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John McPhee’s Slow Productivity

Earlier this week, the writer John McPhee turned 91. One of the nice things about McPhee’s birthday, in addition to it providing an occasion to celebrate his incomparable output, is that it usually leads to one of my favorite writerly quotes spreading around the internet.

By any reasonable standard, McPhee is productive. He’s published 29 books, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize, and two of which were nominated for National Book Awards. He’s also been penning distinctive articles for The New Yorker since 1965. And yet, he rarely writes more than 500 words a day.

When asked about this paradox, McPhee famously quipped:

“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific’…God, it doesn’t feel like it—nothing like it.  But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”

This is a perfect summary of slow productivity. Being frantically busy in the present moment has very little to do with whether or not in the future you’ll look back at your career with pride about what you’ve accomplished.

(If you’re looking for another way to honor McPhee this week, I recommend reading his very first article for The New Yorker, a profile of Princeton basketball star, and future senator, Bill Bradley.)

14 thoughts on “John McPhee’s Slow Productivity”

  1. If that is the way to be a good writer, then go for it! McPhee writes beautifully on many different topics, and he has been productive for a long time. Thank you Cal for finding the many different ways (with concrete examples) to accomplish your goals.

  2. This reminds me of the domino effect from the book “The One Thing” by Keller and Papasan (which I’ve read and re-read as a perfect companion piece to Cal’s Deep Work).

    A domino can knock over a second domino that’s 50% larger.

    Over time, the dominos knock over bigger and bigger things (if the dominos are achievements, then, starting small and with time, the achievements get bigger and bigger…)

    Quick explainer piece from Matale Sako on Medium here:

  3. 500 words per day. Wow, that is revelatory. This article was helpful for my discussion with my teenage son who was feeling serious angst about not being productive enough as a writer. Thank you,

  4. I bought your book ” Deep work ” 2 years ago .
    Although I didn’t read your book. But I read almost 40+ articles here
    and always think that your advice and methods were awesome and
    always helpful for me. thank you very much !

  5. When doing school reports as children, we tended to add extra, often unneeded words to our book reports to fill up the pages. Often it watered down our main point and produced a work exhausting to read. Writing what you want to say in as few words as possible takes real skill. “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
    –Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums


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