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On Pace and Productivity

One of the books I’m reading on vacation at the moment is John Gribbin’s magisterial tome, The Scientists. I’m only up to page 190 (which is to say, only up to Isaac Newton), but even early on I’ve become intrigued by a repeated observation: though the scientists profiled in Gribbin’s book are highly “productive” by any intuitive definition of this term, the daily pace of their work was incredibly slow by any modern standards of professional effectiveness.

Galileo probably had his famed insight about the period of a pendulum in 1584, while a medical student in Pisa, observing swinging chandeliers in the cathedral. He didn’t finish working out the details experimentally, however, until 1602.

He was occupied in the interim by numerous other endeavors, including the handling of debts he unexpectedly inherited from his father, Vincenzio, after his death in 1591, and the writing of a treatise on military fortifications, a topic of great interest to the Venetian Republic.

Critically, as Gribbin’s explains, during this period Galileo was also occupied in part by his success in “leading a full and happy life,” in which “he studied literature and poetry, attended the theatre regularly, and continued to play the lute to a high standard.” He was not, in other words, locked up, grinding away in relentless pursuit of results. Yet results are what he did ultimately produce.

During Newton’s tenure at Cambridge, to cite another example, the university was closed for multiple years at a time due to plague epidemics.  Though Newton later claimed that his thinking on gravity was stimulated by a falling apple observed during these forced idyls, Gribbins argues that his main insights came later. These early enlightenment-era shutdowns really did likely shutdown a lot of the young professor’s work.

It wasn’t until 1680, after an extended detour into alchemy, that Newton was spurred by a letter from a colleague to work out a formal understanding of what became the inverse square law that governs gravity. It then took until 1684 before he got around to publishing a nine-page version of this argument. It was yet another three years before this thinking expanded into his epic Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the most important book in the history of science.

Returning to my original insight, the message I extracted from these historical encounters is that when it comes to our understanding of productivity, timescale matters.

When viewed at the fast scale of days and weeks, the famed scientists in Gribbin’s book seem spectacularly unproductive. Years would pass during which little progress was made on epic theories. Even during periods of active work, it might take months for important letters to induce a reply, or for news of experiments to make it across a fractured Europe.

(Galileo famously ground the lens for his first telescope in only twenty-four hours, but this was after an entire summer of him trying to track down an elusive visitor to Italy who was rumored to know something about this then new technology.)

When we shift, however, to the slow scale of years, these same scientists suddenly become immensely productive.

This line of thinking is still embryonic, but I’m increasingly convinced that at the core of any useful understanding of slow productivity will be this distinction in timescale. No one remembers Newton’s lazy lockdowns, but his Principia achieved immortality.

We need some degree of the frenetic tools highlighted in modern productivity discourse to organize and manage the necessities of work and life. When it comes to pursuing deeper impact, however, perhaps sustainable success requires the embrace of a different and more forgiving timescale.

34 thoughts on “On Pace and Productivity”

  1. Carl, hi.

    Interesting hypotheses you rise.

    1. How should we go about defining “deeper impact” in the 21st century?
    2. How should we define “slow productivity” as per present standards, or expectations?
    3. Is Google causing deep impact? Moderna, Pfizer? Apple? Are, Sequoia, causing deep impact?
    4. Should ee say Elon Musk creating “deep impact”?

    Your essays are great.


  2. This post reminds me of a quote (attributed to various people): “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”

  3. I enjoyed this short post and what is likely a fledgling idea that is worth pursuing further. Too many people seem obsessed with productivity when it is measured as number of tasks or number of work units finished per hour or day. They become obsessive about tracking statistics.

    I am pondering this idea in relation to ongoing work on a Zettelkasten.

  4. You can attribute this “slow productivity” to business endeavours as well. In my case it took me 20 years (and bankruptcy in 2009) to fully understand customer needs and production nuances, but somehow my little company managed to come up as leader in our niche field in my country, now bringing in steady profits and extreme customer loyalty. All it took was listening to the clients and fine tuning our products for many many times and suddenly your competition is so far behind or went out of business in this particular field. It really takes time and pressure, just like in geology, even at times you think you are not moving forward altogether. But then you break out.

  5. Great post Cal, very much counter to the hustle culture popular nowadays that conflates activity with achievement.

    I’m also reminded of the similarity to investing. Warren Buffett has articulated his “20-slot rule”: “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it, so that you had 20 punches — representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punch through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all…you’d really have to think carefully about what you did, and you’d be forced to load up on what you really think about. So you’d do much better.”

  6. Great insight. I see so many job reqs that say some form of “must be accustomed to fast pace of small or high tech businesses,” and I think, wow, what gets missed in the “get it out the door” attitude. Yes, you’re getting work out the pipeline. But what insights are you overlooking or leaving in the dust?

  7. Thanks for sharing your insights. I would say this mirrors my work and experience. Feeling unproductive while living the “slow productivity” life is a matter of determination. But well worth it!

  8. Thank you for this excellent post. I was thinking just yesterday how unproductive I am. It demotivates and makes me even less productive as a result. After reading your insights I realized that I need to pay less attention to the everyday achievements and think more on a larger scale. Also, added the book mentioned to the wish list on Amazon, sounds extremely interesting and promising

  9. I feel like this article fails to consider that for the largest part of human history, people who were producing “culture”, be it science, literature, art, music, did not have to do it for a living. Greeks and Romans had slaves, most medieval “culture” comes either from monasteries or from kings’ courts, most Renaissance men had a regular “job” that paid the bills but was not the source of their contribution to mankind, or relied on family fortune, or received a regular stipend from patrons that was not linked to a specific “product” that they sold. In the 700s and 800s, and even early 900s, most writers, scientists and politician came from wealthy families and did their “work” as a past-time, so they did not have to come up with a finished “product” (a book, a painting, a scientific theory) in order to earn their livelihoods.
    The article also considers only (as this blog often does) the people at the pinnacle of human flourishing, as if, given the right circumstances, every knowledge worker could come up with the next great american novel or a scientific breakthrough, or found the next Amazon.
    There are a lot of hidden assumptions in the article that I believe would make the whole point not really that significant if applied to “regular humans”.

    • >> There are a lot of hidden assumptions in the article that I believe would make the whole point not really that significant if applied to “regular humans”.

      So what remains then for the rest of us? Do we just throw up our hands and wistfully resign to a life of mediocrity and obscurity? Hidden assumptions notwithstanding, I’m still better off picking up nuggets of insight from these profiles of high achievers.

    • >> The article also considers only (as this blog often does) the people at the pinnacle of human flourishing.

      Querido Irvin, i think you have a point here but If you read “Digital Minimalism”, and also previous posts from this blog, there are a lot of inspiring examples of “regular” people that overcame digital addiction to live a more profound life.

      I am far from agree with everything Newport says (i’m not that into planning, for example), but the idea of making space to do what he calls “deep work” is a good one. And from what i understand the purpose of that kind of work is not necessarilly to turn into the next great billionaire, but for the sake of it.

      To me the good thing of this kind of articles is that you can extract a good insight or some idea that you can choose to put to work in your own context and forget about everything else.

    • Cal,
      Yes, let me second this idea of slow productivity being a book idea. You’d be exceptionally qualified to bring the needed mix of ideas together to address this. Drawing on your writing and podcast, I can imagine you bringing together.
      – The hyper-activity hive minds warping of individual productivity
      – The necessary blend of learning/collaboration/experiment for individuals and teams
      – Various forms of reflection and the enabling environments to bring these about
      – Historical context
      – Computing and device cognitive paradigms and their impact on the perception of time
      – Finding and solving the right type of problems and exploring the adjacent possible
      – The structuring of routine and non-routine work to generate insight and value
      – Ordering your intentions
      – Creating daily/weekly rhythms
      – And you always bring those killer case studies

      So what do you say, Cal? Maybe at least put it in the queue?

      P.S. For anyone reading this far in the comments, let me pass on the encouragement for you to find and listen to Cal’s Podcast; well worth the time investment.

  10. Brilliant post, Cal, and also bittersweet. I think one of the problems for those of us who have the job of producing new knowledge on the cutting edge is that the majority of funding for such endeavours is limited to very short timeframes – 3-5 years in my country for a standard grant – when real progress on hard things cannot be pinned down in such a limited way.

    I wish we could achieve the equivalent in our fields that Newton and Galileo achieved, but they weren’t forced to fit their brilliant ideas into 5 years of budgeted objectives in order to put food on the table while they worked. I really hope that this academic culture may someday change to fit the reality of how breakthroughs in fields really happen.

  11. Your observations are interesting considering the kind of ground breaking stuff that these great personalities produced. One thing to note however is that even during those “quite” periods, their minds were in silent pursuit of something beyond. The curiosity was unmatched as was evident in the case of Einstein’s famous thought experiments. What they eventually penned down would have been many years later thus making us feel that the productivity levels were low compared to the frenzy of today.

  12. In those days, there were less competition and the field was not as developed. Not sure if you can draw theat conclusion today.

  13. Reminds me of what I’ve been reading lately about “slow learning” – allowing our kids to figure out the answers to their questions and solve their problems themselves instead of being quick to supply an answer.

    “You’ve heard about slow food; this is slow learning. You could bring your child a stack of books from the library and take a trip to the museum — or you could let your child go to the library and talk to the librarian about how to find books, let your child decide which books look like they have the best information, wait for your child to suggest visiting the museum then let her plan the trip … well, it’s going to take a lot longer. But they are digging deeper, exploring outward in more directions, doing more of the work themselves, discovering, solving, and planning.”

  14. I think you have a date typo:

    “It wasn’t until 1680, after an extended detour into alchemy,”

    Galileo Galilei died in 1642… so did you mean to type 1580, instead of 1680?

  15. In his book “Mastery” George Leonard talks about plateau which is pretty much what you are talking about here. I highly recommend this book and would love to hear your thoughts on it on your podcast.

  16. When talking about “slow” productivity, do we mean slow and steady or with fits and starts? It would be incredibly interesting to examine both options. With Covid, dependent/elder care, taking care of young children, I’ve experienced both in the last 5-6 years, as I’m sure have most of us. I’m trying to figure out which works best for me (or which serves me best during which periods of my life).

    Fits and starts would fit my current life the best (as in easiest to schedule and allows for longer periods of deep thinking), but I have found two main roadblocks: (1) The start-up cost of every new deep thinking session is too high, since they occur with longer breaks than just a day or two in between, and (2) Others (my competition and collaborators) are not moving at the same pace.

    I know many women in academia with the same issues, and, while this is not solely a female issue, recent studies into pandemic life would suggest that a higher percentage of women are impacted than men.

  17. This post seems really relevant, and hit a lot of points going through my mind right now.

    Somewhat off-topic:

    I have understood colloquially for quite some time that Newton is considered one of the greatest scientists in history. It’s only after reading things like this, and watching a Veritasium video on YouTube recently where he explained how Newton revolutionised the way we calculate Pi, and detailed exactly the simplicity and genius of how Newton derived his formula, that you begin to appreciate why Newton has, and deserves this reputation. Also note, the role that calculus played in his derivation also indicates that it was *only* Newton, who could’ve created the solution that he had (at least at that time). A wonderful mix of genius and serendipity.

    More on topic:

    I have also been pondering a similar observation recently in my life. I just submitted my PhD thesis at the end of June. Despite having spent the majority of the last 4 years feeling notoriously unproductive, from one day to next, I somehow managed to complete my projects, and get my thesis written up and submitted, like so many other PhDs, mine was a glorious rollercoaster of periods of being very unproductive, and brief spurts where lots of results were achieved in a short period of time, not including the side projects and dead ends. So this post really brought this process to mind. Note further: other students in my cohort were substantially more productive and impressive than me, and I will always remember just how much more work some others did, compared to me, but probably no-one else will. Out in the real world, all people will see is one PhD, and another PhD. So there are no doubt a lot of complex factors, and variables that influence the relationship between short term productivity, and long term achievements.

    It also brings to mind a principal that pops up in the entrepreneurial space, which is that customers do not care how hard you have worked, or how much you think you deserve, or are entitled to; customers care about what your product can do for them.

    There is something of a connection here. I’m really just thinking out loud, but we might be able to think of ‘long term productivity’ as something along the lines of ‘value’, in a commercial sense. There is clearly a tension between the non-linear process of achieving productive output, and the end product. You might think of the results of these great scientific minds as having some form of value which can be (perhaps mistakenly) thought of as ‘perceived productivity’, which doesn’t really have a linear relationship with the actual time spent.

    Another way of thinking about it is that your productivity on any given day is likely to be a poor metric for predicting the value of the end result.

    Anyway, just some thoughts that struck me as I read it. Including putting that book on my Wishlist.

  18. I’ve been working for the better part of 15 years on a generational demographic model…It’s complete and nobody else has anything like it, as far as I know. I’d love for it to see the light of day. Slow productivity? For sure. It took, in some cases a couple of years to refine terminology alone (which brought on later insights). Cal, would you like to have a look? I could send you an outline of it.

  19. I do agree with your arguments, Cal. Some people need more space, flexibility, and not-stressing timescale to produce a quality product. Not all people could perform best under pressure, especially when it shall comprise deep analysis, and well-structured work.

    However, in today’s culture of work, especially when it comes to the problem of productivity, most of us are bound in term of fiscal year. Most of every institution, including academic, also has time-bound. Moreover, the productivity itself is still being measured, for example in academic, by how many research papers we published in certain period of year, regardless the significance (impact) of these works, for not taking into account how the review process was held (was it a serious review? or just a job fulfillment by the reviewer?).

    It then becomes a dilemma, and for several cases, all we can do is just keep moving forward.

  20. The idea of embracing slowness makes total sense. Pace, produced by contemporary technology, is sufficient
    to leave us distracted and in inner dispute. Whereas, slowing down enables the room for care and contemplation towards our craft.


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