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When slowing down makes you more productive

Slow productivity may seem impractical, but we cannot overlook its benefits in an age of workplace-induced stress and burnout

Slow productivity could mean curbing constant focus-breaking intrusions
Slow productivity could mean curbing constant focus-breaking intrusions (iStockPhoto)

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Natasha Sharma (42) left her job at a multinational technology company in 2015. “My daughter was three-years-old at the time and things were stressful. Most Indian managers are not conducive to working women.” In 2021, she started an IT consultancy company, BotSapiens, in Pune, with a four-member team. Sharma now chooses to work more thoughtfully and draw boundaries.

Some days she works only a few hours, to allow time for her daughter or other commitments. She keeps team meetings simple, setting goals and asking everyone how much time they need to complete tasks. “A team member was excited about a certain project and wanted to work on it over the weekend. But I insisted they take the break.” Her international clients are supportive of her taking time off if unwell or for personal reasons. “My clients outside India respect boundaries. With some of them, I only focus on one task at a time, before they ask me to move on to the next. There are urgent issues occasionally, but otherwise, they let us focus without interruptions.”

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Sharma’s balanced work tempo echoes the intriguing concept of slow productivity, the goal of which is to keep an individual worker’s volume at a sustainable level. The term, coined by author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, Cal Newport, stems from the slow work movement, which advocates for less time spent on work, like a reduced work-week. But Newport argues that a shorter work-week may not reduce stress or workloads because work is fluid and undefined in our digital world. There is more autonomy because no one is asking us to clock in or clock out, but there is a demand “in some ill-defined yet urgent sense, that you’re responsive and get things done. This autonomy has allowed modern knowledge work to evolve haphazardly toward an increasingly unsustainable configuration,” writes Newport, in a 2022 New Yorker article. Slow productivity, the idea he suggests, is reducing the volume of work assigned at one time, as opposed to the current pace of simultaneous chaos which is causing stress and burnout.

There is definitely a case for slow productivity – 4 of every 10 Indians are reportedly experiencing burnout, anxiety and depression due to their workplaces, as per a 2022 study by the McKinsey Health Institute. But is it possible in a competitive environment, where slow is often interpreted as unproductive and unprofitable?

The answer is somewhat complicated, with many professionals agreeing with its essence but questioning its feasibility in today's world.

Slow productivity in the real world

How would slow productivity work? It could, for instance, mean curbing constant focus-breaking intrusions. Instead of emailing a quick request to someone, it could be logged into a system that prioritises and assigns it based on the person’s availability. A shared project tracker allows visibility of everyone’s current work status and assignments are delegated to a person on completion of their existing objectives. Administrative tasks and answering quick questions can be relegated to a fixed period in a day. It is a compelling argument for a more organized and compassionate approach to work.

So what do people from the industry think about this?

Varda Pendse, an HR consultant in Mumbai, thinks the term ‘slow productivity’ is a misnomer, implying that productivity will suffer or slow down, when this approach will, in fact, improve focus, quality of work, and would likely help people work faster without distractions. “The problem is that tasks take longer to complete because the participant is distracted with their emails, urgent requests from colleagues and so on,” she says, adding that urgency is also relative, usually determined by the sender of the message. “We need to distinguish between what is urgent, and what is important.

Asha Bhandarker, distinguished professor of organizational behaviour at Delhi’s International Management Institute, feels slow productivity would be difficult to apply across organizations and situations. While she agrees that distractions may affect the output quality of employees, the organisation may view things very differently. “Companies believe in time is money, serving the customer, and honouring delivery timelines at any cost. This is not under anyone’s control and such demands cannot be avoided.” The only way slow productivity would work is by increasing staffing, something most companies cannot afford. “However, the idea holds promise for roles which need deep concentration, creative problem solving and continuous improvement," she adds.

Gurugram-based Bhaskar Baruah (43), a senior development resource with an international hospitality company, offers a slightly different point of view. He believes that slow productivity does not necessarily mean a reduced tempo throughout, but a more thoughtful approach to work. The initial phase of analyzing, organizing and planning may be slower, but this enables a quicker execution and conclusion with better quality results. It’s an approach he has mindfully adopted over the last few years. Like methodically planning his work, travel and other commitments in a calendar. “If I’ve slotted twenty minutes for something, I will focus on that during that time and not multitask simultaneously. If I have a Monday meeting, I will plan for it earlier on Friday. My earlier approach would have been to dive headlong into the meeting, see where I land and then work it out during the week, juggling things with everything else going on,” he says.

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Breaking up with the hustle culture

Let's be honest: Baruah is an exception to the rule. Trying to work at a different pace from the rushed norm is difficult, especially when your colleagues are willing to work faster and longer. Baruah, however, is unperturbed and confident in the merits of his work style. “This cleaner and slower process will get me to do a higher grade of work and keeps me unworried in complex projects or situations," he says.

But how does one work slowly with colleagues who are conditioned to the hustle culture? “You initiate the team into it. For example, in the first meeting for a project, some may want conclusive goals and a plan set within that discussion. But you encourage everyone to take a few days to think it over before reconvening,” he says. “We all work at different paces, but sleeping over a new concept, solution, or problem should be encouraged, rather than immediately solving or responding to it.”

Pendse has seen some companies experiment with, for instance, no email or Whatsapp on a specific day each week or for a few hours per day. She has observed that participants find this distraction-free time invaluable when implemented well, particularly with creative work. Bhandarker, on the other hand, remains sceptical about slow productivity in the real world. What may work, in her opinion, are technology-enabled solutions that assist managers to respond more efficiently to mundane and repetitive components of work, at specific times of the day.

With the pandemic forcing companies to adapt to new work styles, this is probably a time when they would be more receptive to discussing and possibly implementing aspects of slow productivity. “Covid has created a realization in people that there is more to life than work. There has been a distinct shift during this time. If you don’t respond to communication on weekends or after work hours, it’s more acceptable now than it was before the pandemic,” says Pendse, adding that if slow productivity is propagated and discussed, it will help employees to learn that they have to learn to prioritise. "Organizations need to create infrastructure and processes to allow for this more focused approach.”

Perhaps it would work best to encourage different work styles in an organisation, ensuring inclusivity, treating employees well and appreciating their individual contributions, capabilities and responsibilities. Baruah agrees. People have become a bit kinder and more flexible, post covid, he believes. “Just as a hybrid work model became permissible, I think we will get to a permissible hybrid work style, which allows for differently paced work styles.”

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