feels Like
Now, work is fast-paced, mentally demanding, and dissatisfying.
The day starts. People hop in their cars or roll-off their beds onto their remote workstations. Most begin their day with a cup of joe, their phone pinging, their email full, and a chair waiting for them to sit in for the next 6 hours.
Long hours are spent, on butt, skill-lessly searching for information your computer isn’t smart enough to hand you. The relentless pull of chatter from 7 social apps makes your eyes glaze over in regression as you slouch in your seat further. 37 minutes pass. Oh crap, you almost missed that hour-long meeting about being a rockstar!
During the day’s sitting, one 30-minute lunch break happens. You browse Twitter. Hey, at least there are chirping birds. Lovely.
Since few understand what your job actually is and your manager is out on maternity leave, there’s nobody to celebrate your work and you go home to eat a tub of ice cream.
Work is relentlessly fast-paced, mind-bogglingly boring, chaotic, and dissatisfying.
Why Solving Chronic Overload Matters
Modern work causes chronic overload.
This is a state of having too much on your plate all the time. Endless checklists, little to no prioritization, relentless meetings, and never-ending notifications.
Because of chronic overload, you may experience the inability to…
- Feel as if you’re making progress
- Do stuff that matters
- Manage your time
- Plan ahead
- Be creative
So everything that makes you a functioning human is lost when you experience chronic overload. Autopilot is your default mode.
Imagine if you could solve all of these problems. You could help people because you can help yourself and you could enjoy work and life again. You could be actually productive.
How often do you find yourself in useless meetings at work? Or doing things that obviously don’t matter? Too often. This is a product of us attempting to be “more productive”.
But, what people really need to be productive is 3–4 hours of deep attention to a few particular actions. This is the foundation of slow productivity.
Work days could be 4 hours long. But society’s bad definition of productivity makes it seem impossible.
We need to redefine what it means to be productive.
A Living Example of Slow Productivity
I’ve been slowly picking away at an online book called Breaking Smart.
Breaking Smart is a book about how “software is eating the world”, but I’d like to focus on how the ideas connect to slow productivity.
Some of the most uber-successful products in the world are a result of small teams of people or even individuals. This is dubbed the 2 pizza productivity phenomenon because the teams are small enough that 2 large pizzas could feed all of them.
The most productive and ingenious individuals on the planet reside in these small and exclusive groups. All of them have done something called breaking smart — when young people adopt technology and leverage it to make huge changes in the world.
Take for example how Napster got invented. It was created by a 17-year-old! After Napster’s inception in 1999, 4 months later 150,000 users were on the platform.
And the next number is mind-boggling. 26.4 million users were on the platform just 2 years later. Sean Parker, the creator, was 19 years old at the time. About my age as of writing this.
Success is a result of slow productivity. Do you think Sean Parker did anything else other than think, test, and fail until he succeeded? Definitely not. He slowed down and did something amazing.
How we learn and implement what we’ve learned is core to making a larger impact with your work.
It starts with getting back to basics.
Slow Productivity Basics
A vast majority of my inspiration for slow productivity comes from Cal Newport.
Cal Newport speaks of something called chronic overload — a state of being constantly busy, distracted, and on the edge of burnout.
Let’s list out the problems of chronic overload…
- brain short-circuit → too many tasks leaves no room for planning or reflection
- overhead spiral → too many meetings. No time left to execute.
- relentless pace → no long breaks so divergent ideas can emerge.
What would it mean if these problems were solved?
Well, we could get more done, feel better doing it, and get energized by our work, not burnt out. We could focus deeply on a few key areas like Sean Parker did with his work.
To slow down there are a few simple things you can do.
- Realize seasons of productivity exist on all scales.
- Plan on a larger time scale.
- Create external task systems.
- Ruthlessly prioritize the impactful.
I’ll outline these 4 things in the next sections and provide real examples from my own life and workflows.
Seasons of Productivity
The seasons you think you’re not being productive are actually times of productivity as well.
Understanding seasonality on all scales is how you stay on track and stop worrying about the present problems. Productivity fluctuates.
Every day, I wake up at 5:00 AM and write for 1–2 hours. I’m my most focused, calm, motivated, and inspired in the mornings. Why? It’s because I use slow productivity.
All notifications are off, no tasks outside of writing are required, and my only focus?
It’s the most productive part of the day for me because it’s when I get to do the work I enjoy doing the most. I don’t get paid a single dime for it, but I don’t care. I love writing ideas people find helpful and sharing them. No matter how many times I fail.
But, there’s an opposite to my morning. The afternoon slump. This is a 1–2 hour period of time that I feel tired and my brain doesn’t work. Anticipating that this is my least productive couple of hours each day, I let myself know to take it easy.
It’s okay not to be productive 24/7. Even if I forced myself to work, the quality of my work would decrease substantially so I’m not actually being productive.
This is seasonality on a daily scale.
Seasonality exists at all scales. Weekly, monthly, and yearly. On some weeks of the year, we are less productive than others. That’s okay. Some months we are less productive than others. That’s okay too.
Zoom out to the year. Over the course of one year, you can get a lot done. Of course, they’ll be days, weeks, and months that didn’t go so well, but as long as you readjust your sails to stay on course, your year and then decade will look impossibly different.
Remember: “The seasons you think you’re not being productive are actually times of productivity as well.”
I like to call these seasons of productive procrastination. It’s when we have time to sit, think, and plan ahead. Our brains active something called the “default mode network” — which is when our brain sorts out things in our brain.
From this “sorting process” our brain comes up with the most creative things. Some people refer to these strange ideas as “shower thoughts”, but the technical name for them is divergent ideas.
Steve Jobs put it well
“The time I was putting things off and noodling on possibilities was time well spent in letting more divergent ideas come to the table, as opposed to diving right in with the most conventional, the most obvious, the most familiar,”
Don’t underplay the role of downtime when being productive. Seasons of sitting still may be the most productive things you can do.
Plan on Larger Time Scale
Planning on a larger time scale is how you find peace and satisfaction with your daily work.
Most people don’t plan ahead.
Did you know that “…less than 3 percent of Americans have written goals, and less than 1 percent review and rewrite their goals on a daily basis.”?
Imagine if people took the time to write down and work out what’s going on in their lives. It’s super satisfying to plan ahead and look back at old plans that went well or even failed. Planning is like creating your own history book.
Chronic overload is the reason people don’t plan. They’re so busy catching up with dumb tasks, notifications, and meetings that they forget there’s bigger fish to fry.
They might not even know there’s bigger fish to fry because they’re so busy. Their brain short circuits and they cruise through work on auto pilot.
Plan on a larger time scale to make your daily work meaningful and satisfactory.
External systems help you offshore tasks that would usually clog up your mind.
I’m a big nerd when it comes to productivity systems. For almost a year and a half now I’ve been using and increasing how I use Notion and Obsidian. (my two favorites)
Those are a bit complicated, so I’ll simplify them here.
Here are the basics of how an external productivity system works:
- Have an idea to do something? Write it down.
- Take those ideas and place them in a digital notepad or journal.
- Set a time aside to review these ideas and plan a timeline for implementing them.
- Act upon them at the time you scheduled.
There are tons of benefits to this…
- Prevents distraction because you can think about those things you wrote down later.
- Builds up a large list of ideas you can draw from in uncreative times.
- Helps you focus on the task at hand rather than the tasks of the future.
I’ve been using external systems to make the justification of working in the present easier.
If you’re a yes-man (or woman) you’ll need this.
We all know what has the biggest impact on our lives, but we usually fail to get around to it because we’re so caught up in our emails, messages, task lists, and pointless activities. We say yes to too much.
Ruthlessly prioritizing the impactful has been life-changing and it’s not even that hard.
Set aside some time, 1-hour or so, and focus on creating something that you can own. That’s it.
Creating something every day draws people in. They think you know something they don’t.
A friend of mine reached 121,000 followers on Instagram in less than a year by publishing MS Paint art.
What he knows is not too different from you and me. He has a passion for painting and he ruthlessly publishes a piece every single day. No excuses.
Take a chill pill, sit down for an hour, and do the sh*t you set out to do.
To Put a Ribbon On This
I don’t care if you take this advice.
The only thing that matters is if you choose to think about it or not.
Are you going to let your whole life be swept around by attention pirates and day-job bullcrap?
Work slow. Reduce chronic overload. Become free.
After that, you’re working towards a future you own.