To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1

In his latest book, Cal Newport advises us to embrace seasonality – to work at a more natural pace. He points out that humans evolved with an innate understanding of seasons – a lived experience of seasons for planting, and tending, and harvesting, along with seasons for celebration, and rest, and hibernation. The arc of a life has developmental seasons: infancy, childhood, youth, adulthood, elder years – and major life roles evolve in seasons as well: career paths and family life trajectories, for example. Each season takes time to unfold, and life’s changing tempos and recurring activity cycles turn into a rhythm that ensures well-being. At least that’s the way it might naturally be.

But in our 24/7 work world, we’ve lost that thread. In attempting to maintain always-on, always-producing, always back-to-back-commitments lives, we have left no room for gentler, quieter seasons.

We need stretches of time for concentrated effort AND stretches of time for relaxing and recharging. We need breaks in our days (recess?), in our weeks (restful weekends, perhaps?), and in our years (slow summer months?). These are needed to make ready for and counter the intensity of the rest of our time. Ebbs and flows produce the kind of rhythm that bolsters quality, that sparks creativity, that deepens thinking, and that produces breakthroughs. That’s why Cal says, “don’t rush your most important work.” (Slow Productivity, p. 116)

Embracing seasonality in our work means extending our plans over longer time spans, building in break time, and recognizing our personal natural rhythms. Cal suggests that we look at planning and accomplishments over a lifetime, not focusing on adding to our achievements and productive outcomes every day and every week and every month.

This kind of natural pace is advised by others as well. People working on health and well-being recognize the need for a more reasonable pace for ongoing work. Experts on creativity advocate for time away between projects, and they can show myriad examples of stunning breakthroughs that came immediately after a break (one famous example being Lin Manuel Miranda’s idea for Hamilton coming while on vacation after launching In The Heights).

As your weather moves from spring to summer or fall to winter, take that transition as an inspiration to check yourself on the seasonality of your work and to perhaps create more periods of slow productivity along the way.

Slow productivity “posits that professional efforts should unfold at a more varied and humane pace, with hard periods counterbalanced by relaxation at many different timescales, and that a focus on impressive quality, not performative activity, should underpin everything.” ~ Cal Newport (Slow Productivity, p. 8)

Additional principles of slow productivity

Slow Productivity is also defined by two additional principles: do fewer things (at one time), and obsess about quality.

Doing fewer things may go against the grain for people who are quite used to juggling a number of projects and responsibilities at one time. Cal points out that each commitment we make comes with administrative overhead – time we spend organizing meetings, communicating progress, answering questions, planning milestones, and all manner of administrivia as well as the time needed to switch attention and focus as we move from project to project. When you multiply that time-suck by the number of projects on your plate, it’s no wonder we don’t have room in our workday to do the actual work.

To minimize these costs, you need to do fewer things, or at least do fewer things at one time. Working serially is a good strategy for getting a lot accomplished without being overrun by administrative overhead. That is, instead of having six projects on the docket and moving each one forward in increments in a given period, do one or two at a time and move them forward much more quickly.

“Doing fewer things makes us better at our jobs, not only psychologically, but also economically and creatively. Focusing intensely on a small number of tasks, waiting to finish each before bringing on something new, is objectively a much better way to use our brains to produce valuable output.” (Slow Productivity, p. 60)

Obsessing over quality is what makes slowing down worth the effort it might take to do so. When your work is consistently of high quality, people are more willing to grant the time you need to produce it. This advice echoes recommendations from Cal’s earlier books, So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. Quality work solidifies your reputation and ensures that you are contributing value. Quality can be “an engine that drives a meaningful professional life.” (Slow Productivity, p. 174)

To produce high quality, you need to know your domain deeply. That comes from close study of others’ work as well as challenging yourself to level-up your contributions. It also takes time, which loops back into the other principles of slow productivity.

Endorsement

I am in a transitional season (moving to a new home), so this advice really resonated with me. Moving to what folks call “slower lower Delaware” and flirting with retirement life has shifted my orientation to time. And yet I still have aspirational projects I want to accomplish in the near and far term, as well as client contracts and graduate teaching assignments. The advice in Slow Productivity comes to me at the right time. You’ll find different insights if you read the book, which I highly recommend.

“There will always be more work to do. You should give your efforts the breathing room and respect required to make them part of a life well lived, not an obstacle to it.” (Slow Productivity, p. 117)

Notice the changing seasons and the ways each season contributes to the health of the ecosystem and provides specific ingredients for our own physical and mental well-being. Look to Slow Productivity as a way of creating that beneficial cycle in your own life.

Enjoy the bounty of every season.