Here’s a better definition for productivity: optimizing how much you get done.

When I crave productivity, my brain often struggles to helpfully guide the process. I tend to get very enthusiastic about the work, but often in a way that makes me less productive.

Several years ago, when I first started thinking seriously about productivity — about how I get things done, how I keep track of it, and how I manage time — all the resources I found seemed to emphasize only one thing: getting as much done as possible.

Now, that didn’t seem odd to me at the time, and it might not sound strange to you at all. In fact, I suspect that for most people “getting as much done as possible” sounds like a really good definition of productivity.

However, I’d like to present a modest alternative. It might not sound that much different at first, but that’s what the rest of this article is for.

Here’s a better definition for productivity: optimizing how much you get done.

What’s the difference?

“Getting as much done as possible” is all about maxima. It prioritizes identifying, achieving, and increasing the upper bound. It makes the whole story about high scores.

Optimizing doesn’t reject maxima. It’s not an alternative to maximizing; it’s a superset.

There are a number of potent elements to optimizing productivity, and I’d love to cover them all over time, but let’s start with what’s most important to me, and that’s what I call Slow Productivity. You could also call it Mindful Productivity, but I’m not talking directly or specifically about meditation here, which the term mindful typically conjures.

Slow Productivity

First, let’s talk about the problem I needed to solve. When I was trying my best to be productive, I would often find myself feeling stressed and anxious. I’d load up my to-do list and dive headfirst into the first task, knocking it out as quickly as possible. Then I’d jump back to my to-do list, mark it complete, scope the next task, and dive in just as quickly. With this kind of hyperfocused approach, I could knock out a dozen tasks in under an hour, easily. I’d blaze through the individual items.

But despite the amazing completion rate during that focused hour, I’d find myself wearing down almost instantly. That hardcore pace was only sustainable for an hour, maybe two on a good day. And after that, I’d be so stressed and wound up that it would take me a long time to get my head right again. That magical hour actually reduced my productivity because of how long I needed to recover from the intensity.

I realized, eventually, that I was conflating productivity with speed. Those two things are related, but different. And separating them has been the key to productivity for me.

The basic premise is really simple: when I start a task, I pace it. I pause to simply recognize what it is that I want to do. Taking a moment to be grateful for it, if I am; or to acknowledge how happy I’ll be to be done with it, if that’s what’s up. And when I start the work, I keep myself mindful that I don’t need to be working at the very edge of my ability every moment. I complete the work at a pace that is comfortable.

I don’t need to be working at the very edge of my ability every moment.

Some concrete examples:

  • If I’m typing, I don’t need to be cranking out words at my max WPM.
  • If I’m cooking, I don’t need to chop every ingredient in record time. I don’t need to measure out all the ingredients in mere seconds.
  • If I’m cleaning, I don’t need to pick up every object and wipe down every surface like a reverse hurricane.

In meditation language, this is “being present” as I work. By going just a little bit slower, I give myself room to pay attention to what I’m doing; to savor it, if I enjoy it, and to do it right the first time, so I don’t have to do it again. I avoid the stress that comes from turning everything up to max, I get more out of doing the work, and it doesn’t really take me much longer, anyway.

What I’m Not Saying

Now, it’s important to note that I’m not saying that speed doesn’t matter for productivity, or that it’s bad to aim to do work in a reasonable amount of time. If you can do something in 15 minutes, I’m not arguing for making sure it takes you an hour. But maybe doing it in 15 minutes is strenuous, and doing it in 20 is easy, those 5 minutes are absolutely worth it.

I think I can conjure a lot more to say on this, but to keep things digestible, let’s leave it here for the moment. Let me know what you think over on Twitter!