pile of books on wooden surface with open notebook in front.

book review: slow productivity

As the modern workplace has evolved and metrics for output and productivity have been adapted to measure everything, we’ve been conditioned that we must be busy, we must hit artificial targets, and our brains must continue to do more.

Unfortunately, this does not guarantee results.

It more often guarantees burn out.

Cal Newport’s most recent publication, Slow Productivity, provides an explanation as to how we’ve gotten to this point and ways to adapt.

Why should you read this title? If you are a knowledge worker on the cusp of burnout, know someone about to, or seen others overwhelmed and wish to avoid the fate of burnout, I believe you will find this title useful. It’s about how you approach your work, how you communicate about workloads to others, and how to find productivity that fits you and your requirements.

However, please read this with the caveat that it’s in large part written for knowledge workers who are mostly in charge of what projects they take on and what they do each day. If you’re in a more traditional work role with set office hours and one boss, it may be harder to apply these lessons.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I’ve enjoyed and recommended Newport’s writing in the past. Slow Productivity is the logical next step when you are working and thinking deeper and minimizing digital distractions. Newport has synthesized both how we’ve arrived at this current state of busyness-centric productivity for knowledge workers and provided a framework for simplifying and moving forward.

There’s two main parts to this book. You could read them out of order if you’re in a rush to slow down, but it’s a quick readable volume. The first part focuses on the foundations, exploring what is pseudo-productivity and what a slower alternative may look like. The second part explores in detail how to get there, each chapter focusing on one of the three key principles. Throughout all of this, Newport shares personal stories either from his life or graciously shared by others.

My largest “ahah” moment was in Newport’s clear explanation of prioritizing work through a “pull-based workflow.” This aligns with how I take on projects, but I hadn’t formalized it in a way that I could easily describe to others. When I’m creating work that involves knitting or crocheting, I know how to balance the amount of work I can take on at one time. There’s only so many hours I can physically create in a day. For my work that isn’t tangible and requires my brain to figure out the answer, it’s harder. Throughout my career I’ve taken on more than I can juggle (or not the right kind of project), and it’s led to disasters. Yes, plural. You’d think I’d learn my lesson, however the cultural expectation of working harder and longer and saying “yes” is a hard one to shift from.

But how can working slower work smarter?

The key is communication.

Most every project disaster happened due to miscommunication. This occurs both internally (with myself and what I believe is possible in 24 hours) and externally (with clients, both in my updates to them and their expectations expressed to me). Deadlines are missed. Life … is chaotic. Communicating even if it’s not the most coherent message can be  better than radio silence. But there’s another balance that needs to be found. Yes, a quick check-in on both sides every so often can help move a project along and keep it from gathering dust. However, being too frequent or needing too detailed progress reporting is counterproductive, updates take time and are busywork.

Newport also offers a bit about obsessing with quality without (hopefully) falling into a perfectionist trap. Quality and perfectionism are two quite different things. But it is easy to get too caught up in having everything “exactly so.” If you have a tendency toward perfectionism, then it’s an even more difficult balance to strike and personal and professional maturity is required. Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have the experience I have today and while I hope my work quality is still adequate, I believe I’ve begun to better manage my perfectionism issues.

Is it going to be easy to work slowly in a culture that has us conditioned to hustle? No. It isn’t.

It’s been a challenging few years for everyone, and I was burnt out before the pandemic arrived. I then experienced several extra twists that left my businesses pared to minimum while I focused on family. As I return to greater availability, I’m thankful for the lessons in Slow Productivity and hope that I don’t burn out again.

I encourage you to check out this book and begin working with slower productivity.

book cover for "Slow Productivity" by Cal Newport. Title text in white centered over a scene of a cabin in deep woods. Cover also marked with "New York Times Bestseller" d

Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout
by Cal Newport

256 pages, Hardcover
First published: March 05, 2024.
Availability: bookshop.org | WorldCat