The Paradox of Productivity – Scott H Young

What if being productive doesn’t mean feeling productive?

A paradox of productivity is that the things that feel productive—working incessantly, checking off lots of tasks, feeling strained and drained—are often not what produces important accomplishments; in fact, these things can get in the way. 

Recently, two of my friends have written books which argue versions of this thesis. The first is Ali Abdaal’s Feel Good Productivity. Ali’s central idea is that we’re at our most productive when we’re happy. In the moment, grinding ourselves into exhaustion may seem like a necessary trade-off. We might be miserable, but it’s a crucial sacrifice on the altar of our ambitions. Ali argues this is a delusion. Burning ourselves out doesn’t just make us unhappy—it also makes us get less done.

The second book, Slow Productivity, written by my longtime friend and collaborator, Cal Newport, comes out this week. (I was lucky enough to get an advance copy.)

Slow Productivity builds on the ideas Cal developed in Deep Work, Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email. Cal argues that we aren’t good at measuring the productivity of knowledge workers. As a result, we tend use how visibly busy workers are as a proxy for their productivity. This pseudo-productivity makes workers feel harried, but all this busyness doesn’t lead to doing excellent work.

Drawing on dozens of well-researched case studies, Slow Productivity makes the argument for a different understanding of productivity. It is less centered on checking off items on a to-do list, and more focused on doing work that will build a legacy.

Cal proposes three principles to make this work:

1. Do fewer things.

2. Work at a natural pace.

3. Obsess over quality.

Feeling Productive Versus Being Productive

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I admit, I was a little nervous to begin reading Slow Productivity. Cal and I have worked together for years, and we rarely have significant divergences in our viewpoints.

However, in my upcoming book, Get Better at Anything, I dedicate an entire chapter to reviewing psychologist Dean Simonton’s work on creativity, which finds a surprisingly tight relationship between creative quantity and quality. On the face of it, the idea that we should do fewer things and obsess over quality seems to contradict the idea that those who have the most hits are the ones who took a lot of shots.

But a careful reading of Slow Productivity indicates there is less contradiction than one might think. Cal’s opening story is of the author John McPhee, spending a leisurely eight months doing in-depth research for a magazine piece, lying on a picnic table as he contemplates how it will all come together. 

Yet John McPhee also wrote twenty-nine books and won a Pulitzer Prize! He could just as easily have been an example of Simonton’s maxim that the most successful creatives are typically prolific.

Lazing under a tree contemplating your work feels unproductive. Yet, paradoxically, this loafing is the habit of someone who is incredibly productive—measured by both critical acclaim and volume of work.

While I hesitate to put myself alongside McPhee as an example, I’ve observed this paradox of productivity in my own work. The times I have felt the least “productive” in the ordinary to-do list sense of the word have driven my biggest career leaps.

When I undertook my MIT Challenge, it was an intense project that had no direct connection to my actual work. Several friends and colleagues actively dissuaded me from taking it on since the project seemed to them a complete waste of time. I did it anyway. At the time, it looked like I was taking a sabbatical to work on an eccentric, ambitious, and perhaps pointless project. 

In retrospect, it looks like a fantastic bit of self-promotion for someone who writes about efficient learning. But, during the project, relatively few people paid attention to it, and the time it required forced me to cut back to the absolute bone every activity that was paying my bills. The year I worked on the project, I earned far less than the previous year, which had been a relatively “normal” one for my business selling ebooks and courses.

Many efforts that ultimately lead to giant leaps in your creative work seem fantastically unproductive. They require you to scale back your “normal” work drastically. They cause you to lose clients and turn down contracts. For the outside world obsessed with visible busyness, it looks like you’re just wasting time. 

But true productivity, measured in terms of one’s lifetime accomplishments, works on a different rhythm than the daily to-do list.

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