Image credit: Dolce Far Niente by John William Godward

This is the fifth in a series of essays I’ve written on time. You can view a list of all of them on the first essay.

Two weeks ago, I critiqued Cal Newport’s book Slow Productivity. In this post, I’m going to share my own tips for achieving slow productivity. These are tips not for those with the most privilege at work or those who work for themselves, but for anyone who has a job where they have to work with others.

1. Rethink your views on what is and is not productive

When I read Cal Newport’s work, I feel sad about his reductive view of productivity. That he sees collaboration as something to avoid because it gets in the way of deep work. That he defines shallow work as something that “tend[s] to not create new value in the world and is easy to replicate” and then lumps care work in there with social media. As a caring profession, does it even make sense to see the sort of work we do in libraries in terms of productivity? And what does productivity mean in our context? Just because we are doing a lot and are always busy doesn’t mean that we are necessarily doing meaningful work. Often the things that are measurable or that lead to easily packaged outcomes aren’t necessarily the most valuable or impactful. So much of the most meaningful work we do as library workers isn’t easily quantifiable. The focus on productivity can narrow our vision of what is worth doing and pull us away from work that is more valuable to our patrons but is less concrete, measurable, or able to be checked off in an app.

The very idea that some activities are productive presupposes that others are not, but I struggle with the idea that we can really categorize things as “productive” and “unproductive.” Do we decide that the only things that are productive are those where we can draw a clear line to specific desired project outcomes? Or those that lead to a tick box so we can report some sort of quantity? Or where there’s a specific product that comes out of it? I mean, Newport himself defines collaboration as a drag on productivity when most of my work is made better by it! And we often rush through aspects of our work (prep work, process work, team-building work) because we see them as hurdles to quickly jump to get the “real work” done rather than vital pieces of the process that we should care about just as much as the product.

We know that many activities that are not directly designed to move the needle forward on specific projects actually end up being valuable. When I spend time talking to a colleague, that may look like wasting time. But often, talking to a colleague leads to new ideas. So many of my best teaching ideas came from conversations with colleagues. I often get my best and most creative ideas about work when I’m taking walks (the number of notes I’ve sent myself from walks is potent evidence of the utility of meditative exercise), yet I doubt my boss would be thrilled if I counted that time as work time, even when I’m chewing on something work-related. Defining productivity so narrowly as activity that moves the needle visibly forward on a project, is visibly in the creation of something, or can be measured and recorded pushes us to skip or hurry many of the reflective and relational aspects that help make any project successful.

Dolce far niente by Auguste Toulmouche

Especially in a profession that is focused on serving our communities, traditional ideas about productivity could keep us from doing our best work. To effectively support our communities, we need to understand their needs. We need to build relationships in our communities and partner with other groups serving our communities. That takes time and often involves doing activities that do not necessarily look like they directly contribute to a specific project; like just talking to people and attending community events or meetings of other organizations. Yet relationship-building often leads to our most valuable partnerships and projects. If we are always staffing service desks to the point where we have no time to get out into our communities, we will never develop a real understanding of our communities and thus will not be best-equipped to serve them. We need to recognize and allocate time for this type of work.

After a year of being a distance learning librarian, I started attending all of the meetings of our online learning department regardless of whether I had an item on their agenda. I also frequently stopped by their offices to talk to people and see how things were going. I learned so much just casually about what they were working on and was able to spot partnership opportunities that my colleagues in online learning may not have considered. I was better able to serve our online learners because I made sure to prioritize building relationships with the faculty and staff who supported the programs. Sure, sometimes chatting with colleagues in that area didn’t lead directly to valuable work (though I made some good friends!), but I never would have made most of the progress I did in that job had I not focused on relationship-building. This is foundational to our work as librarians. 

The challenge is that things like relationship building cannot be reduced to only that which is maximally productive. If I only went to community members when I needed something, I likely wouldn’t get what I needed because I wouldn’t have cultivated those relationships. It’s impossible to determine in advance which meeting or which moment will lead to great payoffs, so those who need to see every activity leading instrumentally to progress may write those activities off as unproductive. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Often the seemingly unproductive or “shallow work” we are doing is building a foundation for a far better product or outcome in the end. 

And what is or is not fruitful or productive might differ from person to person, so consider for yourself what helps you to do your best work. Not your most visible work. Your best work. 

Also, I wrote previously about how work time is seen as more important than our personal time (taking care of our health, time with family, relaxing, etc.) in our society. We need to start seeing prioritizing our health as productive. We need to start seeing rest as productive. Caring for the people we love as productive. I see this as building my overall capacity to do anything in any part of my life. Let’s value our non-work time at least as much as we value our work time if not far, far more. Let’s not sacrifice our non-work restorative and caring time on the alter of workplace productivity.

2. Pay attention to how you are feeling and what you need to be productive

I think one of the most important things we can do in terms of productivity is to embrace mindfulness. And by mindfulness I don’t necessarily mean having a meditation practice. What I mean is paying attention. Something I do at the beginning of a lot of information literacy sessions is to show students the Nic Cage Gauge (here’s a Google Doc version if you can’t see the original) and ask them to share which Nicholas Cage matches how they are currently feeling. I then talk about how important it is to check in with how they’re feeling when they work on a research project. How if they’re feeling focused or carefree, they are probably going to be able to get a lot done, but if they’re stressed, or meh, or worse, bees, well… they’ll need to adjust their expectations of what they can achieve in that moment. Maybe on that day, just give yourself a small goal of finding a single source or reading one article. Maybe go take a walk or do something that makes you feel better or calmer before diving into the work. The way someone feels is definitely going to impact their productivity and denying that (and not extending grace to ourselves in that moment) is only going to make things worse.

We have to recognize that our emotional state as well as our physical health impacts our productivity. When I’m having severe joint pain, I find it much more difficult to maintain focus. I can’t stay still in front of my computer for nearly as long. Denying the situation and trying to power through it just makes it worse. I try to really take advantage of days when I’m feeling excellent (and not just for work productivity, but also ENJOYING MY LIFE) because I know, in the future, there will be days when I just can’t do as much as I did the day before. Expecting that we all can work at the same speed every day ignores the fact that we’re living, breathing humans and not automatons. Expecting the same level of productivity every day is ableist.

In addition, I think it’s really important to recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all way to be productive. I’ve definitely met hyperproductive people who think their chosen method will work for anyone if they just try hard enough. But it’s bullshit. We are not all built the same. Whether you identify as neurodiverse or not, we are all diverse in in terms of what helps us become motivated and attentive; what gets us into a flow. We all work best under different conditions. I remember talking to my current boss years ago about how hard a time I was having keeping up professionally with all the work I had on my plate. She told me how she spends the first 30 minutes of each work day focused on professional development and suggested I do the same. I don’t work that way. I need longer chunks of time in which to think about things. I’m a slow processor. That’s why my job, with its constant interruptions and task-switching is a nightmare for me. There’s so much work I simply can’t do until the very last week or two of the term because I don’t have time for focused work. My son had never heard the term doubling until I told him about it recently, yet he is only able to really work productively with others around. Having someone else there working keeps him on task. For me, I’m most productive when I’m alone. I get too distracted with others around. We’re all unique; we all need to forget what other people tell us are the secrets to productivity and listen to what our own bodies and minds are telling us. We’ve all spent enough time feeling like there’s something wrong with us because we procrastinate and simply can’t “eat the frog,” or can’t focus deeply in 30-minute chunks, or can’t work well in open-offices or with Slack open, or can’t adapt to whatever can’t-miss productivity method is hot at the moment. We have to find what works for us; the answer is within.

3. Examine everything your library is doing (together) and figure out what to stop (together)

The only really relevant and relatable example that Newport included in his book was (surprisingly) one about Steve Jobs. When he came back to Apple, he significantly streamlined their computer/laptop offerings, which helped them focus more on the quality of the four different types of computers they did offer. Less ended up leading to more as Apple became dominant in the computer market in the late 1990s. 

Our profession is one that is obsessed with adding. As I mentioned in a previous essay, we have no concept of enoughness, so we anxiously pursue growth at all costs. We’re even worse about subtracting. Once we start doing something, it’s really hard to stop. And I get it. I remember in 2007 I started offering an embedded librarian service that quickly became untenable due to the amount of time it took me to monitor and support each class. It was really hard to unring that bell; to tell the instructors that I simply couldn’t do it anymore. But sometimes that’s absolutely necessary. 

I read a great book a couple of years ago called Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less by Leidy Klotz. Klotz, a professor at the University of Virginia has extensively studied the difficulties humans have with doing less or removing things from their lives. At the start of the book, he describes a variety of studies he did that showed that people in all areas of their lives are far more likely to add than subtract. In one, they showed participants this lego model and asked them to modify it so that it was strong enough and high enough to hold a real masonry brick over the head of the storm trooper. And they told them that they’d get a dollar for doing it successfully, but would lose 10 cents for each LEGO brick they added. The most logical thing to do here was to remove that single brick below the roof to make the structure more stable, but STILL participants were much more likely to add bricks than subtract them.

There is something in the human psyche that makes it far more difficult for people to subtract than to add in every part of our lives. It is much easier for us to consider creating new projects or adding new services than it is to stop doing something, even when it no longer provides that same return on investment or isn’t as valued by our patrons. 

Yet if we want to do our most valuable work and continue meeting the changing needs of our patrons, we will have to let go of things. As I’ve mentioned in previous essays, dealing with time poverty can negatively impact our mental health and our efficacy at work. We’re already seeing the cost of overwork and time poverty in the growing percentage of librarians who feel burned out. We need space and time to think to do our best work and there is a ton of science that supports this. All you can do when you’re overloaded is react. When you have time, you can think critically, reflect, and make better decisions. Our organizations’ inability to prioritize ends up becoming our personal productivity problems.

Paring down is work we will have to do together as a unit or organization. What work do we do that is most consistent with our values and goals? What is providing the best value to our patrons (based on our hopefully deep understanding of their needs and interests)? We may sometimes have to let go of things that provide value but not enough to be worth the time cost (like my embedded librarian program way back when). Maybe we need to determine what enough looks like in our organizations. There will always be more that we can do and that can engender a feeling of “we’re not doing enough!” shakiness. Cultivating a sense of enoughness and making holistic decisions about what to do (and what not to do) can help us focus on doing great work instead of worrying all the time that we’re just not doing enough.

4. Collectively work to change toxic norms and expectations around productivity

Another place I do agree with Cal Newport is that a lot of productivity is faux-productivity. Calle Rosengren (2019) wrote a great article that illuminates how we perform being a good worker by adhering to organizational norms about presence, responsiveness, etc.:

Time norms are seen here as socially formulated expectations of behavior relating to, among other things, expectations on ‘‘patterns of the day’’; i.e., being at the ‘‘right’’ place at the ‘‘right’’ time of the day (Epstein et al., 1999). Therefore, time norms act as a steering mechanism in the relationship between the individual and work life and inform the individual when, how often, and how fast it is appropriate to work. (2)

Ann Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel refer to this in their book Out of Office as “LARPing your job.” In essence, being seen as a committed worker is actually more important than being a committed worker. This is why we’re drowning in emails and Slack messages all the time; we have to show that we’re here, working, and engaged. If I don’t write “good morning” on Slack people might think I’m not working!

Unlike Newport, I don’t believe awareness of that is enough because it doesn’t change the reality that this faux-productivity or performance is what gets people positive recognition, raises, and job security. Choosing to go a different route on one’s own is not so simple. The only way to really change the pace and overload of our work lives (without costs to our standing in the org) is to change these norms. I know some managers really do try to enforce slower practices to improve work/life balance, but most are all too happy to see their employees overwork. In that situation, we have to collectively choose to change the norms. If none of us perform busyness and instead focus just on doing our jobs, we could actually adopt a reasonable pace for work. That requires solidarity; putting the welfare of the whole over our individual desire to rise above our colleagues. And for a lot of people, that will require a major change in their thinking. We live in such an individualistic society where we are constantly comparing ourselves to others and focusing on how we can stand out from the crowd. But I can tell you from my experiences with union work, that the collective can secure gains you’d never be able to get alone; no matter how hard you grind. We won changes in our contract this year that will materially improve our working conditions; changes I didn’t imagine we could win even a year ago.

I know that nothing about these tips is easy. I could tell you to check email and Slack/Teams/etc. less often and definitely not before or after work. I could suggest apps that reduce distractions on your computer or that you should remove apps from your phone. They might help a little, but those won’t change the increasing pace of work at your job. I believe some of the most important changes you can make are in how you view yourself, your interdependency and solidarity with your colleagues, and productivity itself. But once these more systemic changes have been made, you will be able to have a manageable to-do list. You will have time to think critically and reflect on your work. You will have the space to both do deep work and to do the sort of “shallow” (hah!) care work and relationship-building that helps you do your best work. You will feel able to focus on meaningful work and not what actions will make others believe you’re a dedicated worker. You will feel like you’re doing enough. And not just you, but everyone you work with, which makes it all the sweeter. 

Klotz, Leidy. Subtract: The untapped science of less. Flatiron Books, 2021.

Newport, Cal. “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.” The New Yorker, 17 Nov. 2020, www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/the-rise-and-fall-of-getting-things-done.

Newport, Cal. “It’s Time to Embrace Slow Productivity.” The New Yorker, 3 Jan. 2022, www.newyorker.com/culture/office-space/its-time-to-embrace-slow-productivity

Newport, Cal. 2024. Slow Productivity : The Lost Art of Accomplishment without Burnout. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

Petersen, Anne Helen and Charlie Warzel. 2021. Out of Office The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. New York : Knopf.

Rosengren, Calle. “Performing work: The drama of everyday working life.” Time & Society 28, no. 2 (2019): 613-633.