Why I’m disappointed by Slow Productivity [Book Review]

I was disappointed by Cal Newport’s latest book Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment without Burnout (2024). In this blog post, I will share my takeaways from this book, why I was disappointed and why you may or may not be, too.

This book review is quite long and full of somewhat redundant rants, just so you know 😉

What is Slow Productivity?

Slow Productivity aligns with current trends in the self-help genre focusing on sustainable and mindful approaches to work and productivity that go beyond discipline, trying harder, or working more (see also Book Review: Make Time).

Despite my anticipation and appreciation for Newport’s past contributions, I found Slow Productivity underwhelming, primarily because it seemed to reiterate concepts from his previous works without adding anything new (more on that later).

The book describes the pitfalls of conventional productivity – often lacking a clear definition which is why people resort to mere busyness (outwardly trying to look busy rather than caring about real results). It advocates a different approach, Slow Productivity, which can be implemented by doing fewer things, working at a more natural pace, and obsessing over quality (the three big principles and chapters of the book). They overlap a lot with his earlier books, like Deep Work, A World without Email and So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Understanding Slow Productivity in the context of Newport’s earlier work and competitors in the self-help genre

Newport’s books generally are about knowledge work (Peter Drucker style), citing historical attempts to optimize productivity using assembly lines and so on, but knowledge work doesn’t work that way. We self-supervise, this is essentially what A world without email was about. Newport says that we should measure productivity on doing things well and doing the right things – it’s essentially some sort of Essentialism thing, i.e. the types of work that require lots of skill and are hard to replicate, which is his definition of Deep Work. They’re what should be prioritized, and by prioritizing them and cutting out pretty much everything else as good as you can, you just become more essentialist, like Greg McKeon would have said, and that’s Newport’s core philosophy.

In the beginning of Slow Productivity, he defines this busyness (the term used in Book Review: Make Time), i.e. outwardly seeming busy and hustling but that doesn’t actually produce results. He calls this pseudo-productivity and that’s what he’s trying to go up against by having a slower pace because basically that’s what’s really going to produce results. He structures this in three principles and these are “do fewer things”, “work at a more natural pace”, and “obsess over quality”.

The book opens with a little poll he did amongst his readers that came to the conclusion that basically, nobody knows what productivity means. Thus people define it as doing more things, doing lots of things, seeming outwardly busy and hustling and so on. But none of these activities necessarily produce good results. Thus he stresses how doing less, working at a slower pace and obsessing over quality will actually give you more impactful results in the long term, which is essentially the core message of Deep Work as well.

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he claims that the better you get, the more freedom you will receive. Like asking your boss to work remote from Portugal or you will quit and you’re allowed to do that if you’re good enough that they really want to keep you. Someone I know actually did this successfully. But if you were to make such a “bid for freedom” without being a real asset at your job, you would probably just be let go or jump headfirst in a new career you have no skills in, basically ruining your life.

Obsessing over quality automatically expels busyness and fake/pseudo-productivity because they’re fundamentally incompatible.

The principle of doing fewer things is already mentioned in his early work How To Be A College Superstar or something like that (he called it underscheduling there). It basically says to avoid the laundry list fallacy, i.e. accumulating lots of low quality items on your CV to make it longer but that won’t make it more convincing, rather the opposite. Maybe the idea wasn’t so developed in that early book but the idea was basically there, so in many ways Slow Productivity felt to me like he’s selling something in a new costume what he already said before. There really weren’t that many new ideas.

What I did not like

Slow Productivity is one of many books in the self-help genre that follow this trend of sustainable productivity, such as Feel-good Productivity (Ali Abdaal), Essentialism (Greg McKeown), Make Time, effortless pace, Four Thousand Weeks (Oliver Burkeman) and so on. And of course, these are all books I’m interested in and I’ve read them all.

However, given that I am a bit of a fan of Newport’s (not in that I believe everything he says, but I overall value his ideas), I was honestly quite disappointed by this book. It felt like a best-of summary of his other books. Maybe I didn’t get it, but I wasn’t super convinced. I thought it was trying too hard to seem like a well-written entertainment work and it didn’t have enough new content, in my opinion.

I think he was trying to argue very well for his philosophy, but if you’ve already read his last books, you already know all of those ideas. Maybe he tied them together in more of a coherent way but there are too many ideas that I already knew from his older books (that prefer), such as So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Deep Work, or even A World Without Email (that I already found less good than the other two).

I’ll rant (much) more about this below 😉

What I liked

Newport attempts to address criticisms of his earlier work’s applicability by acknowledging that his advice best serves those with considerable autonomy in their work. He continues to explore knowledge work through Peter Drucker’s lens, contrasting it with traditional, efficiency-focused models unsuitable for creative or intellectual tasks. Similar to Deep Work, he still emphasizes his key message that shallow work and superficial busyness are not actually productive.

I think he took to heart that there were some criticisms about his work just targeting a few privileged people and not being applicable, so he actively says multiple times “This is only applicable if you have lots of freedom”. He maybe could have done even more but the acknowledgement is at least something. It did help to appease activist me at least a little bit.

My takeaways

Work at a natural pace: Seasonality and Quiet Quitting

The second principle, encouraging a natural work pace and stressing the value of “seasonality” or periodic deceleration, aligns somewhat with contemporary discussions on work-life balance, like the concept of “quiet quitting.”

Seasonality, such as in Tim Ferriss’s mini-retirements, basically just refers to periods where you work less, and Newport discussed that together with the trend of quiet quitting, where you don’t actually quit, you just stop going above and beyond for the job and you don’t tell anybody. Of course if you do that all the time, at some point people will notice, but if you embrace seasonality, you would probably do that every once in a while, just do a little bit less to recharge, and then the only thing people are probably going to notice is that you’re actually more productive in the long run, because you have worked more reasonable times.

Setup up office hours to reduce the cost of asynchronicity

Something that he has also recommended in A World Without Email is to have office hours to manage and reduce the message back and forth, or maybe just do quick a call when it would take ages to discuss something via email, which, of course, is overall good advice. But it’s also not particularly new and like many of the things that he says in Slow Productivity seem like truisms.

Do fewer things: Underschedule using autopilot scheduling

In the underscheduling/doing fewer things/working at a more natural pace sections, he says that you should have one big task per day, and then smaller stuff that still needs to get done. He also recommends the so-called “autopilot schedule”, which is having rituals or basically appointments with yourself at specific times and places, where you basically focus on “process, not product” and deal with certain recurring types of tasks that you batch. It’s essentially a form of time blocking, which he also promotes in his Time-Blocking Planner. Time blocking has become a really popular time management tool lately, so that’s mainstream info nowadays. This was already mentioned in one of his very early books, I think How to Be a Straight-A Student, so that’s not something new for me either. Maybe you’re able to tell why this feels like a greatest hits to me rather than a new book.

And then in some chapter, he also mentioned the “throw money at it” principle that I know from Tim Ferriss, i.e. investing in outsourcing certain services and paying for premium subscriptions that may save you some non-productive overhead. Again, it’s good advice to be aware of. But it’s not new either.

More of a writing project for Newport rather than new ideas for me

The above was basically all that I got out of this book: just a few nuggets and most of them I already knew from other sources. Maybe it’s a more coherent narrative, but I think what he was really doing was to try becoming a better writer, because he says that towards the end of the book, in the chapter Obsess Over Quality, that he was actually trying to be a better writer.

He’s heavily going for this American self-help writing style, where there are many stories and examples to prove his points. There’s a lot of narrative to it. Which I assume he considers becoming a better writer but I personally found this a waste of space. Honestly, when I’m reading Cal Newport, I would have preferred more of the advice type stuff, like his earlier books, where there are so many bits of advice, almost like a listicle that you can pick and choose from. I liked that. You get to pick your own greatest hits from an inspiring list of ideas.

But here most of the book was about explaining again and again why his theory makes sense, countering potential counter-arguments from imagined enemies in advance. I assume that rhetorically makes sense if you imagine a really wide mainstream readership. But as somebody who was already convinced that the idea of Slow Productivity makes sense, I would have preferred more concrete advice on how to implement it in my life rather than lots of narrative and explaining the philosophy behind it ad nauseam with the typical cherry-picked anecdotal examples that the self-help genre tends to use to “back up” its claims.

So yeah, I’m a little bit disappointed, but I also had high expectations and I’ve been anticipating this book coming out for a long time. Maybe I had somewhat inflated expectations that would have been impossible to meet anyway.

Final verdict

If I wanted to be nice, we could consider the book a successful attempt by Cal Newport to consolidate his existing ideas into a unified theory, presenting them within the framework of Slow Productivity, synthesizing Newport’s key advice for novice Newport readers or those who appreciate seeing them weaved into a cohesive narrative.

But ultimately, I think all it does is recycle. All the tips in Slow Productivity are just the greatest hits from his last works, which had many more practical tips. It feels as though this book was a writing exercise to him, an attempt to improve his writing craft (as it sounds in the chapter Obsess over quality), and not successfully so, at least in my opinion. The book primarily repackages Newport’s previous ideas without offering substantial new content. This might disappoint readers familiar with his work who expected the next big thing (like me).

My final verdict is: when I’m reading Newport, I’m not looking for a well-written novel with lots of fluff. I expect good practical, actionable advice I can implement in my life. I really don’t need him trying to become a better writer. I appreciate his ideas, not his writing. And of course, the writer’s job is to make the reader’s job easy (as we have learned in Writing Science) but I don’t think that’s what his embellishments and anecdotes are doing. Maybe for an audience that has never read his work before.

In fact, Slow Productivity reads a lot as if he were trying to convince a mainstream audience of his ideas. He definitely does not write for productivity buffs who have already read most of what’s out there and are only looking for a few more gold nuggets or hacks to try out (like me). He’s trying to sell the idea that Slow Productivity is possible.

It’s definitely more of a manifesto than a how-to guide. And manifestos are great – if they’re about genuinely new ideas. But since the publication of this book falls into a whole cascade of books with similar overall sales proposals (such as Ali Abdaal’s Feel-Good Productivity), it loses that novelty value. I wouldn’t say that Ali Abdaal had a vision just as grand as Newport’s – but it did have at least a few bits of advice that even I, as a self-help literature veteran (see The 33 most effective productivity hacks I’ve come across in 10 years), hadn’t heard before. There was hardly anything new for me in Slow Productivity, hence the disappointment. But, even worse than just not being new compared to his peers (maybe they just got lucky being ahead of his publication schedule), there isn’t even much new compared to his own earlier publications.

It felt like a whole lot of recycling to me and I really don’t love the American style of self-help writing that is overflowing with anecdotes. As an academic, Newport should know that’s not actually evidence? I feel that at this point, practically every more or less famous historical individual or athletic hero has been used as anecdotal evidence in multiple self-help books, probably even to underscore contradictory advice. Maybe some people enjoy that but when I read a personal development book, I want actionable advice, not pointless anecdotes. Maybe that’s just my personal preference (and maybe you can share yours in the comments!).

With that being said, maybe you would enjoy the book if you haven’t read all of Newport’s other books.

Bye for now,

S

PS: Maybe I like the book after all. Since I had first drafted this, I have actually continued thinking about this a lot. So maybe I initially didn’t like it because it contained messages I didn’t want to but desperately needed to hear? I’ll keep thinking about it and keep you updated in case I unearth more insights on this!



Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2024, May 1). Why I’m disappointed by Slow Productivity [Book Review]. Epigrammetry. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/10sia

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