October 18, 2019

The concept of “deep work” has made its rounds on the Internet. For the uninitiated (who have hopefully been busy doing things instead of scouring the internet for productivity tips), deep work is a concept popularised by best-selling author and computer science professor Cal Newport. The central thesis is that work done in a state of intense concentration is difficult to do, but extremely valuable. While I agree with Newport’s basic premise, there is a subtext of relentless productivity that makes me squeamish even as I implement his “Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”. Similarly, at a conference I attended this year, a prolific professor touted the benefits of outsourcing to improve one’s productivity. Why waste time doing a task yourself when you can pay someone else to do it instead?

We are a cult of efficiency. There’s almost a whiff of moral superiority to being highly productive every single day. Working in an office in London’s CBD equivalent, I often see hordes of people making a beeline for their HIIT or spin classes instead of refuelling their body with food. Has eating become a waste of time? Jack Dorsey and silicon valley seem to think so with OMAD diets and meal replacements like Soylent and Huel. I’ve always found HIIT particularly depressing—not because they’re physically punishing but because they’re so… efficient. No one cares about the process of HIIT anyway—that’s not why you do it, you do it for the results.  

It appears that we’re hell-bent on eliminating processes and god forbid we do anything just for the sake of it. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be enjoyable or fun all the time—things worth doing are often difficult, tedious, and time-consuming. And efficiency is often a wonderful aspect of modern living. Singapore is a prime example of a first-world country that prides itself on getting things done on the same day, unlike some places where everything shuts after 5pm. However, running a well-oiled machine comes at a price as Singaporean workers are amongst the most stressed in the world.

It might seem trite to say we should “stop and smell the flowers”, and it can be empty, pacifying truisms that delay real improvements in our lives. An alarming example that I see of this is meditation. Before it exploded into mainstream consciousness, a relatively small group of people were beginning to realise that the mindfulness practices in daily life can benefit their mental states. But in just a few years the conversation has turned, with critics calling it a “faux revolution” and the “mindfulness conspiracy”, culminating in a recent book titled McMindfulness: How Capitalism Captured the Mindfulness industry.

What has changed in the last decade is essentially a corporate perversion of the core tenant of mindfulness from “being in the moment” to “being in the moment so that you can be more productive after”. My recent subscription to Spotify premium came bundled with the meditation app Headspace which promises to help me “focus, breathe, stay calm, perform at [my] best”. I couldn’t help reading into the unspoken: meditation helps me breathe and stay calm in order to perform. In another line, it promises that “in just a few minutes a day, you’ll learn how to train your mind and body for a healthier, happier, stress-free life.” It’s really no wonder that someone wrote a book on this and called it McMindfulness.

For each individual, the only true response is to fundamentally change your relationship with work, busyness, and productivity. Others, such as Jenny Odell in her book How to Do Nothing and Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism, wrote extensive guides which I won’t repeat here. But I did come across an unusual approach that might be useful to some. John Perry, author and philosopher, wrote a terrifically funny book The Art of Procrastination, which I highly recommend when you’re procrastinating from important tasks. In there, he touts the principle of “structured procrastination” and the key is when we’re procrastinating, we’re rarely doing absolutely nothing. We do marginally useful things like vacuum the bedroom, clean the stove or check up on secondary school friends by scrolling through Facebook.

The mistake some of us make, in the name of productivity and efficiency, is to eliminate every non-important task so that only the most crucial ones are left. A famous example of this approach is Warren Buffet’s 25-5 rule, where you make a list of 25 goals and identify the top 5. The point of the exercise is to become aware of the other 20 and avoid those like the plague. Goal 6 to 25 are supposed sinkholes—things you can be doing but take time and focus away from your Top Five.

For a procrastinator though, the desire to avoiding working on our Top Five can be a very powerful motivator. Oddly enough, one way for some of us to regain a measure of control and take a step back is to embrace procrastination by “structuring” our tendency to procrastinate on important goals, so that we feel motivated and justified in spending time on “unproductive” things. Now instead of feeling bad about not doing the things you ought to be doing, you might actually get around to the other things you’ve always wanted to do like reading a book or learning a new language—whatever you’ve been putting off for the sake of being “productive”.