4 Counterintuitive Tips for Deep Work Productivity

A new take on producing value.

I’ve been listening to Cal Newports podcast a lot lately and this guy has some cool ideas that resonate with me.

I read four of his books so far: Deep work, Digital Minimalism, So Good They Can’t Ignore You And How To Become A Straight A Student.

All four of his books have had a profound impact on my life.

I discovered his material about two years ago when I decided to make a shift back into the STEM field. I was struggling with concentrating on one task at a time so I decided to spend less time on social media and noticed a shift in my ability to be productive.

At first, I didn’t connect the dots. In other words, I didn’t realize that these websites were diminishing my ability to concentrate long enough to get anything meaningful done.

Then I came across a TED talk with Cal Newport explaining why we should quit social media.

Soon after, I started to read his book “Deep Work” and then it was a wrap — I’m now a lifelong student of Cal Newport.

Cal Newport does it again

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

“The tortoise and the hare” teaches us that “slow and steady wins the race.”

Recently, he has impacted my life once again with his developing philosophy of “slow productivity.”

Slow productivity is a response to the anti-productivity movement which started in 2019–maybe even before then. The anti-productivity movement is essentially a reaction to productivity and hustle culture burnout.

At first, the phrase “slow productivity” sounded like an oxymoron to someone who worked for UPS for nine years. At UPS, fast means productive. And my first thought upon hearing slow productivity was:

“How can productivity be slow?”

But when we think about it, it makes sense. “The tortoise and the hare” teaches us that “slow and steady wins the race.”

Or think of the saying, “haste makes waste.”

These stories and sayings illustrate the power of slow and deliberate effort. And Cal Newports slow productivity embodies the essence of those stories.

The anatomy of slow productivity

Photo by Emil Bruckner on Unsplash

Cal Newport says that slow productivity was birthed when he attempted to answer the question of what to do with our exhaustion with all that we have to do.

He then started to think about what productivity was for our ancient ancestors. He wanted to understand the biological patterns that they followed in order to use it as a backdrop for developing slow productivity.

This reminds me of a book I read called “When: The Scientific Secrets of perfect timing” by Daniel H Pink.

In this book, Daniel Pink emphasizes that if we pay attention to our circadian rhythm we can identify when we’re the most productive. He even goes as deep as explaining that at particular times of the day, we are suited for particular tasks due to our cognitive fluidity. Daniel Pink states,

“First, our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day. During the sixteen or so hours we’re awake, they change — often in a regular, foreseeable manner. We are smarter, faster, dimmer, slower, more creative, and less creative in some parts of the day than others.”

This speaks volumes to how much we need to realign ourselves with regard to our biological rhythms in order to be truly productive. It’s not enough to just be “anti-productive” to avoid burnout.

There’s a natural flow and rhythm that accentuates our innate human capacity to produce.

I talk about this in a recent article where I purport that our productivity is tied to our biological rhythms. Cal Newport simply asks:

“As human beings, what is natural when it comes to activity?”

Out of that simple question comes his developing philosophy of slow productivity which has three tenets:

  1. Do fewer things.
  2. Work at a natural pace.
  3. Obsess over quality.

As mentioned before, he’s still developing this philosophy but it’s a philosophy that he thinks will get us back to our natural human patterns of activity.

I’m going to take it upon myself to add one more tenet to this philosophy because it’s something I struggle with on a daily basis — knowing when to stop, especially if I’m obsessing over the quality of the things that I’m doing.

Curing the epidemic of busyness: Do fewer things

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I think we can agree that we do too much.

Doing too much leads to burn out.

But it might not stem simply from the activity itself but the thought of the list of activities we have to do. The sheer thought of the long list of things we have to do is sometimes enough to stress us out on its own. This is especially true for those of us who work for ourselves. Cal Newport says,

“We need to do many fewer things. If you work for yourself, if you’re a freelancer or run your our company, aggressively titrate how many things you take on at the same time.”

To put this into action, chunking would be highly effective. In a previous article, I stated,

“Chunking is a great way to eliminate distraction. It’s when you dedicate blocks of your day to specific tasks.”

Chunking allows for you to get into powerful flow states by dedicating a period of time in that particular day of that particular week to one thing that will move your workflow forward.

So rather than trying to fit many things into one block of your day, i.e., getting a piece of content out or a report done before lunch, you should spend all day on that piece of content.

And you should drill down into one facet of the content production process.

You’re not a machine: Work at a natural pace

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

“There’s a natural flow and rhythm that accentuates our innate human capacity to produce.”

We’re not machines.

We can’t work at a level of intensity far beyond what is sustainable. And that is precisely what we try to do.

It’s why we burnout.

When I use to work at the warehouse, I saw many people burnout trying to do this. They would work at a level of intensity that was unnatural, burnout and not make it to work the next day, while those who worked at a natural pace — and at the same time pissing management off — would produce a higher quality of work over a longer period of time.

I’m not a stranger to burnout.

In fact, I’m prone to burnout due to my obsessive nature — I’m a workaholic. I tend to work at paces that aren’t natural then burnout and have long periods of time when I can’t produce anything.

If you’re like me, you can solve this with taking the approach of seasonality. Seasonality means you’ll sprint during some periods, pullback and rest for awhile then get after it again.

This is especially profitable for creative types.

But it’s ideal to choose a period of the week or month or year to go as hard as you want, sprint, but when it’s time to rest, you rest.

Cal Newport book ends this point with emphasizing that you want to think of the body of work you want to create over a long period of time which allows for you to look at one particular day differently.

Essentially, you want to get to a point where you’re not trying to cram everything into one day at a break neck pace.

Obsess over the quality of the things you do

Photo by Nishant Kulkarni on Unsplash

“You have to be dedicated to doing your thing so well that you naturally erect boundaries around it in order to serve a larger purpose.”

This tenet of slow productivity focusses on craftsmanship.

It’s not about the minute details of what you build or output but it’s about the skill and attention that goes into its creation.

It’s about establishing a high-level of value which makes engaging your craft in an intimate way more important than the trivial. It’s about doing this particular thing so well that it makes it easier to erect boundaries around it.

I was listening to episode 205 of Cal Newports podcast and he talks about a point in his career when he felt bad for having to put up boundaries to build his craft. At this point in his career, he had been use to helping a lot of people.

Sometimes he would get too involved in email to the point where he ran out of time to do his real work. He knew that his time was better spent crafting work that would be beneficial to a wider array of people. He said,

“A well-crafted article can get to thousands a well-crafted email helps one person.”

The quality of the things you do suffers when you neglect to put it on a pedestal. You have to be dedicated to doing your thing so well that you naturally erect boundaries around it in order to serve a larger purpose.

My supplement to slow productivity: Know when to stop

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

“Real artists ship.” — Seth Godin

Obsessing over quality is a noble idea.

But for me, and I’m sure this is true for many people, obsessing over quality can sometimes mean not knowing when to ship.

When you obsess over quality, it can easily spill over into perfectionism. This is something I struggle with when it comes to creating content — especially videos.

During the recording process, I would do plenty of takes in order to nail the “correct” intonation of specific words, I’d make sure that the lighting was just right, or even try to make sure that I’m not saying “uh” one too many times.

And this is before editing even begins.

But at what point are we suppose to stop and call it quits for the day? Because there’s always more work to be done the next day.

The ironic part about this is that some of my most well-crafted content did no where as well as some of my earlier content where I didn’t do nearly as many takes or polishing.

What I do now a-days is set a demarcation point during the day to stop, no matter where I’m at, and ship.

Yes, obsess over quality by staying faithful to your craft no matter what, but be careful not to cancel out the whole essence of slow productivity.

You want to be intention with the work you do, put the right amount of effort into to it and do it at a pace that respects the craft. But don’t let this morph into perfectionism. Better yet, don’t obsess to the point of analysis by paralysis.

We have an opportunity

With all of the creative options for making a living that extend far beyond the traditional, we have an opportunity to work in a way that honors our biology.

We need to restructure the way we look at productivity from a self-employment standpoint to a corporate standpoint because there’s no way we can maintain this level of production waste.

In other words, how can we work in such a way that educes the most from us and bolster our contribution to society at large.

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