This Productivity Method Could Be the Answer to Burnout

written by ALYSSA TOWNS
slow productivity"
slow productivity
Source: Alaina Kaz
Source: Alaina Kaz

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where, despite trying numerous productivity hacks and maintaining effective self-care routines, you’re still striving for more and feeling utterly drained? In particular, knowledge workers (anyone who adds value to the workplace by providing knowledge and information, like engineers, accountants, marketers, and academics) and anyone else spending their time on digital devices are experiencing incurable busyness, constant distractions, and overwhelming levels of exhaustion. Pair this with a culture that rewards achievement and success, and it’s no wonder many people (myself included at times) experience ongoing bouts of burnout

I love productivity books, hacks, and tips as much as the next person, and I’ve become a big fan of Georgetown Professor and Bestselling Author Cal Newport over the last few years. I recently dug into Newport’s book Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout and became fascinated and excited by the idea of slow productivity and what it could mean for the future of work. 

While Newport’s book is primarily written to address productivity challenges in knowledge work roles, there’s something everyone can take away from his philosophy. If you’re looking for a new definition of productivity that supports better work-life balance and reduces burnout, look no further: Here’s more on slow productivity and how to practice it.

What is slow productivity?

Many of us think about productivity as a term to describe working efficiently, accomplishing more work faster to make time for more tasks, and cranking through to-do lists using various time management techniques

In his book, Newport points out that knowledge workers struggle with a definition of productivity built upon relentless busyness riddled with more tasks and hours. His three-part philosophy on slow productivity proposes an alternate approach to productivity. 

According to Newport, slow productivity is “a philosophy for organizing knowledge work efforts in a sustainable and meaningful manner, based on the following three principles: 

  1. Do fewer things.
  2. Work at a natural pace.
  3. Obsess over quality.”

The 3 principles of slow productivity

Now that you know the definition of slow productivity at a high level, let’s examine the philosophy’s three principles.

Principle 1: Do fewer things

The first principle of slow productivity—do fewer things—involves simplifying to-do lists by reducing obligations “to the point where you can easily imagine accomplishing them with time to spare,” Newport writes. He suggests limiting ongoing goals, projects, and daily goals to create more space in the day to achieve these without feeling frequently overwhelmed and busy, even if it feels counterintuitive to making progress. 

Related, Newport points out that this principle of slow productivity requires freeing oneself from small time constraints. One way to do this includes putting tasks on autopilot or following a routine weekly schedule. For example, you could block every Friday afternoon for your administrative tasks and do them at the same time in the same place each week. This helps us build rituals, which allows us to fall into a rhythm in our work.  

Newport also recommends avoiding task engines (or work that generates many more urgent small tasks to complete) and spending money on services and tools (like Clockwise for scheduling meetings versus doing it manually or paying for a tool like Loom for sending updates instead of writing lengthy emails) that help save time and mental energy.

Principle 2: Work at a natural pace

The second principle is to work at a natural pace. Newport writes, “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.”

Newport advocates for spending more time on important projects (versus rushing them), even if it feels uncomfortable or stunting. He shares that we can make five-year plans to give us wiggle room within our long-term goals. In the short term, Newport recommends doubling our project timelines to work in a natural rhythm over an intense one (and also to help combat the planning fallacy), simplifying workday scheduling by reducing the number of tasks on our to-do lists, and reducing the number of appointments or meetings on the calendar to increase available work time. 

Another proposition for working at a natural pace involves embracing seasonality, which includes varying levels of intensity and focus throughout the year, depending on your workload and commitments. 

In other words, the year-round 9-to-5 schedule might not be the best for sustainable, natural output. Someone who works in finance may have intense periods and longer days during quarter ends and month-end close. They might work more than eight hours to meet their deadlines and may be able to work at a slower pace in between these periods. Similarly, someone working in social media may need to put in overtime in the days and hours leading up to big social campaigns. These might not happen on a set schedule throughout the year, but the idea is that the intensity would help lead to a successful launch followed by a slower period post-campaign for a breather.

Principle 3: Obsess over quality

Finally, Newport advocates obsessing over the quality of work above churning out a high quantity of work. He suggests immersing oneself in appreciation for fields different from the ones we work in, forming groups of like-minded, ambitious professionals, investing in quality tools, and betting on yourself to push yourself to a new level.

…what if we’re looking at productivity all wrong? When we adopt the principles of slow productivity, we’re able to spend more time doing deeper quality work, which can lead to fewer mistakes and better results.

How to practice slow productivity

As Newport acknowledges at the beginning of his book, the slow productivity philosophy may only apply to some roles and industries, as it was designed to address knowledge worker productivity. But there are some steps we can all take to adopt aspects of slow productivity for more sustainable workdays.

Review your to-do list and ditch what you can

If your to-do list seems endless, consider the principle of doing fewer things. Review your list line by line with a critical eye and evaluate whether your tasks are vital and essential. You can ask yourself questions like: 

  • Is this task necessary? What happens if I don’t do it or remove it from my list?
  • Does this align with my long-term goals or requirements of the role? If not, can it go?
  • Is it the right time to work on this? Do I have the necessary context and resources I need to complete it?
  • Will this make a significant difference on my progress?
  • Is this the best way to achieve the desired outcome, or should I explore alternatives?

Ask yourself how you can reduce your commitments and then make a plan to do so. If you have control over your workday and schedule, make these changes right away. Or consider chatting with your boss about your current projects. Discuss project timelines to identify projects that can be postponed or removed from your to-do list if priorities have shifted.

Adjust your project pace

Shifting to work at a natural pace can seem unrealistic, especially for those who work for an employer and don’t have control over their schedule and workday. But you can try some smaller practices to slow a high-intensity pace. 

For starters, reflect on previous and current project timelines and how long various tasks take you to complete. If you don’t have a solid idea of how much time you spend on project work, start tracking your time so you have a realistic idea. 

Then, if you can’t jump straight to doubling your previous project timelines (use your best judgment on whether that will fly in your workplace), increase your project estimations by adding a few extra hours each time to build in the buffer room. 

Here’s an example: If you’re a marketer writing blog content and one company blog post takes you an average of four hours, bump that up to five or six hours for your next blog post. Keep adding time to your estimate until you hit the full double time frame of eight hours. (Of course, if you are in a position in which you have more autonomy over your project timelines, start doubling them immediately.)

Experiment with seasonality as best as you can

Embracing work seasonality might also be impossible for those without control of their schedules. One way you can play with this idea is to take extended PTO (a week or more) after a busy season at work (maybe it’s mid-year or the end of a quarter) before easing back into the swing of things. 

If you’re a manager and can influence others’ schedules, perhaps you can try seasonality within your team and allow more flexibility after reaching a significant team accomplishment. This would allow your reports to have fewer priorities and projects between high-intensity outputs. Or perhaps you can work out more flexible schedules throughout the year, such as shorter workweeks during the summer if work slows to encourage your team to spend more time outdoors—summer Fridays, anyone?

The impact of slow productivity

Despite what it may seem like, productivity doesn’t have to be a constant hustle. In fact, what if we’re looking at productivity all wrong? When we adopt the principles of slow productivity, we’re able to spend more time doing deeper quality work, which can lead to fewer mistakes and better results. Slow productivity also helps combat burnout by reducing distractions and information overload on a daily basis, but also creating more space for downtime throughout the year. It encourages breaks and, at times, fewer working hours overall. 

Take it from Newport—perhaps the secret to boosting your productivity and overcoming burnout is to practice slow productivity and do fewer things at a natural pace, with an obsession with the quality of your work.