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Be Productive Like a Sloth

I met some sloths last year. Most were asleep, but I was lucky enough to catch one walking veerrrry slooowwwlllyyy on the ground, completely unrushed by gawkers with cameras. I fell in love. And I started to think that this sloth might have a few things to teach me about life.

I mean, look at this guy. Isn't he just the picture of contentment, with that little smile?

Sleeping Sloth
Sleeping Sloth in Costa Rica. Author photo.

I fall in love with animals easily, fascinated with their differences and adaptations. First, it was turtles tucking themselves into their shells when my childish fingers got grabby. Then after I got over wishing unicorns were real, I discovered giraffes, with their huge liquid eyes and mascara-commercial eyelashes. I've recently had a brief fling with llamas, probably because there aren't day hikes with giraffes available near my home. But now that I've met a sloth or two, how can I resist them? And now that I love them, I'm doing my best to learn a few things from them.

Sloths don't rush, unless something is important. On the ground, the maximum speed of sloths is estimated to be about 10 feet per minute. You don't have to be that slow, but acting deliberately can reduce mistakes and accidents. This sloth isn't going to trip over any of the rocks in his path. He knows exactly where he is placing those incredible claws.

"Impatience is toxic — If you’re always running, you miss what’s in front of you. Don’t live your life in the future. Have some patience. With the right effort and energy, you will fulfill all your desires." - Darius Foroux, 15 Ideas That Help You Get Unstuck

Sloths know their priorities, and act on them. Sloths don't move fast--or very far--in most circumstances. In search of a mate they go surprising distances, and they even swim.

Productive people (and sloths) put the most effort into activities that have the most impact. It's smart not to keep your potential partner waiting.

Sloths support their communities & waste no resource. Three-toed sloths carry a whole ecosystem in their fur. Moths live on sloths' bodies and increase the nitrogen content of the fur, fueling green algae growth. Sloths then eat the nutrient-rich green algae and leave the treetops to defecate on the ground once a week. Moths lay eggs in the dung, and baby moths hatch to colonize the sloth fur (Read the study).

For humans, mindful simplicity is one way to spend less time and energy on things that aren't really important. Darby Hane in "A Zero Waste Mindset" writes, "Each new thing in your life is another thing to lose, to break, to feel guilty about, and to inhabit some part of your limited mental capacity."

Sloths have a niche all their own. Because sloths have an amazing digestive system that allows them to eat leaves toxic to most other creatures, they have few competitors for resources. The algae growth in their fur and natural coloration make them practically invisible in the treetops, protecting them from predators.

Do you know where you belong in the world? Do you know what's important to you, as opposed to what's important to other people? Do you live those values, or just think about them?

Sloth hidden in plain sight with only a few leaves.
Camouflage Sloth. Author photo.

Sloths sleep as much as they need to. According to this 2008 study, brown-throated sloths in the wild actually sleep only 9.6 hours per day--more than 6 hours less than reported in captivity (and not much more than adult humans should be sleeping). The CDC suggests that human adults sleep seven to nine hours a day, and yet over a third of adults in the U.S. report that they don't get as much sleep as they need to. Lack of sleep causes us to make mistakes, be forgetful, and generally feel foggy. Not sleeping is related to chronic conditions and a host of other ills. Are you sleeping as much as you need to?

Sloths don’t multitask. As we probably all know by now, multitasking is counter-productive. But we are doing it more than ever these days. How many times a day do you stop what you are doing to check for email or text messages? Every one of those shifts takes a little bit of extra transition time, adding time to your day, and reducing the focused energy you could be giving your primary task.

The only multitasking sloths do is sleeping and digesting simultaneously. Even digesting while sleeping can give you heartburn.

Sloths pay no attention to the gawkers. Even surrounded by people (and a little dog), this guy just kept moving at his own pace. Sloooow. So slow, the dog hardly noticed him. So slow, in fact, that my video of him was deleted as a set of duplicate photos when my phone ran out of memory. Remember his attitude the next time you are doing your thing and people stare. You might feel self-conscious, but they might be thinking how amazing you are.

Sloth and tourists.
Sloth in foreground, looking not unlike a rock.

Sloths are successful. Sloths are successful. Sloths are actually among the most successful of tropical mammals. Some form of sloth has been in existence for about 64 million years. Biologists estimate that sloths make up more than half of the total biomass of rain forests in Central and South America. Sloths can't outrun predators, but their very nature outsmarts big cats, snakes, and birds of prey. That is the motionless sloth, with a forest community living in its fur, is camouflaged to both site and smell hunters.

Productive like a sloth. Productivity isn't about being busy. It is about moving at just the right pace for you. It is doing exactly what is needed for quality of life. Sloths have a specialized place in the world and they have evolved to live the best way they possibly can in that place. We work best when we work.

Productivity peaks when we are working with our strengths, immersed and mindful, focused on the task at hand, and enjoying the process. A productive life is full of these moments. Knowing where I fit in the world and doing what I do to the absolute best of my ability is what I call success.


Intrigued by the sloth? I highly recommend this Ted Talk by Lucy Cooke, author of Life in the Sloth Lane. And you can also read another of my sloth-inspired articles in Age of Awareness on Medium.

It's naptime now.

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