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  • Writer's pictureQuique Autrey

Slow Productivity: Meaningful Work At a Sustainable Pace


The cover image of the book “Slow Productivity” by Cal Newport features a serene mountain landscape with a winding path leading to a quaint cabin surrounded by pine trees. The title and subtitle, “The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout,” are prominently displayed in bold white letters. A red circle in the upper right corner highlights that the book is a New York Times bestseller.

A few weeks ago, while perusing a table at Fabled Bookstore & Cafe, I came across Cal Newport's latest book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout. This is not typically a book that I would be interested in reading. I tend to go for works on psychology, religion or philosophy. After reading Newport's bio, I was skepctical that I would benefit much from a professor of computer science. After putting the book down and heading to the spirituality section, I felt a pull to return to the "new releases" table. I think it was the title of the book, like a seductive siren, that kept calling my name.


Without consciously recognizing it, Newport's book was exactly what my psyche needed to read in this season of my life. My wife and I recently launched our own small business, a private practice focusing on serving the neurodivergent population. In the last few months, I've put in more hours than any other venture in my life. While starting a private practice usually entails seeing less clients at first, I am fortunate to have had a strong enough repuation in the communtiy to have a completely full schedule from the very beginning. In fact, I've been seeing more clients than I ever have. Coupled with the added administrative and marketing responsibilities,it has felt like I have been burning the candle at both ends. I could imagine burnout in my future if I'm not careful and take stock of how I'm navigating my productivity.


This is where Newport's excellent book, Slow Productivity, comes in. The book has challenged me to slow down and reassess how I'm pursuing content creation, filling up my schedule and a variety of other tasks.


Before jumping into the content of the book, I have to share a quick story on how I started actually reading it. A few days ago our city was hit by Hurricane Beryl. Over 2 million people experienced power outages. Our household was one of those. In fact, as I write this blog, our house is still without power (although our office has regained it).


The morning after the worst part of the storm our power was zapped and the streets were flooded. There was no way we were going to go into the office and see clients. We were stuck at home with half charged cell phones and shitty reception.


Without our usual routine and distractions, we decided to sit in our breakfast nook, reading and chatting to pass the time. I decided to pick up Slow Productivity and give it a chance. I'm so glad I did! I read the whole book in one sitting. I could not put it down. There was something in Newport's argument that was speaking to my soul. It's exactly what I needed to hear.


One more note before jumping into the real meat of the book. Newport includes several practical suggestions for how to implement his three big principles that I won't be getting into in this blog. I've never been drawn to concrete advice so I'll leave that portion of the book to readers to digest and process. In all fairness to Newport, he has several great suggestions that I'll be implementing in my own life.


Navigating Between Two Extremes




Newport begins the book by outlining two extremes on the spectrum of productivity. On the one hand, you have your Instagram influencers who preach outrageous output through stoic resilience and self-disicpline. These are (mostly) men who encourage people to push themselves beyond their limit. Some of these guys are connected to gym culture, Broicism and other hardcore "hustle" culture communities.


On the other hand, you have a movement away from insane hours and intense performance exemplified by the "quiet quitters". "Quiet quitters" describe those in the workforce who do the bare minimum and don't seem to be interested in engaged productivity. According to Gallup, at least 50% of the U.S. workforce would fall into this category.


As a psychotherapist that works with young males, I've listened to countless stories of the benefits of "hustle culture". However, I've always been skeptical of Herculean attempts at self-mastery and pushing oneself beyond one's limits. In my opinion, these dramatic feats of self-control betray a deeper anxiety or insecurity that are not sufficiently addressed by more and more effort.


"Hustle culture" seems psychologically toxic at worst and not sustainable at best. It may lead to a form of productivity in the short-term, but I have serious doubts that it will contribute to a productive life in the long-term.


Before reading Slow Productivity, I was not aware of the "quiet quitting" trend in the U.S. workforce. My exposure to the opposite end of the producivity spectrum was in the philosophy of Byung-Chul Han. In The Burnout Society, Han argues the modern world is charatcierzied by the self-imposed demand for achievement and efficiency. According to Han, this emphasis on constant productivity creates a culture of excessive self-optimization and perpetual activity. The result is people experiencing chronic fatigue, depression and burnout.


Han's remedy is to cease activity and experence "profound boredom" and contemplation. While I appreciate Han's diagnosis of modern society, I am not sure his remedy is completely realistic or honors the deeply human impulse to create or be productive. We could all benefit from what Newport calls the "quiet brain", but this does not mean we become hermits or disengage from our jobs.


The appeal of this book is that it avoids the extremes of frenetic activity and quiet disengagement. For those of us who want to be productive without burnout, Newport's vision is an important one to consider.


Pseudo-productivity


A man in a suit talking on a smartphone stands next to a wall with various productivity-related doodles. The wall features large, stylized text reading “PRODUCTIVITY” surrounded by drawings of hearts, checkboxes, arrows, a document, and a clock. The man appears focused and engaged in his conversation.

Newport believes that most of us are operating with a flawed understanding of productivity. He refers to this as pseudo-productivity. According to Newport, pseudo-productivity is, "the use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort" (pg. 22).


This was enlightening for me, and so convicting! Instead of a richer and more nuanced approach to producitivity, I've operated under the assumption the more visibly active I am the more productive I am being.


Although Newport does not engage with Byung-Chul Han, I think this is one important place their projects intersect. What Newport labels pseudo-productivity, Han would interpret as our incessant self-exploitative need to achieve and perform tasks. I think both Newport and Han would agree that more activity does not necessarily entail more productivity.


Slow Productivity



A rural road stretches into the distance with the word “SLOW” painted in large white letters on the asphalt. The road is flanked by grassy fields, with a small village visible in the distance to the right. The sky is cloudy, adding to the serene and calm atmosphere.

Newport believes there's a way to be productive and not burnout. That's something that I want to believe in as well. He developed his philosophy of slow productivity by exploring the genesis of the slow food movement. The slow food movement started in the late 1980s by Carlo Petrini in Italy as a response to the growth of fast food and other changes in the food system worldwide. Newport highlights two principles that guided the slow food movement.


The first is the importance of not simply leveraging a critique but also offering a viable alternative. As Newport explains, "Petrini didn't simply write a sharply worded op-ed about the corruptive forces of McDonald's, he instead promoted an appealing new relationship with food that would make fast food seem self-evidently vulgar"(pg. 33).


This emphasis on offering appealing alternatives resonates deeply with me. It's very easy to point out what's wrong with an idea or system. It's much harder, and takes quite a bit of courage and imagination, to offer an alternative that is empowering and life-affirming.


So Newport is not simply interested in pointing out how many people misunderstand productivity. He ultimately wants to carve out a positive philosophy of productivity that cares about output and sustainability.


The second principle that Newport gleaned from Petrini and the slow food movement was the "power of pulling from time-tested cultural innovations." (pg. 33). Instead of seeking to create something whole cloth, Newport is interested in learning about a more sustainable form of producitvity from past authors, artists, scientists, etc. One of my favorite parts of the book were the historical vignettes that illustrate and uphold Newport's central thesis.


The 3 Principles of Slow Productivity



A neatly organized wooden desk with various items arranged for work. On the left, there is an open notebook with blank pages and two pens placed next to it. In the center, there is a magnifying glass, a cup of black coffee, and a pair of earphones. To the right, part of a laptop keyboard and trackpad is visible, along with a white computer mouse and a leather glasses case. The scene suggests a workspace ready for productivity.

Newport's philosophy of slow productivity is build on the following three principles:


  1. Doing fewer things

  2. Work at a natural pace

  3. Obsess over quality


Doing Fewer Things


Newport explains principle # 1 as follows:


Strive to reduce your obligations to the point where you can easily imagine accomplishing them with time to spare. Leverage this reduced load to more fully embrace and advance the small number of projects that matter most. (pg. 53).


Since I've been operating under a philosophy of pseudo-productivity, where more activity equals greater productivity, I've veered away from the wisdom embedded in this first principle.


My big takeaway here is that I should limit the projects I'm invested in, reduce the number of tasks on my to-do list and work to limit the number of clients I see each week. This will be tough for me at first since I've bought into pseudo-productivity for so long.


Doing less "feels" like I'm being lazy or unproductive. Looked at from a different perspective, I believe doing less can be an opportunity to give more attention and energy to projects and tasks that I really care about.


Work At a Natural Pace


Newport explains principle # 2 as follows:


Don't rush your most important work. Allow it instead to unfold along a sustainable timeline, with variations in intensity, inn settings conducive to brilliance (pg. 116).


Newport emphasizes that hunter-gatherer communities worked for extended periods, naturally incorporating breaks and leisure time throughout their routines.


After reading about this I felt inspired to take longer breaks in between my therapy sessions. During my hour lunch, I could walk around the lake adjacent to my office. These breaks and moments of stillness can rejuvenate me and inspire creativity.


I also appreciated Newport's emphasis on the seasonal nature of work and productivity. There are going to be times when I'm seeing more clients than usual or focusing more on administrative tasks. Whether these seasons are out of my control or consciously implemented, it's important to recognize the way productivity can ebb and flow through a period of time.


Obsess over Quality


Newport explains principle # 3 as follows:


Obsess over the quality of what you produce, even if this means missing opportunities in the short term. Leverage the value of these results to gain more and more freedom in yourt efforts over the long term (pg. 173).


Newport claims this last principle is the glue that binds all the principles of slow productivity together. That makes a lot of sense to me.


I need to determine what is most important to me, eliminate tasks that aren’t meaningful, and focus on a limited number of projects and tasks at a sustainable pace for the long term. I've often fallen into the trap of quanity over quality in my productive output.


That may not be a bad way to distill the spirit of slow productivity: Pursue sustainable quality over unsustainable quantity.


Obsessing over quality is not the same thing as perfectionism. Quality encourages us to slow down and focus on what's most important. Perfectionism demands that we reach an impossible ideal at an unrealistic pace.


The Slow Productivity of Byung-Chul Han



A black-and-white portrait of a man with long hair tied back in a ponytail. He is dressed in a dark jacket and scarf, looking to his right with a contemplative expression. The lighting and shadows create a dramatic and thoughtful atmosphere.

I know that I highlighted Byung-Chul Han as a figure that represents one of the unhealthy extremes on the spetcrum of productivity. But that is not quite fair to him or to his actual productive output. Han is one of the most prolific contemporary philosophers, having published over 30 books.


Although he is known for praising inactivity and embracing boredom, I think it's possible to read his philosophy and life in a way that is consistent with Newport's slow productivity.


In a rare interview with El País, Han reports:


“I’m extremely lazy. I work in the garden most of the time and play the piano. And then, maybe I sit at my desk for an hour. Maybe I write three sentences a day, which then becomes a book. But I don’t try to write, no. I receive thoughts.”


At first glance, this admission sounds like the antithesis of productivity. At a surface level, it's hard to reconcile this lesiruely approach to anything resembling productivity. But I think there's more here than meets the eye.


Han may refer to himself as "lazy" but somehow he's able to crank out one (sometimes two) books a year. Although he has his critics, some would argue Han is one of our most important contemporary philosophers of our time. In other words, he's producing a philosophical corpus that is having a tremendous impact.


What Han calls "lazy" sounds like the natural pace that Newport highlights as the second principle of slow productivity. Han takes plenty of time throughout a day to saunter through nature and express his artistic interests. He is not in a frenzy to engage in visible activity. His cherished inactivity is a type of productivity.


It’s hard to believe that writing just three sentences a day can result in so many books! However, Newport’s observation comes to mind: if we examined the daily routines of some of history’s most prolific creative individuals, their everyday activities might appear unproductive, but their lifetime achievements would reveal their true productivity.


In the El País interview, Han is described as a devotee of slow living. I think we should also see him as an exemplar of slow productivity.



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