How to fight back against overwhelm

Feeling overwhelmed with a never-ending list of tasks to do at work [and at home]? A new book could help white collar workers get a bit more control.

women sleeping on laptop


It’s the summer – a chance to slowdown and take it easy…but it’s quite likely that, like many people, you are having to do double the work to get any time off. Many mums are just about holding on after living through the double shift of homeschooling/homeworking during the pandemic and the cost of living and mental health crisis that has followed. Work has come back with a vengeance and we’re all caught in the AI turbo-storm and struggling to keep up.

So maybe we need to do things differently. That’s what Cal Newport, author of the book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment without Burnout, now out in paperback, says. Drawing on the slow food movement he questions whether our constant busyness is actually effective and whether, in a world of AI, we should focus on going more at a human pace instead and on the creativity and reflection that lead to deep change.

His book sets out how to get to slow productivity in ‘knowledge-related’ jobs, based on three main principles: Do fewer things; work at a natural pace; and obsess over quality.

Newport has a whole section on parents too, labelled an interlude. “What about overwhelmed parents?’ he asks. He talks here about the impact of ‘pseudo-productivity’ in the knowledge sector and the way it forces individuals to ‘manage tensions between work and life all on their own’. Moreover, in the knowledge sector there is, he says, “a never-ending supply of available tasks” and ‘no-one is going to tell you specifically how much is enough – that’s up to you.’

He states: “This reality requires parents – and more specifically moms, who often shoulder more of these household burdens than their partners do – to renegotiate for themselves, day after day, the battle between the demands of employment and family.”

He adds that this results in ‘a thousand cutting decisions and compromises, each of which seemingly disappoints someone, until you find yourself writing at 4am next to a precarious pile of laundry’. That will seem fairly familiar territory for many working parents.

So how does slow productivity work? Newport begins by questioning the concept of productivity which he says is quite vague for white collar workers and tends to result in using visible activity as a proxy for actual productivity. That, he says, results in less creativity and more effort being directed to shallower, more concrete tasks that can be more easily ticked off a to-do list. 

His first principle, do fewer things, may seem self-explanatory, but he fleshes it out. It’s not just about cutting down on meetings and emails and limiting missions, projects and daily goals. Newport advises focusing on the big picture things, putting routine tasks on autopilot schedules to contain the time spent on them, reducing the amount of time spent talking about tasks rather than doing them, implementing reverse task lists where you encourage people to think more about what they really want before requesting something and spending money – if you can afford it – on offloading tasks to experts such as accountants. 

In a world where you can never do enough, he proposes a pull model where you divide tasks that need to be done according to urgency and have a holding tank of those that are less important. You can then regularly review these and keep people in the loop with regard to progress and explain that you are working on other urgent projects, therefore managing their expectations. Transparency and communication are key, he says.

Work at a natural pace

The second principle of slow productivity is to work at a natural pace. Newport says: “Our exhausting tendency to grind without relief, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, is more arbitrary than we recognise…We suffer from overly ambitious timelines and poorly managed workloads due to a fundamental uneasiness with ever stepping back from the numbing exhaustion of jittery busyness.”

While it may seem we are being useful, this actually makes us less effective, he says, and more miserable. To work at a more natural pace, he counsels making long-term plans, doubling project timelines, simplifying your workday [for instance, through protecting certain hours, embracing seasonality [where you work harder at certain times, but factor in rest time or slow seasons of ‘quiet quitting’] or implement ‘small seasonality’, for instance, by not having meetings on one day or morning/afternoon of the week, matching big projects with less intensive rest projects or working in cycles of busyness and less busyness.

Obsess over quality

The third principle is to obsess over quality and do core tasks better, taking inspiration from other types of work and focusing on progress rather than perfection.

Newport concludes that the way we are now working no longer works and it is time to be more intentional about what productivity actually is. He says a slower approach is not only feasible, but “likely superior” to the current approach and could improve many people’s lives. What matters is where you end up, not the speed at which you get there. “We’ve tried the fast approach for at least the past 70 seventy years. It isn’t working. The time has come to try something slower,” he says. “Slowing down isn’t about protesting work. It’s instead about finding a better way to do it.”

*Slow productivity: The lost art of accomplishment without burnout by Cal Newport, is published by Penguin Random House. 

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