Study Hacks Blog

On Pace and Productivity

July 21st, 2021 · 17 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.

17 thoughts on “On Pace and Productivity

  1. G di Gesu says:

    Carl, hi.

    Interesting hypotheses you rise.

    1. How should we go about defining “deeper impact” in the 21st century?
    2. How should we define “slow productivity” as per present standards, or expectations?
    3. Is Google causing deep impact? Moderna, Pfizer? Apple? Are, Sequoia, causing deep impact?
    4. Should ee say Elon Musk creating “deep impact”?

    Your essays are great.


  2. Grace says:

    This post reminds me of a quote (attributed to various people): “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”

    1. Ouch. Definitely needed this one today. Thank you.

    2. Also reminds me of a similar quote, “The days are long but the years are short.”

      This is especially relevant for raising children.

  3. John says:

    I enjoyed this short post and what is likely a fledgling idea that is worth pursuing further. Too many people seem obsessed with productivity when it is measured as number of tasks or number of work units finished per hour or day. They become obsessive about tracking statistics.

    I am pondering this idea in relation to ongoing work on a Zettelkasten.

  4. Gvido says:

    You can attribute this “slow productivity” to business endeavours as well. In my case it took me 20 years (and bankruptcy in 2009) to fully understand customer needs and production nuances, but somehow my little company managed to come up as leader in our niche field in my country, now bringing in steady profits and extreme customer loyalty. All it took was listening to the clients and fine tuning our products for many many times and suddenly your competition is so far behind or went out of business in this particular field. It really takes time and pressure, just like in geology, even at times you think you are not moving forward altogether. But then you break out.

  5. Chetan says:

    Great post Cal, very much counter to the hustle culture popular nowadays that conflates activity with achievement.

    I’m also reminded of the similarity to investing. Warren Buffett has articulated his “20-slot rule”: “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it, so that you had 20 punches — representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punch through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all…you’d really have to think carefully about what you did, and you’d be forced to load up on what you really think about. So you’d do much better.”

  6. Tim says:

    Great insight. I see so many job reqs that say some form of “must be accustomed to fast pace of small or high tech businesses,” and I think, wow, what gets missed in the “get it out the door” attitude. Yes, you’re getting work out the pipeline. But what insights are you overlooking or leaving in the dust?

  7. Mike Wagner says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights. I would say this mirrors my work and experience. Feeling unproductive while living the “slow productivity” life is a matter of determination. But well worth it!

  8. Dmitry Krasilnikov says:

    Thank you for this excellent post. I was thinking just yesterday how unproductive I am. It demotivates and makes me even less productive as a result. After reading your insights I realized that I need to pay less attention to the everyday achievements and think more on a larger scale. Also, added the book mentioned to the wish list on Amazon, sounds extremely interesting and promising

  9. Irvin says:

    I feel like this article fails to consider that for the largest part of human history, people who were producing “culture”, be it science, literature, art, music, did not have to do it for a living. Greeks and Romans had slaves, most medieval “culture” comes either from monasteries or from kings’ courts, most Renaissance men had a regular “job” that paid the bills but was not the source of their contribution to mankind, or relied on family fortune, or received a regular stipend from patrons that was not linked to a specific “product” that they sold. In the 700s and 800s, and even early 900s, most writers, scientists and politician came from wealthy families and did their “work” as a past-time, so they did not have to come up with a finished “product” (a book, a painting, a scientific theory) in order to earn their livelihoods.
    The article also considers only (as this blog often does) the people at the pinnacle of human flourishing, as if, given the right circumstances, every knowledge worker could come up with the next great american novel or a scientific breakthrough, or found the next Amazon.
    There are a lot of hidden assumptions in the article that I believe would make the whole point not really that significant if applied to “regular humans”.

    1. Nitin says:

      >> There are a lot of hidden assumptions in the article that I believe would make the whole point not really that significant if applied to “regular humans”.

      So what remains then for the rest of us? Do we just throw up our hands and wistfully resign to a life of mediocrity and obscurity? Hidden assumptions notwithstanding, I’m still better off picking up nuggets of insight from these profiles of high achievers.

    2. Andres says:

      >> The article also considers only (as this blog often does) the people at the pinnacle of human flourishing.

      Querido Irvin, i think you have a point here but If you read “Digital Minimalism”, and also previous posts from this blog, there are a lot of inspiring examples of “regular” people that overcame digital addiction to live a more profound life.

      I am far from agree with everything Newport says (i’m not that into planning, for example), but the idea of making space to do what he calls “deep work” is a good one. And from what i understand the purpose of that kind of work is not necessarilly to turn into the next great billionaire, but for the sake of it.

      To me the good thing of this kind of articles is that you can extract a good insight or some idea that you can choose to put to work in your own context and forget about everything else.

  10. I wonder if this pattern holds in top scientists in recent times (e.g. Nobel Prize winners).

  11. Andres says:

    Are you going to write a book on slow productivity, or is it just me? If that’s case – and sorry for the irony – hurry up. We need it.

  12. Hadassah says:

    Brilliant post, Cal, and also bittersweet. I think one of the problems for those of us who have the job of producing new knowledge on the cutting edge is that the majority of funding for such endeavours is limited to very short timeframes – 3-5 years in my country for a standard grant – when real progress on hard things cannot be pinned down in such a limited way.

    I wish we could achieve the equivalent in our fields that Newton and Galileo achieved, but they weren’t forced to fit their brilliant ideas into 5 years of budgeted objectives in order to put food on the table while they worked. I really hope that this academic culture may someday change to fit the reality of how breakthroughs in fields really happen.

  13. Vallikat Peethamber says:

    Your observations are interesting considering the kind of ground breaking stuff that these great personalities produced. One thing to note however is that even during those “quite” periods, their minds were in silent pursuit of something beyond. The curiosity was unmatched as was evident in the case of Einstein’s famous thought experiments. What they eventually penned down would have been many years later thus making us feel that the productivity levels were low compared to the frenzy of today.

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