The Joys of Slow Productivity

A review of Cal Newport’s new book

Anne Janzer


image of desktop with coffee cup and the book Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

If you feel overwhelmed, overworked, or frustrated by your workload, Cal Newport’s latest book might appeal to you. It’s called Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout.

Too often, books about productivity or finding a better work/life balance end up being aspirational rather than practical. We read them in hopes of change, then life sucks us back into our usual patterns. For me, those patterns include self-imposed stress, a feeling of being scattered, and too little time spent on meaningful writing.

Cal Newport’s new book Slow Productivity bucks the trend.

The book delivers Newport’s usual blend of thought-provoking content and relevant research and stories. I expected that. I did not expect the sustained, positive impact it would have on my life.

What is slow productivity?

Newport has written about the increasingly fractured state of our attention in Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and A World Without Email. In this book, he synthesizes these themes into a philosophy he calls slow productivity.

He writes for knowledge workers — people who work with ideas rather than physical things, and thus have little visibility into their real productivity. What is the measure of productivity in our lives? How many emails we answer? That way madness lies.

Despite the title, the book is less about productivity and more about claiming a new relationship with work. And paradoxically, by slowing down, we get more done. Perhaps not more tasks, but more meaningful work.

Slow productivity is based on three simple ideas:

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

Newport offers practical advice for building each concept into your work life — even if you don’t have complete control over your schedule.

My only reservation concerns the phrasing of the third concept: obsess over quality. I hesitate to offer the word “obsess” to creative types.

I’ve worked with writers who carry an obsession over quality into unhealthy perfectionism. If that sounds like you, consider my personal alternative: Respect the work. Give each project the time and attention it deserves, but avoid obsessive clinging. As Seth Godin reminds us, shipping the work is part of the creative process.

How does slow productivity feel? Pretty darned good.

Since reading an advance copy of the book the last week of December, I’ve had two months juggling family issues, a dynamic client workload, and other demands on my attention. Here’s my personal perspective on the book’s practices.

I took the advice to do fewer things (concept #1) by focusing on my priorities and restructuring my task list, using strategies in the book. A new project either displaces a current one or goes on the wait list. This has helped me deal with the last couple of months while maintaining my equilibrium and adapting to changing circumstances.

Reminding myself to work at a natural pace (concept #2) reduces multi-tasking and increases my enjoyment, which leads to me spending more time on the quality of the result (concept #3). Typos still happen, alas. Slow productivity isn’t magic.

Your mileage may vary. But so far, these practices help me manage unpredictable workflows and events with grace and presence. The book has earned its place on my bookshelf and in my heart.



Anne Janzer

Author, Writing Coach, Unapologetic Nonfiction Geek. Writing about Writing Itself (very meta).