On Pace and ProductivityJuly 21st, 2021 · 33 comments
One of the books I’m reading on vacation at the moment is John Gribbin’s magisterial tome, The Scientists. I’m only up to page 190 (which is to say, only up to Isaac Newton), but even early on I’ve become intrigued by a repeated observation: though the scientists profiled in Gribbin’s book are highly “productive” by any intuitive definition of this term, the daily pace of their work was incredibly slow by any modern standards of professional effectiveness.
Galileo probably had his famed insight about the period of a pendulum in 1584, while a medical student in Pisa, observing swinging chandeliers in the cathedral. He didn’t finish working out the details experimentally, however, until 1602.
He was occupied in the interim by numerous other endeavors, including the handling of debts he unexpectedly inherited from his father, Vincenzio, after his death in 1591, and the writing of a treatise on military fortifications, a topic of great interest to the Venetian Republic.
Critically, as Gribbin’s explains, during this period Galileo was also occupied in part by his success in “leading a full and happy life,” in which “he studied literature and poetry, attended the theatre regularly, and continued to play the lute to a high standard.” He was not, in other words, locked up, grinding away in relentless pursuit of results. Yet results are what he did ultimately produce.
During Newton’s tenure at Cambridge, to cite another example, the university was closed for multiple years at a time due to plague epidemics. Though Newton later claimed that his thinking on gravity was stimulated by a falling apple observed during these forced idyls, Gribbins argues that his main insights came later. These early enlightenment-era shutdowns really did likely shutdown a lot of the young professor’s work.
It wasn’t until 1680, after an extended detour into alchemy, that Newton was spurred by a letter from a colleague to work out a formal understanding of what became the inverse square law that governs gravity. It then took until 1684 before he got around to publishing a nine-page version of this argument. It was yet another three years before this thinking expanded into his epic Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the most important book in the history of science.
Returning to my original insight, the message I extracted from these historical encounters is that when it comes to our understanding of productivity, timescale matters.
When viewed at the fast scale of days and weeks, the famed scientists in Gribbin’s book seem spectacularly unproductive. Years would pass during which little progress was made on epic theories. Even during periods of active work, it might take months for important letters to induce a reply, or for news of experiments to make it across a fractured Europe.
(Galileo famously ground the lens for his first telescope in only twenty-four hours, but this was after an entire summer of him trying to track down an elusive visitor to Italy who was rumored to know something about this then new technology.)
When we shift, however, to the slow scale of years, these same scientists suddenly become immensely productive.
This line of thinking is still embryonic, but I’m increasingly convinced that at the core of any useful understanding of slow productivity will be this distinction in timescale. No one remembers Newton’s lazy lockdowns, but his Principia achieved immortality.
We need some degree of the frenetic tools highlighted in modern productivity discourse to organize and manage the necessities of work and life. When it comes to pursuing deeper impact, however, perhaps sustainable success requires the embrace of a different and more forgiving timescale.