Stop piling that to-do list; learn to slow down and you'll be more productive

  • Living
  • Sunday, 26 May 2024

Newport encourages working people to slow down in their professional lives. — AFP

FINDING ways to be more productive is the great obsession of the working world. While employees often feel they have to do more and more in less time, some are calling for a slower pace in the workplace.

What could be more demotivating than a never-ending to-do list? Yet this is the day-to-day reality of many employees who feel swamped by their workload.

Economist Melanie Rudd of the University of Houston states in a paper, published in 2019 in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, that the workload of working Americans increased between 1965 and the early 1990s, before reaching a plateau and declining slightly in recent years.

At the same time, workers are under increasing pressure from their superiors to do more in less time. Add to this ever tighter deadlines, and you’re soon on the road to burnout.

Many managers confide that they are victims of a structural overflow phenomenon, like a vase overflowing its brim. Their working day simply no longer allows them to meet their obligations. For instance, 77% of French executives felt they have too many tasks to manage at the same time, according to a 2019 Ifop-Mooncard survey. To keep up the pretense of maintaining productivity, some people work outside office hours, which is not without consequences for the body and mind.

Fortunately, there is another way. Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University in the United States, encourages working people to slow down in their professional lives. In his latest book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment without Burnout he outlines the benefits of what he calls “slow productivity.” This concept echoes the slow food movement, launched in Italy in the late 1980s by eco-gastronomist Carlo Petrini and his Slow Food organisation. Here, slow productivity fights against the cult of performance, which subjects workers to a permanent pressure to surpass themselves and “multitask.”

The benefits of saying ‘no’

However, as Newport reminds us in his book, our brains are not designed to multitask. Our minds can quickly switch between one task and another if their execution has become automatic and unconscious, thanks to repetitive learning. For example, it’s perfectly possible to walk while having a conversation on the phone.

But it’s much more difficult to participate in a meeting while answering emails. That’s why Newport encourages us to move away from multitasking. “The first principle of slow productivity is described as ‘do fewer things,’ which I think a lot of people very naturally interpret to mean ‘finish fewer things.’” But a better way of wording this first principle might actually be to “do fewer things at once,” he told Bloomberg.

Similarly, the specialist advises adapting our work rhythms to those of our body. We shouldn’t hesitate to take a break after several hours of mental activity, or even allow ourselves a longer time to rest and recuperate if the need arises. Of course, this is easier said than done. Working to excess is reassuring: it keeps us in line with the norm, even if it’s harmful in the long term.

That’s why it’s important to keep the situation in check by not saying ‘yes’ to every professional request. “A lot of my advice in the book can basically all be summarised as, ‘How do you say no without ever saying no,’” Newport told Bloomberg.

If the prospect of not accommodating the requests of your direct supervisor or your colleagues makes you break out in a cold sweat, don’t worry. It’s perfectly possible to say ‘no’ in a roundabout way. You can, for example, use the “yes but...” approach, or ask for some time to think to buy yourself some time.

In any case, remember that refusing a request isn’t always negative. Saying ‘no’ means preventing yourself from getting overloaded by accepting an excessive or unrealistic workload. It’s all about learning to pace yourself, to keep up the pace over time and not burn yourself out. And this will make you more productive in the long term. – AFP Relaxnews

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