There's a Slow Revolution Going On

Maybe it’s just because I listen to two episodes of Cal Newport’s podcast a week, but it feels like there is a zeitgeist around slowing down, a rebellion against what Cal calls “the hyperactive hive mind”, a sense that there is a critical mass asking, “Why?” in response to the typical knowledge worker’s experience.

The two posts I’ve already written on this topic are “Slow Flow” – about the way the pandemic forced us into a slower, more contemplative space, particularly as it relates to our family lives – and “Lower your Standards” – mostly quotes of a Ribbonfarm post, but where I end up riffing on an option of faith in a power greater than ourselves as a remedy to the fear that drives the hyperactive hive mind.

Cal’s posts on the matter are, in order: “On Slow Productivity and the Anti-Busyness Revolution” (April 7th) which I subconsciously ripped the title of, as I’d started this post prior to bringing up his post:

My thinking in this area is still half-formed, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that what this conversation needs are alternative definitions of “productivity”; definitions that believably deliver on the promises of profitable value generation in businesses and resilient satisfaction in our personal lives, while rendering the excesses of overload culture as unnecessary at best, and profoundly harmful at worse…

I don’t know exactly what these new definitions of productivity might look like, but we can certainly do better than our current haphazard approaches, in which work descends into performative busyness on Slack, and our personal lives are digested into air-brushed social media moments. The human attraction toward some notion of productivity isn’t the problem. The real issue is neglecting to figure out what specific notions actually make sense for our current moment.

“On Pace and Productivity” (July 21st)

When it comes to pursuing deeper impact, however, perhaps sustainable success requires the embrace of a different and more forgiving timescale.

“What Would Happen If We Slowed Down?” (September 7th)

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.”

“A Pastor Embraces Slowness” (October 11th)

"I realized I was on the verge of burnout"
"A few years ago, I realized I was on the verge of burnout with my job," she began. To compensate for this alarming state of affairs, Amy took the following steps...

She quit social media.

She took off her phone any site or app that was "refreshable by design."

She implemented my fixed-schedule productivity strategy by setting her work hours in advance, then later figuring out how to make her efforts fit within these constraints.

She began to take an actual Sabbath, inspired, in part, by Tiffany Shlain’s book, 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week.

She forwarded all work calls to voicemail and put in place a rule saying she must wait 24 hours before replying to any message that either made her upset or elated.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she began scheduling less work for herself. Following an adage she first heard in seminary, she scheduled only two-thirds of her available work hours, leaving time free to handle pastoral emergencies, and enabling, more generally, margin surrounding her daily activities.

Then, just this week, my cousin, a CEO and figurehead of a leadership-focused nonprofit foundation, wrote this piece on the importance of pausing, using Jesus himself as our example:

Passion Tamed

There are many great points we can take away from this story, but I want to focus on that wonderful pause Jesus takes between the demand for an answer and his response. It is in that moment that Jesus establishes his leadership. Choosing when and how to react or respond communicates a calm strength.

Lyman Abbott said, “Patience is passion tamed.” What keeps us from being patient? What forces us as leaders to hurry ourselves or let others push us into hasty responses and quick answers? We have passion for what we do and for the people we serve, but what causes us to misuse that passion?

The answer is we are afraid. We are afraid that people will think we are unfit to lead if we are not quick and ready to respond. We are afraid that if someone challenges us and we don’t react quickly, people will see us as weak. We are afraid that if we don’t solve the problem fast and first that someone else will, and this will lessen our leadership. We are not patient; in part, because we are afraid.

Thought leaders in product managment are also discussing this topic. Themes of limiting work in progress (WIP), creating “slack”, and focusing on measuring results and learning from “bets” are all at the forefront right now.

As I pause myself to reflect on this last season, to recuperate but mostly to learn, this is the theme: How did I once again revert to the hyperactive hive mind? Where was I at fault? How can I find and create an environment where real value is created? Some things stick out already. If one is to do less, one must make sure what one is doing is of the highest value possible. To do that, one must make intelligent, calculated bets. One must spend the time to put in place the instrumentation to measure that potential value. Then, while executing, one must stay focused, not allowing additional work to seep into the cycle. Finally, one must learn from those measurements and adjust accordingly for the next cycle. The length of the cycle, the methodologies for moving work through its stages during that cycle, are not important (so long as they are agreed upon). One must allow the seasons of strategic work and tactical work to play out; sure, adjustements might be needed in the course of a cycle, but if WIP is controlled, for the purpose of making sure carefully measured results can be turned into better future strategies, any new strategic “visions” must remain somewhere they belong.