The reports are grim. On all sort of measures by all kinds of researchers, American workers are feeling more and more exhausted, burned out, and even depressed. Well, duh – there’s still a pandemic going on, our lives have been disrupted, climate change is scary, and now to top it all off, there’s the potential of nuclear annihilation. Have a nice day. 😊

We have little or no control over the big-picture challenges. But we do have some control over how we work — and how the people we lead are expected to work. One possible solution: “Slow Productivity.” 

The theory’s author, Cal Newport, describes how work has changed over the last century. In the olden days, most workers clocked in and out of their work shifts, during which time they executed their assigned tasks. But nowadays, very few of us respond to a time clock. Instead, we are expected to be constantly “responsive.” In other words, your workload is measured not by how many hours you work but by the volume of work you are assigned at any particular time. 

Our work stress comes from trying to prioritize and manage too many tasks simultaneously. That stress is then compounded by the requirement to coordinate with other equally over-burdened people. Between scheduling meetings, attending meetings, and processing hundreds of emails, there’s little time or energy to actually get the work done. Think what it’s like on the days when you have eight straight hours of Zoom conferences. 

Here’s the big takeaway: This problem is not going to be solved by shortening the workweek. Instead, we have to figure out how to keep each person’s work volume at a sustainable level. To some extent, people have to manage that for themselves — making a reasonable plan for each day/week/month and recognizing that they’re going to have to adjust it as the unpredictable inevitably happens.

But self-management isn’t enough. We have to change how we manage others. As Newport writes, “If you’re a boss and an important task pops to mind … you can no longer simply email the request to one of your underlings and move on with your day.” Instead, in the proposed slow productivity system, managers would prioritize tasks and assign them when the right person has the needed availability. This is complicated, and it’s a pain in the neck for the boss. So why do it?

As a management psychologist, I always look at this question through two lenses. 

  1. Through the lens of psychology: In this case, you would do it because it’s more humane. 
  2. Through the lens of business: Aside from being better for workers’ well-being, it’s better for their productivity. 

People simply work better and get more done when they have a reasonable, manageable workload. That means higher revenue, faster growth, and reduced costs due to absenteeism, medical benefits, and turnover. 

That’s why it’s called “slow productivity.” It’s not about doing less. It’s about worrying less while you get the work ahead of you done.  

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