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28 March 2024

Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

by Željko Filipin


Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

From the Conclusion chapter:

We’ve tried the fast approach for at least the past seventy years. It isn’t working. The time has come to try something slower.


I’m a big fan of Cal Newport. My manager recommended his book Deep Work. I have listened to the audiobook version in 2020. I liked it so much that in 2021 I read an ebook version. It’s one of the very rare books that gets five stars on Goodreads from me.

Since 2020 I have read almost all of his books. (I didn’t read only one of his three books on how to be a better student. Yet.) (I wish he wrote his student advice books while I was in high school. I wish I had read them then.)

For years, I listened to a lot of podcasts. A few years ago I started listening to audio books. For years I almost exclusively listened to audiobooks. I have started listening to more podcasts recently. I have listened to a few episodes of his podcasts, Deep Questions. I have liked it so much that I started listening to all episodes from the beginning.

His Other Books

I would split his books in several groups. Read the must read group. If you like his style, read optional books. If you’re a student, read his student advice books.

Must read:


Student advice:

Personal Productivity

If you have read Getting Things Done by David Allen, liked it and implemented the advice from the book in your life, Calport’s books are the next step. I read it in 2008 and my life was never the same.

As a fan of both personal productivity and Cal Newport, when he announced the new book, I just had to read it. If he started writing picture books I would read them.

Slow Productivity

If you feel the tempo at which we work today is crazy, this book is for you.

I think the main idea in the book is that the way we work today is crazy. The intense pace of work on several projects at the same time, with constant interruptions from various messaging systems and back-to-back online meetings is causing a lot of stress. There’s a more natural and human way to work. You have to slow down. Work at one thing at a time. Whatever you do, do your best. Take a break, then move to the next thing.

It’s ok to slow down.

One of the ideas from the book is that in the long term, nobody really cares if you reply to Slack messages or emails instantly. Short term, they might be annoyed to wait longer for replies. But long term, what is important is that you pick the right projects and finish them with high quality. Long term, being very active on Slack and email is not getting your job done.


Chapter 1: The Rise and Fall of Pseudo-Productivity

Pseudo-Productivity The use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort.

Did it ever happen to you that you have started the day by opening email or Slack and eight or so hours later, after typing a lot at your keyboard, you have been working hard all day, but nothing got done?

…subjects they studied checked their inbox once every six minutes on average.

If constantly checking your various inboxes is making you unproductive and miserable, I would highly recommend Newport’s two books. Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

It seems like the benefits of technology have created the ability to stack more into our day and onto our schedules than we have the capacity to handle while maintaining a level of quality which makes the things worth doing.

We behave like our brains are computers with unlimited memory and processors. Yet, to do anything well, we have to do one thing at a time.

Chapter 2: A Slower Alternative

Slow Food. Slow Cities. Slow Medicine. Slow Schooling. Slow Media. Slow Cinema.

I was not even aware of any of the slow movements, with the exception of slow food.

Slow Productivity

A philosophy for organizing knowledge work efforts in a sustainable and meaningful manner, based on the following three principles:

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

A younger me might not be so interested in slowing down, as this older and wiser me currently is.

Chapter 3: Do Fewer Things

You’re as busy as you’ve ever been, and yet hardly get anything done.

This does describe me more than I would like.

…our brains work better when we’re not rushing.

I started to play chess a few years ago. I’ll let the numbers speak.

There might be other explanations for the steady increase in my chess ability as I have more time to think, besides humans in general working better when they are not rushing. For example, it might be just me. And Cal Newport.

…work on at most one project per day.

This seems to be the optimum for me. When planning a day, the usual mistake I make is planning to do too much. I see the list of projects that should be done soon, and plan to work on a few of them that day. But the experience has taught me that if I manage to make good progress on one project a day, that is a good day. It’s really hard to make good progress on more than one project a day. That is, if you limit your day to normal working hours.

If your job, like so many in the era of pseudo-productivity, leaves it up to you to manage your own load, then you have every right to step up to this challenge with intention and determination.

I think this is really important.

Chapter 4: Work at a Natural Pace

Principle #2: Work At A Natural Pace

Don’t rush your most important work. Allow it instead to unfold along a sustainable timeline, with variations in intensity, in settings conducive to brilliance.

It might be showing my age, or just being slow in general, but I really like working slowly on important things.

I suggest, however, also crafting a plan that covers an even larger scale: what you would like to accomplish in the next five years or so.

I tend to make the mistake of either planning too little or too much. I think his advice to have a general plan for your life, then a plan for a decade, quarter, week and day is just enough planning.

…take whatever timelines you first identify as reasonable for upcoming projects, and then double their length.

On his podcast I think he said to add 20-50% to any time estimate you make. This is more realistic advice. At least for me. Things usually take at least two times more than I think they do. It’s not unusual that a project takes 3-4 times more than I have estimated.

…apply the heuristic of reducing whatever task list you come up with for a given day by somewhere between 25 and 50 percent.

This is very similar to “one project per day” advice. I usually make the mistake of creating a daily todo list of all of the things that should be done, without the consideration of how much time each of those things will take. I find it better to plan to do only things that really have to get done that day. In the unlikely event that there’s any time left in the day, it’s very easy to add to the list. It’s very demotivating for me, at the end of the day, to look at a very long list of things that I didn’t do.

Chapter 5: Obsess Over Quality

“Hardwood grows slowly.”

If you want to create anything worth creating, it will take time.

Principle #3: Obsess Over Quality

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 your efforts over the long term.

Do less things. Do them well.

Doing fewer things and working at a natural pace are both absolutely necessary components of this philosophy, but if those earlier principles are implemented on their own, without an accompanying obsession with quality, they might serve only to fray your relationship to work over time…

Obsessing over quality is the glue that makes doing fewer things slowly worth doing.

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” Jobs explained.

Doing fewer things means you’ll have to decide what not to do.

Here we find as good a general strategy for balancing obsession and perfectionism as I’ve seen: Give yourself enough time to produce something great, but not unlimited time.

Taking your time is not a permission for procrastination.


There’s a reason why it’s now so common to encounter critics who promote an exhausted nihilism in which overload and misery are an inescapable fate. The way we’re working no longer works.

We don’t have to hate the way we work. There’s a better way.

We’ve tried the fast approach for at least the past seventy years. It isn’t working. The time has come to try something slower.

I was thinking about how to summarize the book. This does it perfectly.

tags: book - book-club - photo