Key Takeaways From Slow Productivity

Another thought-provoking and actionable read from Cal Newport! Here, a few of my top takeaways from his latest book, Slow Productivity.
Christi Hegstad April 26th, 2024

“My goal is to offer a more humane and sustainable way to integrate professional efforts into a life well lived. To embrace slow productivity … is to reorient your work to be a source of meaning instead of overwhelm, while still maintaining the ability to produce valuable output.” 

Cal Newport, Slow Productivity

How much of your day is consumed by meetings, emails, direct messages, video chats, notifications, impromptu pop-ins … and all with a low hum of ‘do more and do it faster’ underneath?

And notice I didn’t say how much of your workday. Many who reach out to me for coaching, for instance, often find themselves spending so much time ‘putting out fires’ during the workday that they don’t actually get to their own work until after the kids are in bed.

‘Busy’ may no longer be seen as the badge of honor it once was (thankfully). But in today’s competitive work environment, we still experience a fair share of hustle, intensity, 24/7 connectivity, ongoing urgency, and the general pressure of constantly keeping dozens of balls in the air. 

Enter the concept of slow productivity.

In his latest book, Slow Productivity, Cal Newport explores a different approach to achievement – one that still allows us to reach significant goals and accomplish important objectives, but easing up on the frenzied, nonstop, ultimately unsustainable pace we may currently experience.

Newport – who also wrote one of my favorite books, Deep Work – proposes three main principles for slow productivity: 

1. Do fewer things.

2. Work at a natural pace.

3. Obsess over quality.

Now, at first glance you might think, “Sure, that would all be nice, but it’s not realistic in my (organization, industry, role, etc).” 

Newport understands, and anticipated this response. 

“I want to reassure you,” he explains early in the book, “that slow productivity doesn’t ask that you extinguish ambition. Humans derive great satisfaction from being good at what they do and producing useful things. This philosophy can be understood as providing a more sustainable path toward these achievements.” 

Newport then spends the rest of the book offering ideas, strategies, examples, and tips to help us weave components of slow productivity into our current situation as well as into the future. 

He also challenges us to rethink some of the beliefs we currently hold about productivity, beginning with how we even define the word: “[K]nowledge workers have no agreed-upon definition of what productivity even means,” he states right away on page 15. To some of his survey respondents, it simply means a variation of ‘work all the time.’

Without a clear understanding of productivity, however, how can we truly expect to be productive? For me, this brings to mind a quote attributed to Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Throughout Slow Productivity, Newport helps us think through these concepts and questions. A few highlights:

• Numerous examples. From Benjamin Franklin to Jewel to Lin-Manuel Miranda to Alanis Morisette, Newport offers important glimpses of the slower, deliberate action behind the scenes of what we might have thought were ‘overnight successes.’

• Useful terms. Often when we can name or define something, we can more clearly leverage our experience with it. For instance, Newport mentions ‘productivity termites’ – those small, less important tasks that can eat away at your time and shake the whole foundation of what you’re trying to build. That term will stick with me when it comes to prioritizing my day!

• Counterintuitive solutions. When your schedule overflows, adding something new can feel impossible; however, Newport offers the idea of “immersing yourself in appreciation for fields that are different than your own.” He gives himself as an example: While studying other nonfiction writers is useful to a point, it can also result in shoulds, comparison, and the like. He has thus taken a deep dive into film study, a topic he thoroughly enjoys and which satisfies his inner achiever with something other than work. This can help provide a sense of balance while adding some fun, too.

• Allowing fluidity. Newport doesn’t suggest adhering to the proposed strategies every day, all the time. He mentions allowing for seasons of intensity, such as what the lead-up to a new product launch might require. The point is to approach these seasons intentionally, not by default, and to also balance them with quieter seasons, such as a vacation, a periodic midweek day off, or implementing ‘no meeting Mondays.’

• Creating containers. This may sound odd when talking about time, but – similar to batching – it can be as simple as reserving certain days or times for particular activities so they don’t seep into everything else. Scheduling office hours, for instance, can serve as a way to streamline back-and-forth emails, non-urgent questions, and ‘Do you have a quick second?’ requests that invariably take longer than a quick second. Planning a designated time each day or multiple times a week can allow issues to be addressed in a timely manner while also supporting deep work.

Newport acknowledges throughout the book that the actions proposed won’t necessarily apply to all; an emergency room physician will work differently than an academic researcher preparing an article for publication, for example. His audience is primarily knowledge workers, however the strategies – or variations on them – can potentially make a difference for a wide variety of professionals.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking resource, I suggest giving Slow Productivity a read. And I also recommend doing so with a laptop or pen/paper nearby, so you can jot down the tips and steps you can put into action in your own work and life.

Here’s to your meaningful success!

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