Soundarya Balasubramani


The Art of Not Being ‘Productive’ — Why It’s Okay to Not be Busy

The Art of Not Being ‘Productive’ — Why It’s Okay to Not be Busy

Courtesy: Google Images

11:03 AM

It was evaluation day. Sam and Ram, sitting in adjacent chairs, were both typing away ferociously into their keyboards. While one was replying to e-mails received within a few minutes, the other was typing out the Business Strategy for the recently launched product into a white, distraction-free screen.

The manager swung by out of nowhere and signaled Sam to accompany him to her office. Ram wished him luck as Sam closed his laptop to a screen of an unfinished e-mail.

11:13 AM

Sam returned a little past 11:13 AM, with a huge smile on his face. He had gotten a high rating, which meant higher bonus and chance of a promotion. Within a few seconds, the manager popped by the cubicle again, signaling to Ram this time. Ram closed his laptop to a screen of an almost finished strategy.

‘Ram. I fear I don’t have good news for you’, his manager began.

He was shocked. He produced more valuable work than most people on his team, submitted it ahead of deadline and worked on the limited yet important ideas he took up until fruition.

‘You’re not working enough. You don’t check e-mails and respond quickly. During meetings you don’t take up enough initiatives and you log lesser hours than others’, she continued, oblivious to his expression.

‘You’re just not productive enough’.


Marissa Mayer at a Yahoo! farewell

If that invoked a feeling of déjà vu, you are not alone. Marissa Mayer issued a memo that asked (read: coerced) all Yahoo! employees to work from the office. Why? She was increasingly worried that people working from home were not productive enough, and did not work up to full potential. This impacted not only the remote workers, but also those who took a day off in a week to work from home, distraction free.

Essentially, she felt the number of hours logged equaled the amount of work accomplished by an employee.


1. Are you Productive or Are you Busy?

Have you ever felt the pressure to be productive? You read articles after articles on ‘How to Increase Your Productivity’, you see your co-workers making pretty to-do lists, your friends giving you tips on how you can extract more out of your time. In reality, you just want to shut it all out. I went through this phase — in fact, I was the person who wrote those articles, the co-worker who had to-do lists and the friend who gave advice (only when solicited though).

Courtesy: Google Images

Being productive was easy during college, there was always more to do than the time I had and all I had to do was prioritize. However, I spent the past month at home, when there were no classes or assignments or events. There was just serenity and time. So I took a step back and realized if I was being productive or if I was just being busy.

1.1. Opportunity Cost of Email

An analysis by RescueTime showed that we spent on average 5 hours on a digital device, switching between tasks over 300 times and using 56 apps/websites in one day. Whether or not you fall under the bell curve, it’s undeniable that we spend a very significant portion reading and replying to emails every day.

Courtesy: RescueTime
The most recent study on email comes from Dr. Ian M. Paul, a pediatrician at Penn State College of Medicine. Dr. Paul kept track of all his emails for an academic year and found that 2,035 mass distribution emails were received: 1,501 from the medical center, 450 from his department and 84 from the university.
Estimating that each took 30 seconds to read, and taking into account the average salary of doctors at the institution, email overload cost about $1,641 per physician per year. With more than 629 doctors on staff, that’s equates to more than $1 million in lost time.

At first sight, this might sound incredulous. You might argue, ‘But the time spent emailing helped generate money as well’. I agree. Emails are, and will always be, a crucial part of our routine. But this also calls into question the damage it causes — the constant distraction, refreshing inbox to keep it up to date, the nagging feeling of needing to reply to an email right away. Does this make us more productive? Before that, let’s understand its etymology.

1.2. Productivity — Where Does It Come From?

Where do we get the term productivity from? Let’s go back a century or two. Let’s say you enter a manufacturing plant. You see workers toiling from dawn till dusk, wiping away their sweat during the short intervals that they get, but getting back to work before their manager notices their hiatus. People thought to get higher wages, they had to work as long as they could.

Enter Frederick Winslow Taylor. He conceptualized The Principles of Scientific Management. He changed the way factories worked, the way people worked. He proposed that optimizing and simplifying jobs, productivity would increase. Taylor believed that all workers were motivated by money, so he promoted the idea of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” If a worker didn’t achieve enough in a day, he didn’t deserve to be paid as much as another worker who was highly productive.

All this meant that productivity was measured by how much a worker produced per hour, rather than how long the work was. Now, scurrying back to the 21st century, although we seem to have evolved from a manufacturing point of view, we still use an archaic definition of productivity in the modern context where it does not apply. For all of us working desk jobs and clicking away at our computers every day, checking sentences off our to-do lists became indistinguishable from being productive.

1.3. Why To-Do Lists Hurt More Than Help

Courtesy: Google Images

Haven’t you had this rush of adrenaline once you check something off? Like you’ve accomplished a goal for the day? That’s really just your brain releasing a load of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for generating feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction and happiness. But, this does not help in the long-term. What does help is the amount of a fatty lipid named ‘Myelin’ in your brain. Did I lose you? Let me explain.

Think of your brain as a very vast electric grid, composed of 100 billion transformers and even more wires that connect them to each other. In scientific terms, wires correspond to axons and transformers to nerve cells (see picture below). Myelin is analogous to the insulation on the wires that help with faster transmission of a signal. There’s a catch: unlike electric insulation, myelin does not form a long sheath around the axon, instead it has multiple short sheaths covering a section of the axon, which increases the speed of a signal being fired.

Structure of a Neuron. Courtesy: Google Images

Researchers at UCLA conducted an experiment to conclude that intelligence is strongly influenced by the ‘integrity’ of the brain’s axons. In a nutshell: The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes the information. Hence, this all ties back to the thickness of our myelin sheaths — is it thick enough? You can increase the thickness by deliberately focusing on a single task at hand. The repetitive use of a specific wire for the task triggers the myelin producers (read: oligodendrocytes) to start forming the myelin around it.

More often than not, we settle for short-term rush of dopamine gratification with a false sense of accomplishment and give up the long-term development of Myelin that will actually let you accomplish the goals. This gives us a leeway to talk about the primary activity that will increase your myelin count: Deep Work.

2. Deep Work: Why It’s Valuable

If you haven’t read Deep Work by Cal Newport yet, then you should. He begins with painting a picture of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, sitting in a modest cabin out in the woods and spending day in and day out thinking and formalizing the foundations of what we know today to be analytical psychology.

Courtesy: Google Images

Cal spends the first half of the book convincing you why Deep Work is valuable, and the second half dictating how you can practice it. Disclaimer though: his methodology is not for everybody. He makes some bold claims in terms of lifestyle choices — cut out social media completely (he does not have a social media account), stop checking e-mails, and shut yourself in a room for hours. But it works. Because I practiced all the the above three this month.

So, what is Deep Work?

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.

2.1. The State of Flow

But this idea was not new — people have been practicing it for centuries. But what is surprising is the (proven) psychological, scientific and philosophical benefits associated with practicing Deep Work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high) revolutionized the way we thought about happiness when he said the following,

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Contradictory to what you would think, he steered the idea that people are not the happiest when they are relaxed and when the grey matter is low. It is quite the opposite. He proclaimed the above by conceptualizing a phenomena known as flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. Which, if you remember from a minute ago, was how Cal defined Deep Work.

Mihaly’s Challenge vs Skill graph to achieve State of Flow

There are many examples of philosophers, professors and programmers in Deep Work who practice it (knowingly or unknowingly), but the one that struck out to me was the example of Donald Knuth, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. He has a a rather interesting message to tell the world regarding his email address: Take a look at it yourself. Prof. Knuth spends most of his days locked in a room, tackling a rather intimidating research problem at hand, which he later tries to digest and explain in a less menacing and complex format to the non-practitioners of his monastic philosophy. (I spent 30 minutes reading all of the other answers on his website as well!)

Of course, neither Cal nor I would recommend practicing Deep Work in such extremities. It is not for everyone. Unfortunately, the nature of most of our jobs does not have the luxury where we can exempt ourselves from social media/email and be locked in a room. But does that mean we cannot reach a middle ground?

3. How To Be ‘Rightly’ Productive

You spent the last few minutes understanding the effects of distraction and values of deep work. But how do you incorporate these lessons into the daily routine to find the perfect balance? The million dollar question.

Courtesy: Google Images

The Amazon rainforest is made up of over 16,000 species. However, just 227 of them make up almost 50% of the rainforest. It’s through a phenomena of accumulative advantage — I learnt about this first from a James Clear article.

Imagine two plants growing side by side. Each day they will compete for sunlight and soil. If one plant can grow just a little bit faster than the other, then it can stretch taller, catch more sunlight, and soak up more rain. The next day, this additional energy allows the plant to grow even more. This pattern continues until the stronger plant crowds the other out and takes the lion’s share of sunlight, soil, and nutrients.

This process repeats again and again, until the plant dominates the forest. I see habits the same way — they take incremental effort, every single day. You have to start small, and keep going small, stretching it by an inch every day, until the snowball effect makes it significant.

Here are a few pointers that could be useful, based on my experience:

3.1. Carve out a few hours everyday for deep work

Start with waking up 15 minutes earlier than normal. Use this 15 minutes to engage in deep work — with no distraction whatsoever. The activity could be reading a novel, writing an article, working on a strategy, learning a new language. Whatever it is, start small. And every few days, increase this by 15 minutes until you reach your capacity.

If someone like me, who used to sleep at 4 AM, can wake up at 5:30 AM, anyone can do it.

3.2. Check your emails in intervals

This is hard, I know. Especially when you’re working. Cal suggests in his book to implement a rule where you check your email every x minutes, with x ≥ 5. Keeping this in mind, I would start with every 30 minutes if possible. The time in between, you have to be away from your inbox no matter what.

3.3. Use a Trello board instead of to-do lists for a day

This has surprisingly proven to be useful, thanks to a friend who recommended. Trello is also made up of to-do lists, but instead of one list per day, you can have multiple boards. In my dashboard, I have ‘Today’, ‘Tomorrow’, ‘This Week’ and ‘This Month’ boards. The usefulness lies in the representation of these boards — they are always filled.

So the need to check off everything from one list is gone, because how much ever you accomplish today, there will always be more to do from tomorrow.

3.4. Turn off push notifications from social media

More often than not, we check our phones when there’s actually a ping. And with apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and more, these pings happen a lot. Thankfully, we can control this. I went a step further and uninstalled Facebook and Instagram. Now, I try to use LinkedIn for professional communication and WhatsApp for personal, and I’ve turned off notifications from all apps. This way, I check my phone when there is actually a need vs checking every time someone posts a status.

But you can start small — turn off notifications from these apps. Check them in intervals, just like your email.

3.5. Write the highlight at the end of your day

Have a small pocket size notebook where you encounter your daily events. It can be the highlights, what you learnt or what ideas you thought of. It can even be the people you are grateful for. Recording these events on paper lets you realize how your day has gone. A good day is generally filled with lots of lessons and ideas. And it won’t take more than a minute.


But of course, I know most of you would probably not heed to any of the above advice. It’s much easier said than done. For me, inspiration comes from reading novels. So, think back to where you get yours from, and keep doing more of that. For the very few who might actually resort to some of the above advice, I hope you succeed!


4. Drive Your Car Right

Think of working on your tasks as synonymous to driving your car. When you’re driving, you need utmost concentration. But millions of people check their email or make a call, increasing the probability of a fender-bender. Heck, you might even get good at the multi-tasking. But every time you do, understand that you’re taking resources away from your parietal lobe in your brain (responsible for spatial processing) and feeding it to your temporal lobe (responsible for replying and answering calls). It might seem harmless from an individual level — but when you look it from a macro-scope, it results in millions of deaths every year.

You only have so much capacity when it comes to Deep Work, so don’t waste that limited resource on short-term gratification and fender-benders.

Courtesy: Google Images


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