The More You Do, The Less You Accomplish


As I was making my way through Cal Newport’s new book Slow Productivity, one of the more paradoxical principles is that doing more things reduces the total amount you accomplish. I had long sensed this intuitively, and Steve and I even wrote about it in Peak Performance, under the section titled “Be a Minimalist to be a Maximalist.” What Cal did so well was unpack a key driver of this paradox: administrative overhead.

Every commitment you take on brings its own administrative overhead, such as emails, meetings, coordination, and marketing activities. All of these activities are about the work, but they are not the work itself.

When you’re only working on a small number of things, this overhead tax is manageable, even more so if all the things you are doing are related.

However, as you say yes to more things, especially if they are somewhat disjointed, the overhead begins to grow, eating up more and more of your time, and leaving less room in your schedule to actually accomplish the underlying projects. Soon, most of your day is spent talking about work instead of actually doing it.

The alternative is to only actively tackle a small number of pursuits at a time, giving them the full attention they require to complete efficiently and at a high level of quality.

In the moment, it might feel unproductive to be doing fewer things at a time, but in the long run, you’ll be producing much more valuable output.

It’s also worth considering the administrative overhead for everything to which you may commit. Even a small task exerts a significant toll on your time and energy if it has a high overhead burden.

For example: I love showing up for virtual book clubs to answer questions from readers. But if showing up for a virtual book club requires a pre-meeting and a string of emails, then, truth be told, I don’t want to do it. So now I ask about administrative overhead upfront.

The more administrative overhead you cut from your life, the better you’ll feel and do. So when you say yes to something new, make sure you are also saying yes to the administrative overhead it entails. Because if you can’t say yes to all of it, then you’re probably better off saying no.


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