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I am a person who needs structure and systems to function adequately. Having said that, experimenting with taking away some of my systems over the past year has taught me many valuable lessons about surrendering to the flow of life rather than living in a psychological grid where the only thing that mattered was getting the most out of each second. I am writing these words because of my deep interest in sharing how I am reincorporating my planning systems with the concept of slow productivity, which I learned from writer and computer scientist Cal Newport.
Why the concept of productivity in the first place?
As you become responsible for more commitments in your life (work, health, personal projects, relationships), relying on instinct is not the best idea. Our brains are not designed to keep track of the complexity that most of us handle nowadays. When there’s too much for us to imagine actually completing, we short-circuit our executive functioning mechanisms, resulting in a feeling of anxious unease.
A planner is meant to reduce complexity by outsourcing responsibilities to an external system that allows organizing tasks in priority ranks and information for easy accessibility while providing reminders that help not miss critical deadlines. A calendar, planner, or “root” document creates clear instructions, boundaries, and reminders to focus on what matters to you and what is best for your future self. Most of us have experienced how coming up with a plan and finishing it provides a sincere feeling of accomplishment.
Where does fast productivity go wrong?
Fast productivity is about increasing the scale of tasks you do in days and weeks. But this is the wrong approach because the metric of “more” opens a door for infinity, and I will tell you what is not infinite: your time, energy, and attention. The problem lies in that the expectation of what we want to get done is and will always be so much bigger than what we can actually do with our finite resources. Arguments against this kind of productivity can be found in “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Bukerman (It is a must-read for every productivity addict. My summary of this book can be found on my website). Slow productivity, on the other hand, comes from the realization that the epidemic of busyness makes us forget that a good life is about getting a few things really well so that when we are not in production mode, we can entirely give ourselves the gift to enjoy leisure and quality of time with our loved ones, without keeping track of time, planning for future execution, and multitasking on other unfinished tasks (there will always be unfinished tasks).
The significant insight of the slow productivity movement is that it can enable to work more sequentially, focussing on a small number of things at a time, waiting until one is done before bringing on new obligations. The surprise is that the rate of completed tasks might honestly increase because we are not affected by cognitive overload. The key is to broaden the scale to maximize our potential in a timeline of months and years, and not days.
Another benefit in the game of slow productivity is incorporating seasonality, meaning periods of more intense work with periods of relaxation. In other words, setting up in advance an upper bound on how much you will work. The reason is twofold: first because doing too much too quickly can risk your ability to stick with consistency in the long term. Second, it creates the illusion that all progress is created equal, making you overspend time on tasks that produce very little return. Without boundaries, suddenly work will overflood every other area of life, making one more likely to end up burned out and looking for stimulants (none of which really classify as a satisfactory thing to do with one’s life) to restore vitality or find a different kind of amusement and distraction.
The argument is to do significantly less but do it better over more extended periods while sustaining a sense of flow and alignment with what is essential. Slow productivity is the sweet spot that allows one to aim to reach the mountain’s tip while enjoying the scenery without worrying how long it will take.
3 Rules of Thumb
I am sure we all have different golden rules on how to get stuff done. Here are three foundational principles for my work time that you might find helpful:
- Deep work: Being honest about the quality of attention given to the task at hand. This requires cleaning all the distractions and being committed to being un-available to the requests of others for the sake of producing work one will be proud of.
- Take breaks more often: Productivity at the price of feeling exhausted, annoyed, and cranky is not worth it. Slow productivity is about getting an accurate pace that will keep you in the game in the long term.
- Commitment to your planner system: Respect and adhere to your personal “root” document to better navigate the complexity of life. In order to match goals, the key is being clear, realistic, and concise about what you expect from yourself. This is not so much about discipline and willpower as it is about being honest about our capabilities moment to moment. This, in particular, is the art of breaking down and reorganizing millions of responsibilities into digestible pieces.
With all love,
Santiago Barragan Noguera
Coach & Educator — Artistic Polymath
Copyright © 2021 Santiago Barragan Noguera. All rights reserved.