The hidden benefits of being unproductive

I am currently reading the book Deep Work by Cal Newport and it is having a real impact on me. A lot of topics covered within it are things I have implicitly thought were true but never seen formulated or been able to spell out myself.

It is impossible to always be productive

One thing mentioned in the book that particularly speaks to me is the fact that for several reasons one cannot be productive in 100% of working hours although many – including myself – often times have the illusion that it is possible.

At least for me, this is probably the case because I feel like there is so much to do that I need try to make every working minute count. The funny thing is, it doesn’t work. There is a lot of research confirming this. The book focuses on a few of points that stuck with me:

  • Humans overestimate how much they work. Thus, the 8-10 hours I think I am working might actually be closer to somewhere between four and six hours.
  • There is a finite supply of energy per person for working deeply, a working state where a disproportional amount of value is created. After the supply is used productivity sharply drops.
  • Switching focus between different tasks and constantly being interrupted means having to “refocus” the brain for each task. This is tiring and it takes time until one is fully focused again.

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Using the time to build relationships

I agree with all these points from the book and have been working to improve on them in my daily work. Moreover, I have accepted that a lot of time during the workday is not productive anyway. Thus, I am no longer trying to be productive in every minute. Instead, I have given more focus to something I feel is greatly underappreciated in terms of long-term productivity: fostering a positive and trusting team atmosphere.

Positive feelings and motivation are things that are really hard to quantify but lead to – in my view – outsized productivity gains in the long run. I believe, one way to help create such an atmosphere is by trying to really understand the team members. Instead of focusing on work at all times, a bit of small talk about non-work topics can go a long way.

The hidden benefits

Of course, a team cannot talk about private matters all the time. Work needs to get done as well. However, spending a few minutes in the beginning of some meeting to ask team members how the weekend was, what the kids have been up to, or how the vacation plans are going before getting to the “important” topics generally creates a good atmosphere. This has many connected benefits:

  • Better results in discussions
  • Higher team member motivation
  • Increased trust buildup
  • Better understaning and empathy in conflicts

All of the above then lead to outsized productivity gains in the long run by helping create sustained team motivation. Additionally, if one really listens, one might hear the early rumblings of discontent and arising conflicts. One can then react and solve them before they become too big to manage.

I feel many people, particularly those under pressure to deliver, dismiss smalltalk because we feel the need to be productive right away. Thus, we jump right into the topics at hand, without so much as a hello. Essentially, not taking care of relationships within a team and making sure there is a positive atmosphere in favor of “being productive” is like fine tuning the engine of a car and making sure it’s efficient while not realizing that some of the tires are missing.

Of course, it is essential to have the engine running efficiently. I am advocating to also regularly check if the tires have enough air.