What Is Slow Work? (And The Benefits Of Doing Less)
What is slow work? Here are my tips on how to slow down, make priorities and boost your productivity and motivation.
We’re decluttering, meditating and investing in capsule wardrobes, and we’re shutting our phones off in the evenings or taking weekends for a digital detox. We’re mindful how unhealthy and unproductive it is to rush through life, and we teach our children to value experiences over things.
But work is a different story. I hardly ever hear anyone slowing down at work, or using the same minimalist principles they apply in their daily lives to their work routines.
And if you Google “slow work”, you’ll get tutorials and tips on how to help slow workers speed things up. Busyness is still often seen as an indicator of a person’s importance, and stress (especially in the US) is often glorified.
The corporate and business cultures often reinforce such values, even though stress costs them billions in employee absenteeism, turnover and mistakes.
I, too, prided myself on working long hours and I had to-do lists full of routine tasks.
The slow living lifestyle that I aspired to just didn’t trickle down into my work habits, and I still worked the traditional 9-5 even though I’d gone freelance months ago.
I saw slow living as an escape and a recovery from the stresses of work. It was healing and relaxing, but only after a frazzled day.
Beyond the 9 to 5
Enter Kathryn Ho, a coach-to-be for creatives who I worked with as she completed her training.
And while we tackled a slew of issues in our weeks of Skype coaching session, the biggest change I made was a complete overhaul of my daily routine.
We looked at my daily schedule as a travel blogger and freelance writer. Not only was I spending hours chasing social media numbers, but I always felt behind and stressed, while my most important work (the actual writing) kept getting put off. Because why face possible struggle and failure when there’s procrastination?
I still get stressed and my routine isn’t flawless. It will probably change in the coming months as new projects come in. But I have fewer pounding headaches – and I don’t measure my value anymore by the hours sat in front of my laptop.
As I write this, it’s almost midnight in Cairo on the last day of Ramadan and I’ve got a vanilla and lavender candle flickering along with a cold glass of Nescafe. The house is silent this time of night, the kittens are fed and asleep, and I know that no delivery man will interrupt my thoughts with a doorbell. This is always when I loved to write, yet for an entire year as a freelancer I forced myself to start work at 9 and felt guilty when the start time was pushed forward to 10, then 11 a.m.
I had a few realizations under Kathryn’s gentle guidance. I’ve scratched off all the busy work that wasn’t making much impact off my list.
And now I’ve got a slimmer to-do list but I’m getting more done.
Here’s what slow work means to me:
1) The workday doesn’t have to start at 9 a.m.
The eight-hour workday is an invention from the time of the industrial revolution that was popularized by Henry Ford. It’s based on the optimal running-time for machines and assembly lines. It’s hardly a scientific or research-based model for optimal productivity. But it’s how factories were best run in those days.
We now know that humans work best in intervals of about 90 minutes each, followed by a 20 or 30 minute break. And the energy we feel is just as important as the number of hours we work. With studies showing that most people are only capable of 4 or 5 hours of focused work a day, I’d rather maximize those hours instead of sitting in my chair for 8 hours.
These days I wake up around 10 a.m., guilt free, and start work around noon. I’ll go for 8 hours with an hour for lunch, but more recently I’ve split the day up: a few hours in the afternoon, then a couple of hours writing time late at night.
Not too long ago, I felt lazy and self-indulgent to start work anytime after 10 a.m.
And let’s not forget the magazine articles about successful people all waking up at the crack of dawn, then jumping out of bed for some yoga.
Night owls also have a competitive edge – not to mention higher IQs and higher levels of cognitive complexity.
Most people either do best very early in the mornings or late at night – and neither of those peak times fall into the standard 9-5 working day.
2) Emails don’t have to be all answered first thing in the morning
I check emails briefly at the start of my working day. If there’s nothing urgent then I slip on my headphones, turn on some music, light a candle and get to writing. There’s hardly ever an email that requires an immediate response.
I set a timer (for an hour and a half, of course) and get to writing, reminding myself that first drafts are just rough outlines that will turn into real writing later on.
But first the focus is on brainstorming and getting my thoughts down in an approximate order. And that doesn’t ever look pretty, but the ticking of my timer reminds me I don’t have time to worry about that.
3) The goal isn’t to do more – but to make more impact
My daily routine, pre Kathryn, was filled with tasks that I’d tick off one by one: engaging on Twitter, keeping up with Pinterest engagement groups, sending out pitches. The sheer grind of it all kept me from posing deeper questions: could I really make a living off freelance writing? What is the ultimate purpose of my travel stories? No matter, I just forged ahead and past all doubt.
I was satisfied when it was all ticked off, but there wasn’t much excitement or meaning behind the work. I was only keeping up, pounding away thinking if I worked hard I’d succeed.
Now my weekly routine is about a third the original size, but the most important and meaningful tasks finally have room to breathe.
And I’ve let a lot go that wasn’t moving me forward and wasn’t worth the effort.
I’m doing less now, but making space for what’s most important.
4) Time blocking is a game changer
Instead of a to-do list, I’ve scheduled all of my work into blocks of time. So I’ll spend two hours a week scheduling my Pinterest, but once that time is up, I move on.
Time blocking gives me a sense of accomplishment and lets me work at my own pace. Tasks no longer spill over or eat up half the day as I get distracted and drift into a rabbit hole.
5) A “got-done” list at the end of the day is just as important as a “to-do” list
I’ve ditched my daily to-do list and replaced it with a weekly list of goals. What can’t be done this week goes on a monthly calendar.
I look back at the end of the day and make a quick mental note of all that I’ve accomplished. I notice that even on the most frustrating days, when I beat myself up for getting nothing done, it’s often only a part of the day that had gone to crap.
Looking back objectively on the entire day puts the successes into perspective and doesn’t let the failures overcloud them.
This also works for the bigger picture. Whenever I feel discouraged, I don’t compare where I’m at now to my perfect ideal. Because that gulf is huge. Instead, I compare where I’m at now to where I was a year ago.
6) Instagram isn’t that important
If you’re a blogger, writer or small business owner, the question is never: should you be on Instagram? But it’s always a question of how to get better at it, gain more followers, improve your photos.
But I’ve been asking myself if it’s really such a priority? Most of my readers come from Pinterest, yet I’d spend hours mindlessly flipping through Stories.
These days I post less often, and I limit my time on the app. I try to leave meaningful comments but I resist the urge to fall into passive scrolling.
I love the connections I’ve made on Instagram and sometimes I’ll pop by just to chat with my online friends. But the pressure to grow a following is off.
7) Multitasking doesn’t work
I used to write “great at multitasking” on my resume, as did everyone back in the 90s when we didn’t know better.
“Works great with others.”
“Thrives under deadlines.”
And so many other lies I’d tell potential bosses.
Studies tell us that groups who puffed on a joint and were then asked to complete a series of jobs were able to focus better than those who were multitasking.
Multitasking lowers our focus and makes us more prone to mistakes.
Focusing on one task at a time boosts productivity, and grouping similar tasks together into time blocks improves work speed and quality.
8) Preventing stress is better than handling stress
Ah, another lie I’d put on my resume: “I work great under pressure and deadlines.”
These days I’m focusing on preventing stress instead of “handling” it. Stress is, after all, not a marker of how much you care about your work. And while many will say it’s an inevitable part of life, I’d still argue about shifting the focus towards prevention.
I write my stories before the deadline, whenever possible, and I ask myself what can I prepare to make my life easier tomorrow, or next week? Can I edit my photos so they’re ready to post, or brainstorm ideas for next month’s pitches?
9) It’s about enjoying the process and savoring the work
I’ve been reminding myself how fortunate I am to be doing what I love, on my own terms. And even though going freelance was a risk, I appreciating where I’m at now.
I try to be more conscious of what I’m doing instead of going through a daily grind with nothing but the next task on my mind.
10) Breaks, lunches and vacations boost productivity
I’d hardly ever take a half hour to eat. And vacations seemed a luxury reserved for those with high and dependable salaries.
But I never realized that never stopping was actually slowing me down.
I’m now planning to take a few days off this month at some AirBnb in one of Cairo’s quieter suburbs, with nothing but a journal and a few good novels.
Time away from work isn’t only good for our health, but it also boosts our creativity.
Carl Honore, in his book In Praise of Slow, writes about the benefits of time off – or even a leisurely cup of tea at midday:
“Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly, and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs.”
Some of our beliefs around work are so ingrained that it takes years to shake them off. Even when we know our old habits are holding us back.
We feel we must start work at 9 a.m. If we can’t handle stress or effectively multi-task through our day, then we’re either weak or lazy.
But we can do better when we take our slow living values and infuse them into our work day. We savor our work and enjoy the process. We care for our health and stop glamorizing busyness as an indicator of success.
When we don’t rely on busywork for our sense of progress, we can focus on our impact.