Study Hacks Blog

On Slow Productivity and the Anti-Busyness Revolution

April 7th, 2021 · 16 comments

Seven years ago, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang was a typical overworked, multitasking, slave to the hyperactive hive mind, Silicon Valley consultant.  Feeling the symptoms of burnout intensify, he arranged a three-month sabbatical at Microsoft Research Cambridge. Here’s how he later described this period:

“I got an enormous amount of stuff done and did an awful lot of really serious thinking, which was a great luxury, but I also had what felt like an amazingly leisurely life. I didn’t feel the constant pressure to look busy or the stress that I had when I was consulting. And it made me think that maybe we had this idea about the relationship between working hours and productivity backward. And [we should] make more time in our lives for leisure in the classic Greek sense.”

The experience led him to ultimately publish a book titled, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. I remember this book because it came out the same year as Deep Work, and the two volumes were often paired as variations on a common emerging anti-busyness theme.

In the half-decade that has since transpired, an increasing number of new books have taken aim at our accelerating slide toward overload in both our work and our personal lives. Many of these new titles, somewhat in contrast to my writing, or that of Pang,  have adopted a more strident and polemical tone — not only underscoring the issues, but also pointing a defiant finger at the forces which are supposedly to blame. Clearly the overwhelmed and overscheduled manner in which we currently operate isn’t working.

Which brings me to a question that more and more has been capturing my attention: What can we do about this unfortunate state of affairs?

It’s here that the insightful work that has probed this question in recent years falls somewhat short of sparking major change. The genre is currently dominated by economic materialist arguments: We work too much because of exploitive capitalist imperatives, and then overload our personal lives because we’ve internalized these narratives.

There is, of course, a subversive, trapdoor energy in this materialism that’s not entirely misguided: there are many areas in which a constant scrutiny of labor relations is warranted, and the allure of consumerist affluence is far from benign. But a pure materialist interpretation of overload culture severely limits our responses, leaving us, if you’ll excuse some mild facetiousness, with only the option to occasionally engage in non-instrumental activities as an act of resistance while waiting for others to overthrow the capitalist market economy.

I believe we can do more right now.

My thinking in this area is still half-formed, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that what this conversation needs are alternative definitions of “productivity”; definitions that believably deliver on the promises of profitable value generation in businesses and resilient satisfaction in our personal lives, while rendering the excesses of overload culture as unnecessary at best, and profoundly harmful at worse.

In my research on such matters, I’ve come to learn that a lot about how we work and live right now is more ungrounded and arbitrary than many might assume, driven more by a novel mix of autonomy and ambiguity than deterministic dynamics of exploitation. We may need a slow productivity revolution more than we need an economic revolution.

I don’t know exactly what these new definitions of productivity might look like, but we can certainly do better than our current haphazard approaches, in which work descends into performative busyness on Slack, and our personal lives are digested into air-brushed social media moments. The human attraction toward some notion of productivity isn’t the problem. The real issue is neglecting to figure out what specific notions actually make sense for our current moment.

16 thoughts on “On Slow Productivity and the Anti-Busyness Revolution

  1. Geoff says:

    I’ve often wondered myself about this notion of ‘slow productivity’. As my PhD has progressed, so have my skills, and my ability to be more ‘productive’ with my time, in the sense that I can write faster, because I have more experience, I can code faster, and even troubleshoot somewhat faster, than I could at the beginning of my PhD.

    What I have noticed, as time has gone on, is that despite being able to increase my rate of output, it is still punctuated by moments of pause and hesitation. There is still an expectation to be spending a certain number of ‘hours’ at my desk, doing ‘work’, and even when it’s clear that my productivity is waning.

    As my skills have improved, it’s made it clearer how arbitrary this sense of ‘time spent working’ really is.

    I’m not sure if this is precisely what you’re getting at Cal, or maybe it’s just a small subset, but the contrast between the beginning of my PhD, has clarified the difference between time and productivity.

    Anyway, not sure exactly where I was going with that. Just thinking out loud.

    Great post Cal. Interested with the direction you’re turning towards.

  2. Donna Burton says:

    I have wondered if being a “Knowledge Worker” has meant I do have to show physical effort in order to be seen as productive. I am thinking about my work most of the time, even though that cannot be seen. I may be sitting still in my office looking out the window – which looks like I am doing “no work” — while thinking about management of a project, a conversation with a student who is struggling to stay in school, or the agenda for a meeting coming up.

    I think it may be why, when I walk around our office, I see people staring at their computer screens. Doing so means they are “working,” but as we can all testify, staring at your computer doesn’t mean anything is being accomplished.

  3. Wonderful share Cal, and for me I see that it points to our TRUE nature as humans and to the source of where CLARITY lies.

    When we get quiet enough to listen, it expands our bandwidth so we naturally end up seeing more of what is actually available to us.

    The opposite is is also true, being that when we have a busy and stressed mind, our bandwidth reduces, and so our productivity, capacity and ability to see things as they really are also shrinks.

    When it comes to leadership in business, you can see how this can adversely impact a team, especially when high levels of productivity and innovation may be required.

    In my experience, humans will always do better when they feel better.

    So having even a basic understanding around this will always prove itself to be useful in life and in business.

  4. Stéphanie says:

    As the writer of a blog on slow productivity (in French), this post is music to my ears.
    I believe that the “work” value, in the sense of paid employment, has perhaps a too prominent role in our lives. Our job is very much correlated with our identity. The fact of working long hours and being busy automatically means that we are someone important, right?
    In an ideal world, processes would be optimized, irrelevant tasks (or jobs) would be eliminated, deep work would be encouraged. We would work less and have the time to pursuit other endeavors outside of our job. Some of these endeavors can be productive, in the sense that they bring value to society, without necessarily being paid employment.
    As to how we can get there, I don’t know yet. Would it mean implementing a basic universal income, living a more modest life or would the gains in productivity entailed by this new way of working be enough to allow everyone to work less? It is definitely worth thinking about.

  5. Andy Ballentine says:

    I am impressed by how helpful the so-old-that-it-is-again-cutting-edge practice of Sabbath is: receiving the gift of time, in a weekly (and, even, for a short period, daily) rhythm; time during which you have permission not to be productive! It is time for receiving refreshment. Highly recommended!

  6. joe says:

    I think many successful, inward reflecting, and knowledge chasing people are curious to know how to balance that stillness and anti-busyness while still being very effective.

  7. Ed Capaldi says:

    So. What if written word is waste. What if productivity is sabotaged by written word. Maybe productivity results from stuff getting made through talking clearly? Data entry and analysis apart?

  8. Rambhakta says:

    To Andy Ballentine – Yes, and the Maccabeats’ take on “Sound of Silence” expresses it beautifully:

  9. Rhone says:

    Is this the gestating topic for your next book? Like your other works, I feel this topic will be right at the edge of the “adjacent possible,” which is where you thrive.

  10. Jared Wyllys says:

    Another book that I think would play into this nicely is Celeste Headlee’s “Do Nothing.” I think she focuses more on the busyness in our social lives, but it struck a chord with me because like many others I’ve felt the sense that I don’t have time for hobbies or leisure outside of work. She writes about how, a generation or two ago, most adults were involved in clubs and activities and still had time for slow leisure things too, and she gets into why that’s changed so much. I don’t know that there’s a correlation, and someone much smarter than me would have to explore it, but I wonder if the decline in life expectancy that we’ve seen over the last few years isn’t at least a little tied to the pace of life that has become the norm.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I talked to Celeste not long ago about her book…fascinating

  11. Karen Kleiss says:

    I cannot wait to read what you write as you move farther down this line of thinking. Overload culture is structural, for sure, but also addictive. When reading this blog entry I also immediately thought of the Sabbath, as Andy did. If you’re so inclined, there is an excellent book by A.J. Swoboda called Subversive Sabbath, which unravels the Christian narrative and practice around rest. After a lifetime of striving and doing and reading countless self-help books to become more productive, I read this at 40 and it gave me a refreshing framework for thinking about rest. Our culture makes no place for rest, let alone leisure. Whether you are Christian or not, you will find it interesting from a philosophical perspective. Looking forward to your next post.

  12. Ryan Yates says:

    Hey Cal, this is a thought-provoking piece! It is timely too, given the things happening with labor in Bessemer, Al and Rutgers University.

    I agree with the way that you have described the problem of how we define productivity. However, I worry that without worker autonomy, we will be forced into old productivity traps. We know, for example, that fuel-efficient cars don’t necessarily lead to a reduction in fuel use. People drive more and often end up using more.

    Workers in the vast majority of jobs do not have much control over their working hours. This is decided by the leaders in their organization. Why is there a push from the top to have folks work more? The obvious answer is that this will lead to great profit for the company. However, your analysis shows that this may not be the case. I would argue that is more because the leadership can. It is about exerting and maintaining the current power dynamics that exist in our mode of production (capitalism).

    This couldn’t be more starkly outlined by the difference in working conditions for postal workers vs amazon drivers. The former is not peeing in bottles because they have the ability to exert some control, through collective bargaining, over their working conditions. If workers in general, and knowledge workers specifically, want more autonomy and the ability to slow down they must have autonomy over their work. This will not be possible in the highly asymmetric relationship between owner and employee.

  13. Alice says:

    Can you say more about how “autonomy” and “ambiguity” contribute to our current and problematic notions of productivity? I am super intrigued and want to know more.

  14. Jesse Miller says:

    I wonder if there’s a line item in the infrastructure stimulus package for a slow productivity revolution… If not, there should be!

  15. Tanner says:

    Hi Cal – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on companies who are adopting 4 day, 32 hour work weeks. I interviewed two companies who have made the switch to this type of work arrangement while keeping employee benefits and pay the same, and they are getting the same or more work done, in less time, and have an extra day for leisure and unplugging. This speaks to your comment on how much of how we work is arbitrary. Why work 40 hours when we can work less and still get the same done? Of course, Deep Work and having the right leadership goes a long way in making this happen.

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