Book review: Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

Cal Newport is one of my favourite authors. An American non-fiction author and full professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Newport has written some of my favourite deeply insightful books:

  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016),
  • Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019),
  • A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload (2021)

and now this book Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout (2024).

It took me a little longer to read than I had meant as I was made redundant during the first half of the book and I’ve been focused on my work situation. But I finished reading it this afternoon and I wanted to share my initial thoughts.

Foundations

In the first part of the book, Newport explores what he calls “the rise and fall of pseudo-productivity”.

Pseudo productivity he defines as “the use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort”.

In other words, knowedlege workers (and particularly those still working remotely) often feel the pressure to appear to be working using visible activities such as turning up to meetings, checking and replying to emails or instant messages, and cranking out n lines of code—anything that raises a metaphorical flag that says, “Don’t worry, I am still here I’m and still working.”

Having worked in the “knowledge work” sphere for the last 18 years, this resonated a lot.

The truth about knowledge work, however, is that as the name suggests, knowledge workers are paid to think, to use their knowledge. Methods of measuring the productivity of industrial workers are now at best outdated and at worst harmful. But understanding what these should be is tricky.

In 1999, the management theorist Peter Drucker published an influential paper titled “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge.” Early in the article, Drucker admits that “work on the productivity of the knowledge worker has barely begun.” In an attempt to rectify this reality, he goes on to list six “major factors” that influence productivity in the knowledge sector, including clarity about tasks and a commitment to continuous learning and innovation […] all of this is just him talking around the issue—identifying things that might support productive work in a general sense, not providing specific properties to measure, or processes to improve.”

— Slow Productivity (pp.15f.), Cal Newport

What is clear to Newport is that to free up knowledge workers to do their best work, we need to get our of their way. Rather than measuring their work via a performance of frenetic busyness, Newport argues that truly meaningful and valuable knowledge work becomes more apparent over longer timescales in what he calls “Slow Productivity”.

Principles

Newport’s definition of Slow Productivity is:

a philosophy for organizing knowledge work efforts in a sustainable and meaningful manner, based on the following three principles:

  1. Do fewer things
  2. Work at a natural pace
  3. Obsess over quality
— Slow Productivity (p.8), Cal Newport

Over the next three chapters, he unpacks each principle using powerful stories to illustrate his points. He summarises each as follows:

Do fewer thngs: “Strive to reduce your obligations to the point where you can easily imagine accomplishing them with time to spare. Leverage this reduced load to more fully embrace and advance the small number of projects that matter most.”

Work at a natural pace: “Don’t rush your most important work. Allow it instead to unfold along a sustainable timeline, with variations in intensity, in settings conducive to brilliance.”

Obsess over quality: “Obsess over the quality of what you produce even if this means missing opportunities in the short term. Leverage the value of these results to gain more and more freedom in your efforts over the long term.”

This is agility!

It comes as no surprise to me that these three principles can be found at the heart of Agile (although I hate using that term as a proper noun).

Doing fewer things is at the heart of the Kanban approach which places an emphasis on limiting work in progress (WIP). WIP limits demand focus on what is most important, they prevent bottlenecks and improve flow and efficiency.

Working at a natural pace is at the heart of many agile approaches from XP to Scrum to DSDM. When I was first introduced to extreme programming (XP) nearly twenty years ago, one of the key concepts that I came away with was this idea of teams working at a pace that they could continue indefinitely. Gone are the frantic all-night working sessions towards the end of projects in favour of steady paced work and continuous delivery. Newport doesn’t quite go this far, but I appreciated how be broke down the need to work at a natural pace to produce your best work.

This obviously then ties in to his third point about obsessing over quality—not to the point of perfectionist paralysis, but to create your best work with integrity, not quickly selling out to fame and fortune, but digging deep and creating your best work.

It doesn’t surprise me that a computer science professor finds himself popularising some of the key tenets of agility, and I’m delighted that he has and lifts them from their often computing and programming context to apply them to other areas of work and life.

In a distracted world that seems obsessed with fast paced, transient content, this call to focus on less, work at a sustaintainable pace and focus on quality over quantity is very much something that I welcome.

Conclusion

“Slow productivity,” Newport writes, “more than anything else, is a plea to step back from the frenzied activity of the daily grind […] A slower approach to work is not only feasible, but is likely superior to the ad hoc pseudo-productivity that dictates the professional lives of so many today.” (p.219).

What ultimately matters, he argues, is your destination not the speed at which you got there. Or worse, the number of people you temporarily impress with your “jittery busyness” en route.

We’ve tried the fast approach since the 1950s, he concludes. It hasn’t worked. Maybe it’s time to try something a little slower.

Maybe humanity’s better future depends on this approach.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Former Scrum master at Safeguard Global, Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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