377: The Slow Productivity Approach that will Elevate the Quality of Your Entire Life, as taught by Cal Newport
Wednesday March 20, 2024

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Whether or not our constant need to check email, or be involved in multiple projects at once or filling our schedule so full, squeezing in a short vacation is a struggle stems from our need to please, our drive to succeed or our feelings of insecurity, is nearly (but not entirely) irrelevant. What takes priority is an acknowledgement that none of these habits or approaches to work, whether we work for ourselves or someone else, will never produce the best quality of work, and in so doing will leave us unnecessarily depleted.

If we’re at work (or working in our office at home), nobody can say we aren’t giving what is required, and the same can be said for checking our email frequently, or our phone and the news frequently, whatever the outlet is that gives the appearance that we are not being left behind and are working as often as possible often is why we embrace the busyness.

Part of the reason we accept busyness has a lot to do with not knowing and our attempts at trying to at least, to our Lizard mind, put the odds in our favor. In other words, if we don’t understand how our mind works, our ego runs the show and tries to do all that it can to simply ‘survive’, and that means trying to control all that it can, including attempting to control what it cannot (errantly thinking it actually can). And so by our constant doing, we think we are helping, but actually we are getting in our own way.

Once we take the time to know our mind (something I will talk about and teach in-depth in TSLL’s premiere online video course – the Contentment Master Class – available June 2024), we understand why the mind reverts to the Lizard mind defaults. But once we see what it is doing, out of fear of the unknown, we can bring it back to the Sage mind mentality and trust that in letting go, we will not falter, nor will we get behind. In fact, we are opening up our lives, and thus the quality of our productivity to far better quality.

Author and professor of computer science at Georgetown University Cal Newport’s latest book Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment without Burnout details exactly how and where in our daily lives and throughout the year we can apply the Slow Productivity approach and why it works.

In today’s episode I will be sharing with you 10 takeaways that caught my eye as areas of interest that I thought would interest TSLL readers/podcast listeners, and if what you discover here speaks to you, I encourage you to pick up the book as far more detail and information is shared. Throughout the discussion today, I will be dovetailing the ideas Newport suggests with how it overlaps with living simply luxuriously because as is made clear from the name given to his approach, the concept of quality versus quantity is the key thread that runs through Slow Productivity, something that TSLL Community is all too familiar as we individually cultivate our simply luxurious lives.

Let’s get started.

1.Delegate, hire or eliminate daily life tasks

“The advantage of doing fewer things, is about more than just increasing the raw number of hours dedicated to useful activity; the quality of these hours also increases.” —Cal Newport

Newport lays out three core principles that define what Slow Productivity requires, and the first is “Do Fewer Things”. Common sense? Yes. Easy to do? No necessarily, but absolutely necessary.

The first example he sites is Jane Austen and her ability to write as many novels as she did in such a short amount of time. He dispels inaccuracies regarding when she actually had time to write and brings to our awareness that it isn’t until she is able to “‘abstract herself from the daily life going on around her’ that she was able to find her literary voice”. He goes on to point out the ignorance or privilege of how so many white male writes of the past (and arguably some in the present) who extol the simplicities of doing more and better work forget that someone else was/is tending to the daily must-do tasks – making meals, cleaning the house, caring for the children, etc., etc..

With that knowledge in mind, examine all of the daily tasks you assume you alone have to do. Be brutally honest with yourself. This is something we have talked about before in various contexts, but the reason, at its core, remains the same for doing so – to free up your mind and time so that you actually have the energy and open space in your mind to let it be both free to connect disparate ideas as well as have the energy to bring it to fruition.

But let’s focus specifically on work. What can you remove from your plate that because you think you alone have to do it, the tasks that you really want to sink your teeth into lose time and creative focus. For me, that is tending to website hiccups and updates that will inevitably come up along the way. Over the past year, a lot of precious time was given and stress levels rose because I was tending to things outside of what was my priority – writing and creating, and because I wasn’t an expert in these fields, it took prolonged time and caused stress that further drained time for creativity. However, we all have to learn somehow, and when we take the time to acknowledge where a wise investment would be to give ourselves back more than we are losing if only we would stop trying to do everything, the quality of both our work as well as our well-being, mood, etc., increase. Needless to say, hiring a web consultant, something Newport also suggests in the book, is a wise idea.

Which leads to the second point . . .

2. Do whatever you can to reduce the overhead tax

“Doing fewer things makes us better at our jobs; not only psychologically, but also economically and creatively. Focusing intensely on a small number of tasks, waiting to finish each before bringing on something new, is objectively a much better way to use our brains to produce valuable output.” —Cal Newport

Overhead tax, Newport describes, as the ongoing administrative overhead – “back-and-forth email threads or meetings scheduled to synchronize with your collaborators”. So while we may think we can handle two, three or four projects, it’s often not the project itself that bogs us down, but all of the overhead tax that comes with each project. Now we don’t have to accept so much overhead tax, but if we aren’t going to change how we communicate and organize with others that we work with on the project to reduce the overhead tax, we need to first begin by working on one project at a time.

But wait, some may be saying, I don’t have a choice of how many projects I work on. First, I would ask you to examine that response, but then, if you have to have more than one project, begin by changing the culture of how you tend to the overhead taxes. In other words, when you write emails, make sure you have a clear purpose for writing them, communicate your purpose succinctly but with as much detail as possible (and necessary) to prevent as much back and forth as you can. Clarity and simplicity. So that you can complete projects or tasks without interruptions, communicate when you are available to collaborate, will respond to email, or when colleagues can pop by your office, by setting ‘office hours’.

Stay consistent with your availability so people can trust you will be present and promptly responsive (if not in person), but by doing this, you reduce the number of email and eliminate missed meetings. As well, don’t just have meetings to ‘have meetings regularly to touch base’. If we want to be productive, we have to provide time to tend to tasks without constant interruptions, so whether it is scheduling our own day (if we work for ourselves) or if we are the manager or administrator – communicating clearly a purpose of why you are meeting and consistently being available for employees to connect with you but also enables you to tend to your work, do all that you can to eliminate the overhead tax that comes with working on projects, so that the project and its completion is the focus, not ‘showing that you are working’ by scheduling endless meetings and having a full inbox of ‘communication’.

3. Fewer options

“Slow productivity requires that you free yourself from the constraints of the small so that you can invest more meaningfully in the big.” —Cal Newport

If you run a business or offer services, choose fewer options to purchase or hire out for. In other words, rather than being spread too thin and potentially reducing the quality of output, choose the items that both your clients will most want or trust you to provide and what you can most provide well and dependably.

This could also mean taking on fewer clients at a time or fewer cases, etc. Just because you have time on your schedule (at least on paper), doesn’t mean you have to fill it with new clients or new projects. Newport reminds, no matter how much time we have, often we are very adept at filling that time. Why? Because if we are engrossed in a project, we step into a flow of creation, and ultimately the project or task benefits; however, if we are jumping from one client to the next in the middle of the day or one project to the next, we stop ourselves while we have momentum and the quality can suffer.

I thought about this quite a bit while working with my contractor, and while every project is different, having had two different experiences with them over the course of two years, it was when their schedule became very full with two other clients running concurrently with mine that I felt most frustrated with them as a client. Keeping this in the back of my mind, I don’t want any project to feel they are forgotten about or response time is slow because I have taken on too much thinking I could handle it. Keep the quality up by saying yes to fewer offerings and projects tended to at the same time.

4. Focus on one major project a day

“There’s a calibrated steadiness to working on just one major initiative a day. Real progress accrues, while anxiety is subdued.” —Cal Newport

For knowledge workers, which is primarily who Newport wrote the book for, however, anyone can find takeaways to deepen the quality of their approach to work, choosing to focus on only one primary project each day ensures more progress and quality progress at that will be accomplished.

Now this is not to say, for example, that you won’t respond to emails that are unrelated to the project or take phone calls to potentially touch bases with other clients on other projects, but prioritizing where you are going to focus your energy and largest chunk of time on any given work day will deepen the focus and the final output.

When I look at the schedule for my week, after reading Newport’s book, I acknowledged that whenever I had a day on the calendar that contained two major projects that I would be tending to in some way, those days were often the exhausting and could cause the most stress. It is on the days when I only focus on one major project and then sprinkle in some small tasks to complete at the end that my days feel lighter and I actually accomplish far more.

So, as you look at the your work schedule, examine realistically when you can give the most time to each project you are working on. You likely will have to plan ahead so that you don’t fall behind because you are going to appear to be slowing down in productivity, but actually what is slowing down is your rushing which ultimately delays the project as you will have to give it more time down the road or go back and correct mistakes or deepen the output that isn’t as polished as you would like.

5. Connect a reoccurring have-to task to a ritual of enjoyment – create an auto-pilot approach for this task

If you have a weekly or monthly task for example that is a have-to, and while it’s not horrible, it isn’t the most enjoyable task to do. Why not pair it with something that is enjoyable? It could be where you tend to this task – take yourself out of the office for example and always do this task at a favorite bistro, café or library nook (be sure to turn your VPN on), or it could be what either precedes or follows the task. Maybe, you have to meet with the accountant every first day of the month to settle the books, what you do before however is an absolute delight because it involves walking through a beautiful park that you normally aren’t in proximity to, but each month you are because of where you meet for your appointment. Giving yourself time to enjoy the walk elevates the quality of the have-to experience and creates a ritual you look forward to.

6. Permit yourself to take longer (within limits)

The second principle of Slow Productivity as defined by Cal Newport is “Work at a Natural Pace”, and so when he suggests we take longer with projects that require some or a lot of elements of creativity, I concurred completely. He sites Lin Manuel Miranda and his writing of In the Heights and how it took more than seven years to finally become the play that would begin to put Miranda on the Broadway map. But during those seven years he wasn’t always working on In the Heights, but rather letting it evolve and mature naturally based on his maturity as a writer and his experiences, taking feedback, etc. and many other seemingly non-related details that life provided.

Now this advice is largely for creatives and knowledge workers, but not entirely. Let’s take a book you are writing or an online offering you are creating. You have the idea and you know it will be done, the key here is not to rush it and just put it out as soon as possible. Let it marinate, carry it with you, and what you will find is that you will have bursts of creativity that will advance the project far more quickly than you imagined, but then you will also have moments of pause and setting it aside. And because you didn’t set a deadline that was too immediately, you can be patient and then readdress when you are energized.

I have always been impressed with authors who can crank out more than one new book a year or even one new book each year, and of course it depends on the content, but when I publish a book, it takes almost two years to recharge and feel my way to what the next idea for the new book will be, and then it takes two more years to give the proper time for the quality of book I want to offer to readers. Of course, every creative or knowledge worker’s product is different and requires various pieces of work, but not pushing and letting it evolve as it will, but always keeping the burner on, will provide more potential for quality work to be produced when it is ready to be shared.

7. After completing BIG projects, schedule Rest projects

Similar to the rituals shared above, when you know a particular project you are working on is going to take an immense amount of time, effort and temporary sacrifice (social and family time for example may have to be limited), ahead of time, schedule a Rest project to immediately follow the completion of the BIG project.

In some ways, this rest project can be viewed as a carrot, a reward for completing your big project, but even if you are thoroughly engrossed in your big project, it will serve your creative energies well to do something that is less demanding or taxing.

The rest projects don’t have to be work-related projects, but they can be. Let me explain.

If you can give yourself a project that doesn’t require as much connection with other team workers, perhaps a solo project that you can self-direct, this would be a rest project. But if you can step away from work, it may be your vacation or it may be giving yourself permission to take an afternoon off each week to do something you enjoy that is entirely non-work related, something you would have never done during your work on the big project. Whatever it is, the nudge here is to help you to relinquish any regret you might have for not continuing at the pace you were traveling while working on your big project.

Put simply, you cannot continue at such a demanding pace without something suffering, so be preventative and schedule a rest project.

8. Become comfortable saying no to opportunities in the short-term

“Hardwood grows slowly.” —Jewel

The third principle of Slow Productivity is “Obsess over Quality”, and he sites in detail the singer and songwriter Jewel and her journey both of introduction and throughout her music career as an example of saying no in the short-term. Once we have adopted the previously shared principles of doing fewer things and letting our projects unfold at a more natural pace, inevitably, our time will be taken up for longer periods of time by the few projects we choose to engage with, meaning we won’t have time to accept other invitations that may be tempting in the short term.

Newport argues that it in the obsession over quality, “that slowness can transcend its role as just one more strategy . . . and [instead] become a necessary imperative—an engine that drives a meaningful professional life.” And when we are obsessed with quality, we pay attention to all the details of our life and how they are contributing or distracting from what we are trying to do.

In last Monday’s Motivational post I wrote about the importance of choosing high quality leisure pastimes to be a part of our daily life, and while not directly related to our project that we are working on, when we choose with intention pastimes of quality, we are creating an enriched way of living. Indirectly, what results is amazing and serendipitous as dots connect and inspire and provide ideas that we may not have seen had we not taken part or explored other areas of interest that on the surface were not connected but most wonderfully open windows of discovery.

By saying no to short-term have-tos, we give ourselves time to have and delve deeply into these pastimes and often that is when magical, unexpected moments and ahas come to life. And when we become obsessed with quality in all areas of our life, saying no to tasks and activities that will dilute that quality becomes far easier. In fact, “Once you commit to doing something very well, busyness becomes intolerable.”

9. Invest in and Maintain Quality Tools and/or Equipment

“If we want our mind on board with our plans to evolve our abilities, then investing in our tools is a good way to start.” —Cal Newport

An investment in yourself and your dedication to do the project well can require various equipment. Perhaps a camera or a microphone, or computer; however, it is when we invest that we are also upping the stakes to ensure we do the job well. We are betting on ourselves. Quality doesn’t always beget quality if we don’t know how to use the tools, but this item on the list is assuming that you are knowledgeable professional who knows what equipment is needed to do your job well, but may be hemming and hawing about putting down the investment to purchase the item that will ensure they can do what they want to do.

I can remember when I made the, what seemed to be at the time, big step to purchase my first Apple laptop as opposed to my PC laptop. As I shared in my first book, it was the best major investment I made in my blogging/writing trajectory at that time because the new laptop performed without hiccups, no lag time, no snags, in other words, I was able to work on my projects and not give time to fixing my computer. More time, better quality of work, less stress. This has continued with upgrading my microphone for the podcast and so many other upgrades to someone on the outside may seem unnecessary, but when you know what you need to be able to do, it isn’t a want, it is a need, and it shows you are dedicated to quality in your work.

10. Embrace (and perhaps Create) Seasonality (at least small seasonality) in your work

Similar to #7 but on a grander scale, be reminded that there is value in regular rest, of the mind, the body, our being. And when we know we will have this regularly, it becomes more motivating and inspiring to give well while we are working. Long-term vision is required, so we have to live with intention and have a purpose as to why we are doing something. Simply just making it through the days will in the end reduce the quality of those days as they unfold into the future.

Educators come to mind when the idea of seasonality is discussed because we have one year – 190 days give or take – to teach the students in such a way that they will be proficient in the desired objectives set by the particular course we are teaching, but then, then! Summer break arrive for us all. Even students need a break for their minds, and we need to remember this after we step away from the classroom and into our jobs and careers that often do not have a ‘summer break’.

If taking a summer break isn’t a possibility, Newport suggests implementing ‘small seasonality’. Maybe each week, a particular day becomes off-limits to certain not so enjoyable activities such as meetings. He suggests a No Meetings Mondays, so while it is only for one day you get a break, you have that break every week of the year. Or when it comes to your leisurely pastimes mentioned above, embrace the idea of rituals that you look forward to and sprinkle them daily, weekly, monthly and seasonally throughout your calendar and do them regularly. This elevates the quality of your day to day and gives you something to look forward to.

But back to the big seasonality idea. If you have the ability to design your own schedule, choose one or two months a year where you turn down the dial on your work load and expectations of yourself. Perhaps even take these one or two months entirely off, and don’t just stay where you are, go and visit or stay somewhere that will nourish and stimulate new ideas.

Newport shared how Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and 1911 would take two entire months off from her work in the lab to spend time in the French countryside with her husband and daughter. Our minds need a break, and it isn’t as though our minds aren’t collecting information or working, but rather they are free to relax and energize so that when we come back to work, we are recharged.

Living well involves working well, and working well requires conscious choices and intentional practices that value quality work production. The beautiful paradox once again is that by investing in quality rather than quantity, our work’s quality rises and it begins with our valuing living well overall. Our mind and our body will thank us. And the legacy we leave behind will be something that we are proud to have completed.

~Explore Cal Newport’s latest book Slow Productivity:The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout here.

~Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

Episode #331


9 thoughts on “377: The Slow Productivity Approach that will Elevate the Quality of Your Entire Life, as taught by Cal Newport

  1. Thank you Shannon for these two last posts inspired by this book. I am amazed at the speed at which you produce such high quality content. I received my pre-order two weeks ago and cannot wait to read it too.

    If you don’t mind me changing subject, I have receive my first savon de marseilles. Thank you for the recommandation. It is much bigger than I was expected. Do you cut up yours? Thank you.

    1. Veronique,

      Thank you for stopping by and I have to share (I don’t think I wrote it in the post, but I shared in the audio version), once I began reading this book, I didn’t want to stop, so I finished it in fewer than 24 hours. It is jam packed with ideas to consider and explore, and if this episode speaks to you, I am confident you will enjoy the book. 🙂

      To answer your question about the cube of Savon de Marseilles, there are two sizes, the 300 g and the 600 g. The 600 is quite large. 🙂 I usually purchase the 300 and use it as it is, but I am sure you can cut up either size to fit what you prefer. I also purchase the oval size soaps as they are sometimes easier to handle. 🙂 If you have any other questions, just let me know! Happy to help. 🙂

  2. Just listened to this book in nearly a single setting on a trip to the PNW coast – delightful! So very grateful for your keen eye and awareness of high-quality content. Cannot WAIT to listen to the episode. You kept me company with your podcast on the last leg home. So very grateful for you and everyone in the community!

  3. I really enjoyed this podcast on slow productivity. Although I have been retired for several years, I can apply these ideas to create more intentionality to my days. This book intersects with one of my current reads, “The Fun Habit” by Mike Rucker, PhD. I’m learning to increase my time with fun activities. Principle #6 resonated with me as I’m giving myself permission to take longer to complete an art painting. Shannon, you are so lucky to have a boutique theater in Bend. I would love to see the film Painting the Modern Garden. Keeping fingers crossed it will come to a theater near me. Xx

    1. Karen,

      Thank you for sharing how this episode spoke to you and the particular points that stood out. Art takes time and I think what you have resolved will deepen the enjoyment as well as the outcome even more than you might imagine. Paint on! 🙂

  4. Lovely, episode as always, Shannon. As a (mostly) stay at home mom who also works part time, I found the talking points very helpful. I often find that I am running in circles around my toddler, always busy, but rarely accomplishing much. I had a “light bulb” moment after listening to point one. I am on a hamster wheel of daily tasks. I don’t believe the daily tasks of motherhood are any less important or dignified, but I am now exploring ways to streamline these tasks so that I have more time to spend with my family, work on homemaking projects, and pursue continued education.

    1. Amanda,

      Thank you for sharing how this episode spoke to you and you also make a powerful and important point – “the daily tasks of motherhood aren’t any less important or dignified”. I absolutely agree with you and I am fairly confident TSLL community agrees with you. So as you point out, it is designing an approach that enables you to give time to what you most prioritize and letting go or delegating the others. It may be hard at first, but then, I have a feeling, you will reflect and say, why didn’t I do this sooner? 🙂 Thank you again, very much, for your comment and for tuning in!

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