I started my career back in 2000. Before that, I waited tables in Austin, TX (queso, anyone?) and taught English to Procter and Gamble employees in Venezuela. But 2000 was the year I got a desk, a computer, an email address, an official title (Membership Assistant) and my first-ever database login.

Professionally, I’ve always had an email address. And I’ve always been curious (1) how work was done before email AND (2) how the hell we get anything done with email? That’s why I was drawn to this article: The Digital Workplace is Designed to Bring You Down. (Shoutout to Joe Drungil at Everytown for Gun Safety for the share).

It goes way beyond email. Cal Newport argues that of course, we haven’t gotten digital collaboration right yet. Historically, when a disruptive technology comes in (let’s say automobiles), it takes a long time to figure out the best way to use it (stoplights, driver’s licenses, traffic enforcement).

He also says we have to replace the hyperactive hive-mind work flow with explicit alternatives for the assignment and organization of work. One alternative is embracing slow productivity. He tells this story to explain it:

“John McPhee the journalist was working on one of his first really complex New Yorker pieces. He spent two weeks lying on a picnic table in his backyard trying to figure out, How am I going to make this piece work? On the small scale, you’re like, you spent all day lying on a table, you’re incredibly unproductive. But zoom out to John McPhee’s career, and you’re like, you’re one of the most productive and impactful writers of all time.”

Newport continues, “So how do you actually work with your mind and create things of value? What I’ve identified is three principles: (1) doing fewer things (2) working at a natural pace (meaning one with more variability in intensity than the always-on pace to which we’ve become accustomed) (3) obsessing over quality. That trio of properties better hits the sweet spot of how we’re actually wired and produces valuable meaningful work, but it’s sustainable.”

I particularly love #2. And it parallels my fitness training to a tee. You can’t possibly maintain a zone 5 heart rate (90-100% of your max) for more than short bursts. But in our workplaces, that’s what we’re asking ourselves and our staff to do. Stay in zone 5 by substituting visible work (AKA meetings, slack channel conversations, emails) for meaningful work.

What if we took a HIIT approach to work? In thinking about this, I’m drawn to the Sensitive Cycle Framework I learned in Hakomi, a mindfulness-centered somatic psychotherapy modality developed by Ron Kurtz.

It focuses on four elements:

  1. Clarity: This is when John McPhee was hanging out on the picnic table. It requires vision. It requires creativity. It requires strategic insight. It can be slow.
  2. Action: This is when you get stuff done. We typically work in this zone without the support of elements 1, 3 and 4. Without the cycle, this type of action is often immature.
  3. Satisfaction: This is when you review the work done and take in nourishment from the effort.
  4. Rest: This is when you pause. And you wait. Clarity arises from this radical act of repose (much like savasana for you yogis).

What if this variability was not only tolerated, but encouraged? What might change in you and your work?