Study Hacks Blog

On Slow Productivity and the Anti-Busyness Revolution

April 7th, 2021 · 28 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.

28 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.

    1. Sonja says:

      Hi Stephanie. Would you be able to share a link to your blog please? I would love to check it out.

      1. Nitin says:

        Just click on her name to get to her site.

  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: https://youtu.be/cTjw96-Z700.

  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. Jay Scott says:

    I think many times we use work to “hide” from things in our lives as well. If were are stressed and worried this breeds more “work” to keep us from thinking about the stress and worry. We have really become addicted to the escapism of work (which it does provide) and now seem to lack meaningful activities that are not work related. Worse yet, even if we have these activities we feel like we are wasting time when we are doing them – because we could be working! It’s a vicious circle and a subject that does indeed need addressed.

    Jay

  16. 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.

  17. Ray says:

    I’ve been with the same company since the mid-nineties. In the earlier years it was easy to feel a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in the work. Projects were manageable, workload was reasonable, and there was no real struggle in the work/life balance equation. Top-down structure within divisions made it easy to know what projects to focus on, and priorities were easy to sort through. Leisure was more easily enjoyed outside of work hours. Most of us in the office would typically work 42-1/2 hours as a norm and that was ample for the workload.

    Somewhere along the line we’ve lost that. I kept thinking, “is this just me, am I overthinking things, how can I get more efficient at the tasks I need to get through?” But after a few years of pondering that question, and talking among colleagues, I’ve realized something has shifted in the way we work now.

    I thought about what changed. First thing is, we now work cross-functionally in teams, so more things get added to your plate (more meetings to attend, new tasks assigned) that, added up, can be difficult to juggle among other tasks on other projects. We’ve also added a “culture of accountability” in our company to put added pressure on individuals to assure you’re not the one holding things up. Second, as we’ve become more global, some of these teams include members located halfway around the world, so time differences are such that I have to re-arrange my evening youth baseball to practice on another night. That takes work too, and adds to more stress in ones life. And last, emails one needs to respond to have not slowed down a bit. In my role as a product line manager, I have an added responsibility to answer questions that are not easy to answer and require careful thought. It takes time to respond, and such questions come to me every single day.

    My company pays well, but over the years the work force has decreased while the workload increased. I secretly thought, would it be better for me to take a substantial pay cut if I could trade that for better balance? What does cutting my salary and adding another resource to share the workload look like – are we now more productive in the company and more happy? I might anticipate the answer would be yes. But you get used to the paycheck, and would be tough to give up. I call this the golden handcuffs.

    Anyway, great post, really resonated, and if you worked on this as a topic for a new book idea, I might be the first in line to buy and read it.

  18. Fayssal says:

    Yes, I am afraid the economics of productivity need revisiting. In my opinion, the capitalist approaches we use for knowledge work productivity are borrowed from industrial productivity of the last century. So, they are much more tailored towards quantity maximization as quality maximization. I think knowledge work should be more weighted in quality than in quantity. This is why there so much frustration about the way how we work: endless meetings, endless e-mails and communications, etc. Knowledge work is not a machine that we need to maximize its uptime. Humans are not machines. They need time for shutting down and to plan for leisure to be able to produce reliably. As such, I think we need new economics for quality, especially when applied to knowledge work, a type of economics that does not only care about the product but also considers the process.

  19. Ginger says:

    One angle is to ask who will push back the hardest against a slow productivity revolution. My guess is that it will be the short-sighted large manufacturers, big business, and established institutions and colleges. Except for a small handful of their leaders, most will view slower productivity as forfeiting profit and the power to make what profit they currently make. Ironically, it is their most valuable employees (the deep thinkers who are uniquely thoughtful and productive) who would benefit most from a slow productivity revolution. I think that you are correct that the current situation is “a novel mix of autonomy and ambiguity.” And I think a big reason is that only a few of those deep thinking and highly productive employees (i) figured out the personal cost and benefit of no longer working for their big-entity employers and (ii) were brave enough to follow through. The employees who decide to “jump ship” often take a financial hit even if they end up later contracting with similar businesses, or starting their own competing business. An employee who leaves the big, established employer behind can also suffer a social and cultural hit–many will lose legitimacy, both professionally and socially among his or her peers who are still employed by those establishments. Social and professional isolation leads to a lack of mentors, with fewer methods to bounce ideas off of who were formerly one’s colleagues.

    Creating and encouraging a culture for slow productivity would greatly reduce the friction described above. How does the culture and society start to encourage deep thinking employers to leave their current big-business and short-sighted employers, and adopt the slow productivity approach in their work and life? Here are a few ideas: (1) Coordinate and intensify the publication of books, videos and presentations by well-respected people such as yourself, Paul Jarvis, and others who want to see the same slow productivity revolution happen in one form or another–your published opinions carry great weight and can move the needle on what is deemed socially acceptable, responsible, and even honorable (2) Call upon the wisdom of the many Boomers and older GenXers, all of whom grew up when slower productivity was the norm, was taken for granted and appreciated even more. The Boomers have first-hand knowledge about the advantages of slow productivity–we should be tapping into their lived experience and perspective. What better mentor for an employee embracing this slow productivity revolution than a wise Boomer? (3) Those same Boomers and older GenXers hold and will be holding the biggest percentage of wealth in America. Why not coordinate with those Boomers to create and open educational and cultural entities solely for those who wish to embrace slow productivity? Start colleges and schools that forbid the use of electronic devices for the better part of the day, that require papers be submitted in handwriting, that demonstrate the methods of deep thinking and intense study times. Create “monasteries” where adults can attend or live without the distractions of electronics and cell phones and social media. Create clubs and fraternities where similar professions can gather–build beautiful buildings and campuses for like-minded people to gather and dine and socialize with each other. Invest in even more specialized trade schools. My guess is that many, many Boomers would gladly finance much of this, if they believed that it would create a culture to support and dignify a slow productivity revolution.

    By giving more social, cultural and monetary support to those deep thinking employees who are smart and brave enough to leave large manufacturers, big business, and established institutions and colleges, those employees are more likely to thrive in every way, thereby encouraging even more people to follow in their footsteps and adopt the slow productivity movement. At some point, hopefully that “novel mix of autonomy and ambiguity” becomes less novel and less ambiguous.

  20. Scott says:

    Just ordered the book (before I finished reading your full blog post!

    I love this post.
    I live this post.
    Has anyone else noticed that busy is a status symbol?
    When I ask others how they are doing I hear this… “Oh, Crazy…crazy busy!”
    I say to then , Im so sorry. That sounds horrible.
    Heres what crazy busy literally means -by Websters dictionary
    Crazy :
    Not mentally sound : marked by thought or action that lacks reason.
    Busy:
    engaged in action.
    So – most people I meet are indeed “engaged in action (that is) not mentally sound : marked by thought or action that lacks reason.
    Sad.

  21. Zach says:

    The underlying drive to be productive is not “exploitive capitalist imperatives” but our own fear of death and meaninglessness. We dread what we might have to face in productivity’s absence. “Overload culture” will not go away because it’s what we want and need. Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. Productivity provides a crucial element in the dual component buffer system our species invented to deny death: 1) sustaining faith in cultural worldview that prescribes a way to attain self-esteem by 2) living up to the standards of value that those worldviews provide. Read The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. The fight against an overscheduled life is a fight against fundamental existential fears – and will not be won with improved communication methodologies. An alternative definition of “productivity” is on the right track, but will work only when it is sufficient in allowing one to “earn” self-esteem within the culturally defined standards one lives in.

    1. Renee says:

      Zach, your comment is 100% spot-on. I write fairly often about the cultural value-signaling of “busy,” and the way it is used as a status indicator. As well as the fear of the empty space.

      Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath is a must-read in relation to these ideas; it was and continues to be a significant influence on my thinking in this realm. In an early chapter he head-on addresses the fear of rest and the existential crisis created when we try to root our self-worth (which is distinct from self-esteem) in something other than our job or service. It’s so antithetical to cultural norms that many of us can’t imagine what it would feel like.

      Muller’s book opened my eyes to how we often dive into work and busyness and the pursuit of “increased productivity” as a way to escape the discomfort of being with ourselves, of asking the hard questions.

      The communication issues, email challenges, and other “productivity problems” that we are typically trying to solve are *effects* of a deeper problem. We need to be thinking about how to solve the cause.

      Many people use busy-ness and the quest for “increased productivity” or “getting more things done” as the basis for their self-worth and a marker of their status. It confers identity. As long as that holds, it will be hard to persuade people to give up busy, and the surface problems will continue to persist.

  22. Kelly says:

    Great post! Thank you!

  23. Tyler says:

    Thank you for the article. I’ve been listening to the podcast, as well. I think I’m going to buy A World Without Email soon, because these are good ideas.

    Please consider changing the word “slave” to “drone” in the first sentence. I think it would be more accurate for what the hyperactive hive mind does to people.

  24. Abhijat Singhal says:

    Agree with you Cal. I have myself done lot of research in this area and feel that sticking to following basics (come what may) is the key-

    a. Define deep and shallow work blocks while starting your day with deep work block
    b. Limit number of email blocks to not more than 2
    c. Limit Deep work blocks to 60-90 mins each with ideally 3 such blocks in a day, with minimum of 2. Following ultradian model
    d. Having a micro break after every 30 mins. If not possible, then at least at the end of each block
    e. Practicing meditation and mindfulness for building ultra focus during deep work blocks
    f. Following digital shutdown concept at defined time.

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