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The ugly secret of knowledge work is that we don’t know how to measure it. The result is that we monitor activity, taking that as an indicator productivity is happening.

“The relentless overload that is wearing us down is generated by a belief that ‘good’ work requires increasing busyness – faster response in emails and chats, more meetings, more tasks, more hours,” Georgetown University computer science professor and productivity writer Cal Newport writes in Slow Productivity.

But this measure of productivity – pseudo-productivity, he calls it – has no firm foundation. It’s merely a premise and after looking at some of the greatest scientists, artists, writers and other knowledge workers, Prof. Newport offers another premise instead: Languid intentionality.

It has three parts:

  • Do fewer things
  • Work at a natural pace
  • Obsess over quality

He asks us to reject busyness, viewing it as an obstacle to producing results that matter rather than a badge of pride. Let professional efforts unfold at a more varied and humane pace, with hard periods counterbalanced by relaxation, reflection and rejuvenation. “I want to rescue knowledge work from its increasingly untenable freneticism and rebuild it into something more sustainable and humane, enabling you to create things you’re proud of without grinding yourself down along the way,” he writes.

In agriculture or manufacturing, productivity is relatively easy to measure: Compare the inputs and output. When Frederick Winslow Taylor was working to increase productivity in the foundry at Bethlehem Steel in the early 20th century, a classic moment in the development of management, each worker had a discrete task, so figuring out the ideal load for a shovelful of ore offered a boost in output.

But these day, Prof. Newport notes, individuals are handling complicated and constantly shifting workloads. “You might be working on a client report at the same time that you’re gathering testimonials for the company website and organizing an office party, all the while updating a conflict-of-interest statement that human resources just e-mailed you about. In this setting, there’s no clear single output track to measure,” he says.

Management thinking was also influenced significantly by Henry Ford’s creation of the auto assembly line. But knowledge work is quite different. An essential factor we haven’t dealt with properly is that tasks flood an individual from many directions. It’s not just from a single supervising manager, but from many supervisors in complicated organizations, peers and other colleagues and clients.

We fall back on visible activity as our primary method of judging whether people – including ourselves – are productive. Prof. Newport notes that tools like e-mail and Slack make it possible to signal apparent productivity with minimal effort. Can we even be productive in this frenetic mess?

He argues we need to slow down to be more effective, starting with doing fewer things. Here he is addressing the individual, probably individuals with relatively high autonomy, but managers might want to listen and ponder. He argues you should strive to reduce your obligations to the point where you can easily imagine accomplishing them with time to spare. Leverage that reduced load to more fully tackle and advance the small number of projects that matter most.

When Jane Austen’s family freed itself from the social swirl by moving to the village of Chawton and she was spared household chores other than preparing breakfast, she produced in a few years the classics we read today. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996 after being ousted a decade earlier, he found the product line out of control and narrowed it down to just four computers. In both cases, fewer things led to better things.

Prof. Newport notes there is an overhead tax for every commitment you make: Emails, meetings and other collaborative toil. Limit how many things you work on at any one time, and you limit that daily tax on your time, bandwidth and energy. Then you can tackle the other projects you kept in the queue. He argues you will get more done and what you produce will be better. Managers, he argues, have to change the system of assigning tasks from push – deluging individuals from all sides with what others want – to collecting the tasks in a holding tank and having individuals pull their next task after completing one.

Accompanying this paring of tasks should be working at a natural pace: Don’t rush your most important work. Allow it instead to unfold along a sustainable timeline, with variations in intensity, in settings conducive to brilliance. The scientists who changed our understanding of the world all did this. They were interested in what they produced over the course of their lifetimes, not any particular day or stretch of time. And they often chose places to work that encouraged better output. “Without a manager looking over their shoulder or clients pestering them about responding to emails, they didn’t feel pressure to be maximally busy every day,” he writes.

His third principle focuses on quality: Obsess over the quality of what you produce, even if this means missing opportunities in the short term. Leverage the value of these results to gain more freedom in your efforts over the long term.

He argues this is the glue that brings it all together. If you do fewer things and work at a slower pace, you may only fray relationships without offering something attractive in return. And quality demands that you slow down, so it fits together neatly.

“We’ve tried the fast approach for at least the past 70 years. It isn’t working. The time has come to try something slower,” he concludes.

Cannonballs (from Cal Newport’s Slow Productivity)

  • To reduce collaboration overhead, establish a 30-to-60-minute period every afternoon as your office hours and make it known you will be available for quick discussion that can resolve issues with colleagues. Also try once a week docket-clearing meetings in which your team comes together to churn through pending tasks that require collaboration or clarification.
  • Adopt a “one for you, one for me” strategy. Every time you add a meeting to your calendar for a given day, find an equal amount of time to protect.
  • Quietly stop scheduling meetings for Monday, suggesting other dates instead. Without anybody noticing, you have cleared one day – 20 per cent of the working week – for greater focus and a less frenetic pace.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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