How to work slower – and be more productive

A new paperback book urges people to take a step back to work more slowly and sustainably and outlines how to do it.

male mental health at work


Most of us know someone who has experienced burnout or have felt exhausted and overstretched ourselves in the last few years. Part of this is due to having to adapt to numerous crises and part is to do with the intensity of the way we are forced to work. A new book, just out in paperback, asks whether all this activity is really necessary and whether we might be better off taking things a little slower. 

Slow productivity: The lost art of accomplishment without burnout by Cal Newport is not a polemic against so-called productivity, as such; it’s against what Newport calls ‘pseudo-productivity’ and for doing less, but doing it better. We’ve seen supposed movements like the Great Resignation and quiet quitting of late. What tends to unite them is that people are exhausted with the relentlessness of creeping demands driven by new technology.

Newport argues for something more sustainable and human. His book is focused on ‘knowledge’ workers and freelancers because they tend to have more autonomy and more ability to self-experiment. They are the vanguard.

He begins by questioning the concept of productivity which he says is quite vague for white collar workers and tends to result in using visible activity as a proxy for actual productivity. That, he says, results in less creativity and more effort being directed to shallower, more concrete tasks that can be more easily ticked off a to-do list. “It’s safer to chime in on email threads and ‘jump on’ calls than to put your head down and create a bold new strategy,” he states.

Do fewer things

Having laid out his philosophy for slow productivity, Newport outlines its principles: do fewer things [he talks about the plethora of meetings and emails that have pushed useful output into the evenings and weekends for many] and limit missions, projects and daily goals. He advises focusing on the big picture things, putting routine tasks on autopilot schedules to contain the time spent on them, reducing the amount of time spent talking about tasks rather than doing them, implementing reverse task lists where you encourage people to think more about what they really want before requesting something and spending money – if you can afford it – on offloading tasks to experts such as accountants. 

Newport says parents and carers tend to have to work out the boundaries between work and family life themselves. In a world where there is a never-ending supply of tasks – you can never do enough – they have to negotiate those lines every day. So he proposes a pull model where you divide tasks that need to be done according to urgency and have a holding tank of those that are less important. You can then regularly review these and keep people in the loop with regard to progress and explain that you are working on other urgent projects, therefore managing their expectations. Transparency and communication are key, he says.

Work at a natural pace

The second principle of slow productivity is to work at a natural pace. Newport says: “Our exhausting tendency to grind without relief, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, is more arbitrary than we recognise…We suffer from overly ambitious timelines and poorly managed workloads due to a fundamental uneasiness with ever stepping back from the numbing exhaustion of jittery busyness.”

While it may seem we are being useful, this actually makes us less effective, he says, and more miserable. To work at a more natural pace, he counsels making long-term plans, doubling project timelines, simplifying your workday [for instance, through protecting certain hours, embracing seasonality [where you work harder at certain times, but factor in rest time or slow seasons of ‘quiet quitting’] or implement ‘small seasonality’, for instance, by not having meetings on one day or morning/afternoon of the week, matching big projects with less intensive rest projects or working in cycles of busyness and less busyness.

Obsess over quality

The third principle is to obsess over quality and do core tasks better, taking inspiration from other types of work and focusing on progress rather than perfection.

Newport concludes that the way we are now working no longer works and it is time to be more intentional about what productivity actually is. He says a slower approach is not only feasible, but “likely superior” to the current approach and could improve many people’s lives. What matters is where you end up, not the speed at which you get there. “We’ve tried the fast approach for at least the past 70 seventy years. It isn’t working. The time has come to try something slower,” he says. “Slowing down isn’t about protesting work. It’s instead about finding a better way to do it.”

*Slow productivity: The lost art of accomplishment without burnout by Cal Newport, is published by Penguin Random House. 

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