Book review of Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

Slow Productivity is a book that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to increase focus, attention, and discipline for intellectual and cognitive work.

The author, Cal Newport, explains how productivity used to be measured in the industrial and agricultural ages.  One memorable example was the careful study of the optimal size of a shovel for manual laborers that would balance quantity of shovel load with the need for endurance by keeping the weight light enough for the average man to work for a full week and not get injured.  Farming productivity could be measured in bushels of a crop, and assembly lines by number of widgets produced per worker per day, etc.

But then the eras of knowledge and creative work disrupted how productivity was measured and this has still not been sorted out yet.  Measuring the productivity of intellectual pieces of work is not as straightforward, since the quality of the work tends to be more subjective and less obvious.  Strange proxies for productivity are often used, such as number of electronic messages exchanged, and number of meetings attended.

Newport posits that one difference between physical labor and intellectual work is that the latter cannot be done effectively for the same number of hours (e.g. eight) per day as industrial work, because working the creative and cognitive mind is not the same as working the body.  In general, his main prescription is to do fewer hours of work per day, but have that work be very focused.  This requires a commitment to, and discipline of, eliminating distractions that disrupt the initiation and momentum of “deep work” (the title of Newport’s previous book).  It also involves focusing on quality and depth of work rather than quantity (e.g. number of words written), and taking a lot of breaks to restore and rest up cognitively for the next deep work session.

Slow productivity is a refreshing alternative the hustle/grind culture that essentially applies industrial work ethic to the knowledge age which results in burn out.  It also isn’t the reactionary response to that approach which is to avoid hard work as much as possible.  It is a middle ground of slow and steady, non-frantic work that can be extremely satisfying once a foundation of discipline is developed.  It is a sort of minimalism or essentialism for knowledge work, focused on eliminating the extraneous and rigid, rule-based norms of modern work that burn us out and distract us from what’s important, leaving us with enough energy to pursue the hard intellectual work that matters to us.

The approach of alternating hard and deep sessions of intellectual work with enough space from it and deep rest, reminds me of the approach of successful athletes who know the importance of hard and focused training, and also sufficient periods of recovery to rest and rebuild their bodies and nervous systems to get them ready for the next training session and incremental improvement.

This book goes on my list of recommendations for those who struggle with focus and sustained attention because of it’s gentle advocation of building up a gradual ability for deep focus, with periods of conscious rest, similar to someone trying to get into better physical shape can build up strength slowly over time.

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