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  • Ali Boston

Book review: Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

Why is productivity so broken and what is it anyway? In his latest book Slow Productivity, bestselling author and Georgetown University professor Cal Newport introduces a new approach to productivity, one that’s more human, more sustainable, and more meaningful.


A person writing at a wooden table with a notepad and mug.
Image: Ketut Subi Yanto on Pexels

Emails, Slack messages, meetings, tasks, and more meetings. Modern knowledge work can feel like a performative exercise, a constant demonstration of how much work you’re doing, rather than actually doing the work. “Pseudo-productivity” is how bestselling author and Georgetown University professor Cal Newport describes this relentless quest for busyness in his latest book Slow Productivity.


A computer scientist by training, Cal Newport has made his name writing about the intersection of technology and work. He’s perhaps best known for his books Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, which explore how to find depth in a digital, distracted world. Alongside his books, he writes for The New Yorker and hosts a podcast called Deep Questions.


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As the Coronavirus pandemic set in, confining millions of knowledge workers to their homes and onto endless video calls, Newport noticed a “fast-growing discontent” about work and so-called “productivity” bubbling up among his readers and listeners. Yet, when he asked knowledge workers to define productivity, he found no unifying definition. What’s more, many of our ideas around what productivity is are based on models introduced onto production lines during the early 20th century—a very different work to the creative, cognitive kind the approximately 100 million Americans broadly defined as knowledge workers do at computers.


The problem Newport concludes isn’t productivity per se. It’s that the default way to measure productivity in knowledge work has become one behavior: busyness. What is needed, asserts Newport, is a new way of approaching productivity. Enter slow productivity, “a philosophy for organizing the efforts of knowledge workers in a sustainable and meaningful manner.”


A man listening to ear pods while writing in a notebook outside.
Image: Unseen Studio on Unsplash

Newport writes in his trademark informal style, which he himself describes as “smart self-help”: a blend of in-depth general fiction with more commercial self-help writing. Following an introduction to productivity and the slow productivity philosophy, Newport focuses the rest of the book on the three principles of slow productivity: 1. Do fewer things; 2. Work at a natural pace; 3. Obsess over quality. The simplicity of these three principles makes the slow productivity philosophy not only easy to grasp, but also to remember—and apply. Perhaps it’s this attention to simplicity that has partly enabled Newport’s success.


Newport brings to life each of his principles of slow productivity through examples. Many of these examples come from what he calls “traditional” knowledge workers—namely, the great writers, artists, and scientists of the past, who enjoyed extensive periods of autonomy to focus on their work. Contrary to popular myth, Newport notes that it took significant time and focus for many of these thinkers—from Austen to Newton—to do their greatest, most productive work.


Of course, as Newport notes, the lives of many of these traditional knowledge workers are far removed from the realities of many modern knowledge workers. But, he argues, it’s important to maintain our aspirations about how productivity could be redefined for today’s knowledge work. He also acknowledges at the start of the book that some people will find it easier than others to apply slow productivity to their work. Yet, Newport suspects that many more knowledge workers than we might at first think have the autonomy and the opportunities in their role to introduce some of slow productivity’s ideas. He also includes an “Interlude” in each chapter to discuss some of the drawbacks or caveats to his three principles, such as the risk of perfectionism when obsessing over quality.


A person looking out the window of a tall building over a city
Image: Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash

For me personally, Newport was preaching to the converted. I suspect that might be the case with much of his readership. In fact, I didn’t find the ideas particularly new or radical. Instead, the book successfully captured a journey towards thinking differently about work that many knowledge workers have been on since the pandemic.


I’ve worked from home ever since the pandemic and I’m self-employed, so in theory a prime candidate for Newport’s philosophy. And yet, I found the skeptical voice in my ear hard to shut out. As I’ve noted, the examples in the book are purposely aspirational and Newport goes some way to translate the learnings into practical ways we can apply them to modern work. Yet I still found myself stuck on how far removed the examples were from most people’s day-to-day personal and financial demands. Newport doesn’t spend time discussing the support networks behind these traditional knowledge workers—the families, spouses or benefactors—that enabled the time and focus they enjoyed. I can’t help noting that, then and now, the opportunities to apply the three principles behind slow productivity are not shared-out evenly.


That being said, Newport’s point, I think, isn’t to change the whole system with one book. It’s to seed an idea that might grow and eventually reach other areas of work that perhaps don’t offer the same freedoms as the type of knowledge workers he’s writing for in the book.


Whether or not you feel in a position personally to change the system, Slow Productivity will certainly provide ideas and insights that can help you improve your work life so that you’re not just looking busy, but actually creating better, more valuable work. It also comes at a perfect time, when the enthusiasm for change ignited by the pandemic seems to be waning and many of us find ourselves slipping back towards old, busyness habits, or bouncing from workplace trend to workplace trend in search of something that feels right—from quiet quitting to the Great Betrayal. As Newport writes: “Slowing down isn’t about protesting work. It’s instead about finding a better way to do it.”


 

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