Build a Buffer When Chasing Ambitious Goals

3 Practical Strategies From Cal Newport’s Slow Productivity Book

Hi friend!

Today I want to focus in on Slow Productivity principle #1 Do Fewer Things from Cal Newport new book Slow Productivity, and the importance of building in buffers in our lives.

💡 Today at a glance

  • Why you need to build in a buffer or margin of safety in your professional and personal lives.

  • Three practical strategies to create this margin

  • What’s the role of digital tools in our modern life

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I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s new book Slow Productivity and Farnam Street’s The Great Mental Models: Systems and Mathematics.

One thing they have in common is the idea of not overloading ourselves or our systems.

“So much of knowledge work culture seems built around juggling more and more work, with more and more “efficiency”, that the idea of doing fewer things, even if logical in the abstract, seems an impossible goal to pursue in practice.”

Cal Newport, author of Slow Productivity

There are 3 principles to Slow Productivity:

  1. Do fewer things

  2. Work at a natural pace.

  3. Obsess over quality.

Even with the best laid plans, we need to expect the unexpected.

This means we need to build in a buffer or a margin of safety in our working and personal lives, to be more prepared for the unexpected.

Examples of the unexpected as a consultant, coach or solopreneur:

  • An urgent client request comes through that you can’t avoid.

  • An exciting speaking opportunity popped up for next week that you now need time to prepare for

  • You received an unhappy email from a client about your edited images and they’ve asked for changes before it goes to print.

Without a margin or buffer, you’ll feel stressed, need to work overtime or miss out on family time.

If you only plan 80% of your working time and leave 20% as buffer to handle these unexpected events, you’ll feel much calmer and more energetic.

Sure, you might feel like you’re making slower progress on your projects. But over the long term it’s better for your health and you’ll be more focused and efficient when you’re working on your projects.

If you didn’t have a buffer you would be working at 120% capacity!

What’s the Margin You Need to Prevent Overload?

It depends on the risk and how high the stakes are.

In other words, the higher the cost of failure, the bigger the margin.

For example, airplanes need a lot of backup and built-in margin of safety because the cost of a failure is catastrophic.

Having too much of a margin can lead to a waste of resources.

So the right amount of buffer or margin is situational.

Some jobs are very reactive, where urgent requests crop up a lot, while it’s less common in other jobs.

3 Practical Strategies to Create a Margin or Buffer in Our Personal and Professional Lives

In the chapter “do fewer things”, Cal Newport suggests a bunch of strategies that we can use.

These are my 3 favourite actionable strategies that I’ve used in my life, that I think will help to consultants, coaches or solopreneurs

1. Schedule the New Project on Your Calendar (As if You’ve Said Yes)

When we think about taking on a project, we think about the core tasks we need to do to make progress and forget about the overhead tasks that also comes along with it.

The back and forth emails, zoom calls, project update reports etc.

Before you add a new project to your plate, estimate the time it would take and actually schedule it on your calendar as if it’s an active project.

If you struggle to fit it in your calendar, it’s a clear sign you’ll be overloaded. Say no, or remove another project before taking on this new project.

This strategy gives you more clarity over how much time you actually have.

2. Limit Yourself to Working on Just 1 Project for the Day

I really like this idea and try my best to apply it to my working days.

Newport doesn’t mean only work on one project and nothing else. Of course you’ll still have meetings, emails etc. to attend to.

He means make this one project the focus on all the “deep work” time you do have for the day.

This steadiness of focusing on one project feels slow in the moment. But when you zoom out, you’ve actually made a lot of progress on something important.

3. Contain the Small Tasks

Each small task on its own doesn’t take up much time to do.

One minute to respond to an email, 5 minutes to schedule a zoom call etc.

The best thing to do is ruthlessly eliminate, automate or delegate these small tasks. The next best thing (if you must do it), is to contain the mental impact of these tasks.

These are my 3 favourite suggestions from the book that are relatively simple for to apply in our lives:

1. Put Small Tasks on Autopilot

Set aside regular time in your schedule each week to complete specific categories of recurring tasks (e.g. following up client invoices every Thursday after lunch).

You avoid the mental load of thinking about the task and completing it at random times.

The aim is to make these “small tasks” as painless and effortless as possible, by including it into the rhythm of your week.

2. Synchronise

We have access to so many digital tools to help us work asynchronously, when we want and how we want.

But that’s an over-sold dream.

Some things are actually more efficient to do through real time communication and collaboration (instead of emails or Slack).

Have a daily or weekly Office Hours or Docket Clearing session for quick discussions or answering non-urgent questions.

Especially useful if you manage a team. It avoids influx of email-based questions that you feel an urge to answer.

3. Set Up Processes and Systems for How Work Is Done

This is especially helpful if you work with virtual assistants (VA) or an internal team of staff.

For example, setting a workflow for your VA to get you a weekly report:

  1. You provide the VA with key information by Wednesday in designated Google Drive folder

  2. The VA puts the report in the same folder by Thursday morning.

  3. You review the report on Thursday afternoon, request for adjustments if needed and email it to the client on Friday.

Clarity of responsibility, timeline and workflow keeps everyone’s stress levels in check.

How Do Digital Tools Like Notion Help You Implement Slow Productivity and Create Margin in Your Working and Personal Life?

There are hundreds of productivity tools to choose from.

Notion is just one of many all-in-one tools that can help you be more organised, less stressed, and save time.

This time saved can be redirected to doing more work that matters to you and scale your income (e.g. client work, solving difficult problems).

Or even better, to work less and spend more time for life outside of work.

Here are some examples of the how I use Notion to help me:

  • Meal planning

  • Travel planning

  • Daily journaling

  • Task and project management

  • Manage my clients and client work

  • Track the products and services I offer

  • Track my goals, projects and milestones

  • A personal knowledge management hub

  • A place to store notes, ideas and research

  • Content creation (e.g. blog posts, newsletter articles, social media content)

  • Do multi-scale planning (Weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly planning and review cycle).

Notion is not a perfect tool. It does many things well, but not everything perfectly.

There are tools that specialise in CRM, managing recipe and planning trips.

But the trade off for me as a consultant and solopreneur is worth it. I keep my systems in Notion simple and functional. I don’t have to learn how to use multiple tools or pay for multiple subscriptions.

As a consultant, coach or solopreneur you’re likely working on solo or with a tiny team, and juggling both big projects and small tasks.

Having a simple productivity system that helps you manage it all sustainably without burnout, while still accomplishing your important work is vital in achieving peaceful productivity.

Will you try any of these strategies in your personal or professional life?

🛠️ Building in Public

I’m still leaving the waitlist up since the newsletter issue on How to Work Clean in Notion resonated so much with readers.

If you’re interested in a more detailed guide and haven’t joined the wait list, hit the button below.

If I get enough people interested, I’ll get on to building the guide.

Trying to figure out how to use Notion to manage your life or business (or if it’s for you)? Reply to this email and I’ll help you out.

See you next week,

Janice CK

📌 Note Worthy

A weekly roundup of interesting or noteworthy resources in the space of Slow Productivity and Notion.

  1. Exploring the Role of Multi-Scale Planning in Wellbeing-Driven Productivity (By Martine Ellis)

    Martine does a great breakdown of Cal Newport’s multi-scale planning method, and how she uses it to plan her professional and personal life. It’s a way of making progress on important goals and projects without burnout, while keeping the long term vision of your life in check.

    Read the article

  2. What’s Your Ratio of Quantity to Quality for Ongoing Creative Work? (By Jenny Blake)

    In different seasons you need to adjust your creative output. This is another great episode from Jenny Blake on the challenge of doing creative work (and we’re all doing creative work in one form or another).

    Listen to the podcast

  3. In Defense of the Unoptimized Life (By Evan Armstrong at Every)

    As ambitious consultants, coaches and solopreneurs, the message we see everywhere is how to “optimise and be more productive”. This article argues an excellent case to leave some room for the unoptimised.

    Read the article

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