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What Would Happen If We Slowed Down?

In my recent New Yorker essay on overload, I noted that many knowledge workers end up toiling roughly 20% more than they have time to comfortably handle. This is, in some sense, the worst possible configuration, as it creates a background hum of stress, but is just sustainable enough that you can keep it up for years.

My explanation for the universality of this 20% rule is that it arises as a natural result of leaving knowledge workers to self-regulate their workload. It’s difficult for even the most organized and intentional among us to manage a constant influx of requests, and messages, and project proposals, and, God help us, Zoom meeting invites — so we default to a simple heuristic: start saying “no” when we feel stressed, as this provides psychological cover to retreat in an otherwise ambiguous terrain of never-ending potential labor.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that we don’t start pulling back until after we have too much going on: leading to the 20% overload that’s so consistently observed.

The question left unexamined in my essay is what it would look like if you rejected this rule. What if, for example, you aimed to work 20% less than you had time to reasonably handle? If you have a relatively autonomous, entrepreneurial type job, this would mean saying “no” to more things. It would also mean, on the daily scale, being more willing to end early, or take an afternoon off to go do something unrelated, or extend lunch to read a frivolous book.

Here’s what I want to know: how much would this hurt you professionally? As I move deeper into my exploration of slow productivity, I’m starting to develop a sinking suspicion that the answer might be “not that much.”

If you worked deeply and regularly on a reasonable portfolio of initiatives that move the needle, and were sufficiently organized to keep administrative necessities from dropping through the cracks, your business probably wouldn’t implode, and your job roles would likely still be fulfilled. This shift from a state of slightly too much work to not quite enough, in other words, might be less consequential than we fear.

Or maybe not.

The issue is that not enough people are asking these questions. We know the costs of consistently squeezing in those extra evening email replies, or pushing through that one last extra block on our time block schedule, but few have yet taken the time to really confront the supposed benefits. We care a lot about doing well with the work on our plate (as we should), but not nearly enough about asking how big that plate should be in the first place.

40 thoughts on “What Would Happen If We Slowed Down?”

  1. I’m reminded of Derek Sivers’s story (as told to Tim Ferriss in episode 125 of his podcast) about his biking habit. He would ride a 25 mile route along the beach in L.A. at full throttle. As he described it “I would get like, head down and push it, as hard as I could, I would go all the way down to one end of the bike path, and back, and then head back home, and I’d set my little timer when doing this … just red-faced huffing, all the way, pushing it as hard as I
    could, just every thrust of the leg …” He would always time the ride and it always took about 43 minutes.

    He eventually started to dread the bike ride because he had made it such an ordeal and he decided to take it easy. Sivers described his outlook for this ride. “I’m not gonna be a complete snail, but I’ll go at, like, half of my normal pace. So, yeah, I got on my bike, and it was just pleasant.”

    His time at the relaxed pace? 45 minutes.

    • This is great anecdote and something I struggle with as well. Of all the productive things I do in my life, the push to get them done is largely a disciplined, whip-cracking kind of self motivation. It can be relenting and sometimes I feel like I just need a bit of a break. The alternative I slide into is being at peace with myself, through a very permissive form of self-love, which is great for mental health but not as great for productivity. The balance I’m learning to strike, with mild success, is motivating productivity with gentle compassion. I’d love to see more discussion about this form of motivation, as I’m mostly figuring this out for myself

  2. I think that not working every second of your existence in academia is a recipe for a career disaster

    Academia is an absolute zero-sum game. The number of professor positions is fixed and defined through government funding. This number is absolutely not dependent on the efficiency of science. Imagine the situation when all scientists (postdocs, mostly) started working twice as hard as before. Will there be more professor positions? In fact, there will likely be less.

    This, by the way, happened several times in biology and chemistry. Compare an average Nature paper published in 1960 to the one from 2020. Compare how much more data there are in the latter paper. And yet, becoming a professor is harder than ever.

    Therefore, a person wanting to progress their career in academia must work just as hard as they physically can, not to improve their output, but to outwork their neighbor colleague. It is a brutal competition, but there is simply no way around it in a zero-sum game. No matter how fast the runners run, there will be only one who gets a gold medal. Being the second is not much different than being the last.

    Pretty much, if you work in academia, you do not absolutely hate your life and yet manage to not being fired; you are either an extremely lucky person, or you have a 0.01 upper percentile intelligence.

    By the way, I am a fan of your Deep work ideas; however, I could not help but comment. In my field of molecular biology, I fail to find the scenario of applying for any deep work. 99% of biology work is moving colorless liquid from one tube to the other. Anybody can do this. I think that a Mcdonald’s worker performs much more intellectually demanding tasks than a biologist.

    • Yes, the number of opportunities is artificially limited, but the flaw with this view is the premise that the only way to “win” the race is to work longer hours than one’s colleagues.

      It is so easy to spend more time, deliver less and accumulating fatigue over time, if we are not deliberate on what we want to be doing.

      Cal’s “deep work” ideas are based on exactly this – by eliminating distractions and context-shifting pitfalls and doing a better job of identifying what it is we are focusing on, we can deliver the same productivity output in less time. And in doing so, we can establish a much more sustainable, satisfying system over the long term.

    • In theoretical fields, my observation has been that the best researchers are often quite relaxed, especially compared to those who have shifted to an administrator track. I think this is because that actual work of producing research is only one of many types of work in academia, and overload often has a lot to do with the other types getting out of proportion.

      The story for lab sciences is different as you end up essentially both a manager and a fundraiser, which is time consuming, but to compensate there is often much more of a culture of letting labs run as independent entities that you largely leave alone.

      Interesting dynamics to be sure.

      • In the field like biochemistry or molecular biology, your life depends on experiments and your students. But especially on you, because you need to be a lab manager, teacher and very often the one who actually performs the experiments. You may spend hours months or years to get results of your and your students work (forget about detailed planning and keeping up with the plans for the week). Depending on the quality of the results, you can publish them. But often you also get negative results, which are way more difficult to be publish. No publications, no new grants, and in consequence, prolongation of your job contract. It doesn’t matter that you are an excellent teacher, the scientific papers – they only matter.

    • I’m a Professor of Neuroscience in Cambridge UK and I have a very different view. There is a ‘have to work all hours’ culture but it is absolutely not true. It’s infectious, a ‘badge of honour’ thing. Think of the 80:20 rule. What’s the 20% that drives 80% of the results? Do it before you do anything else and don’t let anyone else’s demands or distractions stop you. Then, and only then start following up other people’s priorities – those 100+ emails every day, those endless meetings someone else wants you to have but you don’t. If you don’t get through them all before your day ends, that’s just how it is. No-one can create more hours in a day and you can’t go on burning yourself out. And most important of all, set a hard boundary to your day. 5pm, 6pm, 7pm, whatever you can manage, shut down that computer and set the rest aside for family, health, sleep, other forms of self care. You will be more productive next day so it pays off. Being burned out because you stay up till 2am writing a grant application is pointless unless it really is the night before the deadline – and even then give yourself time off to recover. I realise I’m writing this from the privileged position of being tenured and I certainly had much worse work-life boundaries when I wasn’t but it can be done also then. Two very successful postdocs I know have the best work-life balance I’ve ever seen. They just plan rigorously, focus and get the job done. The biggest waste of time (and money) at the bench is doing the wrong experiment, so time spent planning that instead of being seen to be working is time very, very well spent.

  3. Sounds like you should check out Oliver Burkeman’s 4000 Weeks. It’s been enlightening in terms of “slaying the productivity dragon,” in the sense that “productivity is a trap.”

  4. I work for a consulting firm and simply working no more than the standard 40 hours/week makes me feel like an anomaly. I’m able to do that partly because of the career capital I’ve gained after 20+ years in my field and I work for a relatively progressive company. However, my sense is that most knowledge workers employed by a company based on the “# of billable hrs = profits” model would have a hard time defending this “20% less” rule. The overwork/hyperactive hive mind culture you describe is all too pervasive in my industry.

    • Indeed. 100% agreed. Same issues apply to BigLaw, too. Sure, I can start working 20% less today. I’ll also shortly be paid 20% less and be on people’s Excel-based monthly reporting radars that I’d rather not be on. Of course, thankfully, like you, I have enough Career Capital to walk to the corner office and trade 20% of my hours for 20% of their pay, if I wanted to. Many others aren’t so lucky or flexible.

    • Billable hour shops are interesting because on the one hand they make it impossible to informally and independently just start working less without it being noticed, but in theory, the clarity of the system makes it possible to support arrangements where you actually do work less in a way that can be impossible in more hyperactive hive mind-dominated, informal shops, where work just piles up regardless,.

  5. Cal: Please be writing a book on slow productivity. I need it. I’ve whipped myself with the task board so much over the last few years that I’m burned out on everything. I time blocked all hours of the day – if I wanted to do something fun, I put it in Asana, assigned it to myself, and then either had to do it on the day assigned or else I had to reschedule. Bleh. Everything became a burden. I’ve got a few items I need to get off my plate before the year’s out, but I’m working to make 2022 a year of just . . . breathing. I plan to work my day job, and then spend whatever time is left reading, learning, spending time with my family – but no goals or tasks beyond 9-5 work stuff. I’ve found that if I take non-work stuff off the task board, those things actually becomes enjoyable.

  6. Cal, I think you surrounded yourself with too many high-achievers!
    In my government job many people already discovered time ago that they can work less and not risk hurting too much their careers (but they are a minority, lot’s of hard working people in there too).
    The main problem I have seen with this approach is that Parkinson’s Law that you mentioned a few days ago kicks in and the people that objectively produce less work than their peers happen to be as stressed and busy as the rest. So you would need to be very organized and disciplined to consistently work less than you can. And I would add a little psychopathic, if you are not self-employed and the work that you don’t do falls on another employee’s desk (it would be better if you can pass the work to two subordinates, as Parkinson pointed out).

  7. Would this hurt me professionally? Nope. My current work is quite self-directed: part-time PhD student and part-time local elected official. Although there is tonnes more I could do in each of these roles, I’ve taken on board many slow productivity lessons, and I don’t find it has hurt either my professional reputation or my output.

    I especially have found a longer, more relaxed morning routine really helps – organising the day, email clear-out, read a hard copy newspaper or book etc. I also finish at 4pm each day., and look after our toddler one day per week. What I find hardest is taking a proper lunch break – for some reason I find myself just wanting to leave it and get back to work.

  8. The most difficult thing, in my experience, is setting and sticking to clear goals and a clear direction. Once you have this, a lot of decisions about which work to do will take care of themselves.

  9. The job I work in is fairly self-directing–I’m expected to build my own workload, among other things. The advice I got early in my career was to shoot for being 10-15% overbooked. The reason was, the career I have inherently has ebbs and flows, times when I’m 150% overbooked and times when I’m only 50% booked. By shooting for 110% I can make a reasonable attempt at balancing those times. If I only shoot for 100% I don’t have enough work to financially cover those times when the work is light. (This is also why consultants are so expensive–they need to bill at approximately 3x their pay rate to cover slow times and overhead.)

  10. I think it boils down to what a person is feeling inside. There is a overlooked but important subtlety: slowing down one’s nervous system, and then engaging life from that basis. I suppose meditation will help with this.

    Most people, I believe, keep themselves just busy enough to avoid feeling some sort of discomfort–real or imagined. Perhaps that discomfort is the hidden motivator that Cal refers to as hive mind.

  11. I do choose this more lax pace with regular afternoons for a walk or reading something. Cutting out early, and then some days when I’ve got to put in a longer day to get a bunch of things out of the way. I did this running my own business and now running a web team. My answer is…it hasn’t affected me at all, and I continue to push my team to take more time. I have discussions when they work too much, not when they work too little.

  12. My experience says that productivity will exponentially sky-rocket as we slow down. Taking breaks will help sub-conscious to do its own work plus the added advantages you get by enjoying the slow work, result in actually much higher quality work done.

    As far as work quantity is concerned, Parkinson law shall take care of that.

  13. I think that knowlege workers could focus on quality versus quantity.

    If you do “just enough” then you are constantly in a cycle of rework. Within reason, if you slow down and do something really well, then it is really done when you finish. I see knowledge workers get into a doom loop of endless meetings because of the social pressure to attend while it also gives the attendees the passive appearance of “working.”

  14. I am fairly certain that your thesis is correct for two reasons. The first is best described by the analogy of trying to cut down a tree with a dull saw; being overworked decreases overall efficiency.

    The second reason is something I’ve noted in my own work (I am a research chemist, although I have others doing the lab work for me, so I’ve been at home 95% of the time since the start of the pandemic lock-down). I have interspersed breaks during the day to handle things that need to be done at home, run needed errands, etc. I maintain roughly the same hours I did when I was going in to the office (9am – 6pm and generally skipping lunch), so the total work time is a bit less than if I spent an entirely focused day. And I get more done.

    I am more on top of my projects, more aware of the results, and even have time to review journal articles (something I need to do, but often don’t seem to have the time to do). And I feel better. Probably about as stressed, but I FEEL like I am working better.

  15. For the past 15 I have only worked 3-4 hours a day. It is easy for me as I work for myself but I think other people could try it. The secret is don’t tell anyone you are doing it. In most organisation’s people just care that you do the work not how long you work.

    The secret of success is keep your head down and only do what it required.

    But I know not all employees have the flexibility to change their work patterns.

  16. Just wanted to chime in as a fellow productivity thinker that I’ve been coming to many of the same conclusions in my own thought and research.

    I’ve been dealing with a bit of COVID burnout this year, and as a result I’ve pulled back on everything extra. What this revealed is exactly what’s discussed in this article: I was about 20% busier than I should’ve been, and the added stress of COVID pushed me over the edge.

    In theorizing on the problem, I often wonder if folks with a bent toward productivity spend too much time in managing details of the day-to-day without evaluating the bigger picture. The bottom-up approach of most “productivity systems” lends itself to that by causing us to capture all the details and figure out where they fit with casual regard to what’s truly important. I’ve been finding it helpful to seek the guiderails of the current season of life I’m in and build out boundaries from there, top-down. It’s no easy task to do this, as it takes experimentation and self-reflection to find those lines. Nobody can sell you this in a book or course, but I think that’s for the better.

  17. What a nice thought, Cal. The consequence when we choose not to accept more tasks, for certain occasions, is the decline of our income. However, not all people dare to face this, even in Academia institution, where some of us are entrusted to hold certain administrative positions.

    So, the idea is to firstly accept that consequence, while we are trying to find alternative self-managed job that will ease us to say no to the previous more time-consuming-administrative work.

  18. That’s an interesting question. I think that being overloaded is causing me to work a little longer, but I think there’s a positive benefit to some level of overload at my current job. I usually respond to overload by pushing back on lower priority deadlines. So for me some overload causes me to prioritize more efficiently.

    The downside is that it can be more difficult to block off large sections of time for long term projects if you have multiple open tasks. So I should be more intentional about that. And too much overload just means that valuable work doesn’t end up getting done.

  19. I don’t think this is a relevant consideration for those who hold leadership positions. Leaders have a responsibility to devote most of their time to their organizations. Leadership is simply not just a 9-5 job. Would you like to see the CEO of your company, or the governor of your state, or the president or prime minister of your country, decrease their time by 20%? Leaders do not just have *jobs*, they have *ownership* of their roles, and many people depending upon them. What they can accomplish in their roles, the value they can create, is theoretically infinite and cannot be defined by the hours on a clock.

    Come to think of it, this is not only true of leaders. I have heard “engagement” defined as applying discretionary time to a job. Anyone that cares about what they do, and has intellectual curiosity about their craft, is going to spend more time on it, not less. Anybody that cares about what they do is going to feel stress and anxiety about their productivity and performance. Sure, it is healthy to make time for faith, family, fitness, and outside interests, but that should not require unreasonable, artificial constraints on the willingness to work.

    These are first-world problems. The immigrant working three jobs to provide for his family does not have the luxury to consider whether he should scale back by 20%. Come to think of it, neither did my blue-collar father-in-law. It is only the standard of living created by the productivity gains of others that affords us the luxury to have this debate.

  20. “The answer might be “not that much.”
    And I cannot disagree with this answer.
    Your productivity shouldn’t be measured by hours worked. The completed tasks and new ideas are much more important. And workers’ mental health is the most important. We work with a huge amount of information daily, we get news from everywhere around, so it’s not surprising that we can get information overload, then – burn-out, then – mental issues. It even causes memory loss and addiction when people cannot stop reading news and suffer from it (the source of this information is here: ). This all gave me an understanding that being slowed down is necessary for everyone from time to time. It won’t hurt you professionally, moreover, it’ll help you to stay productive.

  21. May be we will benefit more from reducing our expectations and demands, than the volume of our work.. If we can be open to 20% less success, 20% more time wasted, 20% more money wasted, 20% less support from peers etc. etc., we may be less prone to frustration and burnout.. just a thought..


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