In my most recent book, I contend that the calmer our mind, the more productive we become. Let me explain.
When it comes to knowledge work—tasks we do with our minds and not with our hands—speed and efficiency matter. So does working hard. As lazy as I am, I still think we need to hunker down to make the largest possible contribution. But what increasingly matters more than how fast or how hard we work is how deliberately we work.
The more complex our work, the more important our approach to that work becomes. Anyone can write a briefing, but what’s the best possible angle for it? Of the 100 things you could be doing right now, which one lets you have the greatest impact? How can you write a research paper in a way that makes it more likely to get published and cited?
Thinking through complex problems and tasks takes more time and thoughtfulness than it does brute force.
This often means working more thoughtfully, and maybe even more slowly. Slow work is not unproductive work. What we lose in speed we more than make up for in deliberateness—as well as in undistracted attention, a critical factor of productivity.
Not all tasks are complex knowledge tasks, of course. But the higher the proportion that are, the more you likely need this advice. (Being deliberate and thoughtful are also inherently human skills that will likely only become more valuable as we integrate artificial intelligence into our workflows to eliminate much of our daily drudgery.)
A calm mind makes working deliberately effortless. As I write in the book, a calm mind is a deliberate mind, and a deliberate mind is a productive mind. Calmness may sound like an odd ingredient to become more productive, but in practice, the connection between productivity and calm is profound.
For starters, as I mentioned a few weeks back, research suggests that anxiety—the opposite of calm—takes a huge cognitive toll. The more anxious our mind, the less mental capacity we have to get things done. Anxiety even decreases the size of our working memory—the mental scratchpad we use to think and process the world—so much so that a standard eight-hour workday takes nearly 10 hours to complete.
As an illustration of this effect, imagine trying to do complex, cognitive work during a bout of airplane turbulence or immediately before giving a big speech. This is the same effect anxiety has on our attention—only instead of having sweaty palms and weak knees before a speech, we need to work longer hours to not continue falling behind. An anxious state of mind means we have less focus to work on what truly matters.
It is in this way that investing in calm helps us earn back time. With a calm mind, we have a greater amount of focus and mental capacity to engage in our work and life. We focus deeper, become more engaged, and have greater energy at our disposal. Outside of our work, experiences become more meaningful because we can focus more on them. Life becomes richer.
It is essential that we more deeply enjoy the time spent in our own mind. This inner calm makes us less emotionally reactive and helps us see things with greater equanimity. We focus more on the positive parts of our work and life because we’re not constantly scanning our environment for threats (like negative emails and news stories). And with greater focus, we sink more deeply into the experiences that make life good—and that make us more productive throughout the day.
Calm may seem like an odd place to turn when wanting to become more productive. But as you invest in calm, I think you’ll find what I did: that the benefits are so profound that you never want to give them up.