Slow Productivity: Reflections on Cal Newport’s new book

It might seem odd for an economist to discuss the virtues of slow productivity when economists usually bemoan the slow rate of productivity growth. But fear not: The slow productivity advocated by Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport could boost labour productivity and GDP, as I explain in this article.

Cal Newport has become famous for pointing out the problem with the ‘hyperactive hive mind’ way of working, where we can be regularly distracted by emails, Slack messages, requests for Zoom meetings, etc. He advocates a return to more deliberate and structured ways of working and intense sessions of focus, known as Deep Work, the name of his 2016 book. Newport extends his framework in his latest book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout, to emphasise the importance of working slowly and consistently on big projects (e.g. a significant research project, a book, a symphony, etc.). Such an approach results in greater accomplishments and outputs over the longer term. His three rules are:

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

As the military maxim states, ‘Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.’ Hence, somewhat counterintuitively, Newport’s approach could be economically beneficial. Certainly, there is evidence of the productivity cost of frequent interruptions through electronic messages and notifications. A study by Addas and Pinsonneault published in MIS Quarterly examined the effects of cumulative exposure to IT-induced interruptions, including email, in real-world settings. The study found that e-mail interruptions have important consequences on work, including lost work time and work-related stress. A literature review in Frontiers of Psychology revealed that various studies have found interruptions can cause a loss of between 5 and 28 percent of work time. Moreover, another study by Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, pointed out that some people may need about 25 minutes to refocus on a task after a distraction.  

Newport’s concept of slow productivity is helpful, as it offers a sustainable approach to accomplishing work without burnout. Being constantly busy or overloaded with tasks is counterproductive to achieving meaningful results. Newport’s emphasis on a more natural rhythm of work, including periods of hard effort balanced by relaxation across different timescales, resonated with me. This approach challenges the modern workplace’s implicit valorisation of constant busyness as a measure of productivity and instead promotes deep, focused work over superficial task engagement.

Incidentally, the emphasis on working at a natural pace and having periods of downtime is consistent with advice from Australian performance guru Andrew May, whom Tim Hughes and I interviewed for the Economics Explored podcast in 2023 (see How CEOs are working on health & fitness with a view to improving company performance). You can listen to our conversation via the embedded player below or podcasting apps (e.g. Spotify). 

Newport’s discussion on the historical lack of standard definitions of productivity in knowledge work and the subsequent misapplication of metrics designed for manufacturing and farming to cognitive tasks captured my interest. He critiques the prevailing ways of undertaking knowledge work. He argues for a more nuanced understanding that allows for creativity, innovation, and deep thinking—qualities stifled by frequent email checking and meeting attending. I found value in Newport’s historical and analytical perspective on productivity, emphasising the importance of redefining our understanding of workplace productivity for knowledge workers.

Finally, I was intrigued by practical strategies and principles outlined in Slow Productivity, such as: 

  • limiting the number of ongoing projects to prevent an overstuffed schedule, 
  • the concept of a “holding pen” for managing projects, and 
  • extending timelines to ensure quality over quantity. 

Newport implores us to focus on the quality of core activities, giving important work a sustainable timeline, which can be done through prioritisation and focus. He offers a blueprint for achieving personal satisfaction and professional success without the risk of burnout. The approach encourages a disciplined yet flexible work method, with periods of intense focus punctuated by necessary relaxation, promoting a healthier and more fulfilling work-life balance.

Published on 10 April 2024, this article was prepared by Adept Economics Director Gene Tunny with contributions by Research Economist Arturo Espinoza. For further information, please email us at or call us at 1300 169 870.

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