New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2024
244 pp. $15.99 (Kindle)

It doesn’t take much probing to discover that in the knowledge work environment, when it comes to the basic goal of getting things done, we actually know much less than we’re letting on (12).1 —Cal Newport

In his latest book, Slow Productivity, career development expert Cal Newport aims to answer a seemingly simple question: When it comes to our work, how can we sustainably and consistently produce high-quality results? More specifically: How do we grant ourselves (and our employees) wide leeway to work slowly and deliberately toward a clearly defined, highly valuable result when we’re under pressure to prioritize the number of tasks we’re crossing off our to-do lists?

Many people would agree that the quality of our work is more important than how many things we’re getting done. And yet, the feedback that we get at work often sends a very different message. As Newport puts it, many (if not most) of us find our careers rooted to a large extent in a culture of “pseudo-productivity,” which he defines as “the use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort” (21). Many employers attempt to measure and quantify employees’ productivity by the number of reports they file, the number of emails they send, or (bizarrely) by how often or how far the employee’s mouse is moved, in the case of some remote workers. These and similar metrics of pseudo-productivity are well-established and becoming more common, says Newport; he also says that they are largely responsible for an increasingly fatigued, uninterested, and unproductive workforce, particularly in knowledge work fields. As an antidote to this poison, Newport prescribes a “philosophy of slow productivity,” which encompasses three main principles:

  1. Do fewer things.
  2. Work at a natural pace.
  3. Obsess over quality. (7)

The first fifth of the book explores the problem as Newport sees it, providing case studies and real-life success stories—backed by data—that show burned-out workers, artists, and entrepreneurs reclaiming their health and elevating the quality of their work by ruthlessly cutting all nonessential activities from their workdays. Those who have read Greg McKeown’s excellent and powerful Essentialism will immediately see many ways in which these authors’ ideas dovetail.

Newport shares intimate details about the life of each person in his examples to highlight financial, emotional, and career-related problems that most of us struggle with to some extent, then proceeds to offer evidence-based solutions to those problems. Although it’s helpful to see how Newport’s ideas apply to real people’s lives, his approach is formulaic to the point that it becomes a bit stale by the end of the book. . . .

Although #SlowProductivity is somewhat derivative of Cal Newport’s other work, it is nonetheless an exceptionally important book that will be particularly valuable to those not yet familiar with his ideas.
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1 Newport never explicitly defines “knowledge work” in this book. By the term, he seems to mean work that is primarily intellectual in nature, such as that of programmers, writers, teachers, and so on.

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