"Slow Productivity" book notes

Published at 2024-04-27T14:18:51+03:00

These are my personal takeaways after reading "Slow Productivity - The lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout" by Cal Newport.

The case studies in this book were a bit long, but they appeared to be well-researched. I will only highlight the interesting, actionable items in the book notes.

These notes are mainly for my own use, but you may find them helpful.

         ,..........   ..........,
     ,..,'          '.'          ',..,
    ,' ,'            :            ', ',
   ,' ,'             :             ', ',
  ,' ,'              :              ', ',
 ,' ,'............., : ,.............', ',
,'  '............   '.'   ............'  ',

"Slow productivity" does not mean being less productive. Cal Newport wants to point out that you can be much more productive with "slow productivity" than you would be without it. It is a different way of working than most of us are used to in the modern workplace, which is hyper-connected and always online.

Pseudo-productivity and Shallow work

People use visible activity instead of real productivity because it's easier to measure. This is called pseudo-productivity.
Pseudo-productivity is used as a proxy for real productivity. If you don't look busy, you are dismissed as lazy or lacking a work ethic.

There is a tendency to perform shallow work because people will otherwise dismiss you as lazy. A lot of shallow work can cause burnout, as multiple things are often being worked on in parallel. The more you have on your plate, the more stressed you will be.

Shallow work usually doesn't help you to accomplish big things. Always have the big picture in mind. Shallow work can't be entirely eliminated, but it can be managed—for example, plan dedicated time slots for certain types of shallow work.

Accomplishments without burnout

The overall perception is that if you want to accomplish something, you must put yourself on the verge of burnout. Cal Newport writes about "The lost Art of Accomplishments without Burnouts", where you can accomplish big things without all the stress usually involved.

There are three principles for the maintenance of a sustainable work life:

Do fewer things

There will always be more work. The faster you finish it, the quicker you will have something new on your plate.

Reduce the overhead tax. The overhead tax is all the administrative work to be done. With every additional project, there will also be more administrative stuff to be done on your work plate. So, doing fewer things leads to more and better output and better quality for the projects you are working on.

Limit the things on your plate. Limit your missions (personal goals, professional goals). Reduce your main objectives in life. More than five missions are usually not sustainable very easily, so you have to really prioritise what is important to you and your professional life.

A mission is an overall objective/goal that can have multiple projects. Limit the projects as well. Some projects need clear endings (e.g., work in support of a never-ending flow of incoming requests). In this case, set limits (e.g., time box your support hours). You can also plan "office hours" for collaborative work with colleagues to avoid ad hoc distractions.

The key point is that after making these commitments, you really deliver on them. This builds trust, and people will leave you alone and not ask for progress all the time.

Doing fever things is essential for modern knowledge workers. Breathing space in your work also makes you more creative and happier overall.

Pushing workers more work can make them less productive, so the better approach is the pull model, where workers pull in new work when the previous task is finished.

If you can quantify how busy you are or how many other projects you already work on, then it is easier to say no to new things. For example, show what you are doing, what's in the roadmap, etc. Transparency is the key here.

You can have your own simulated pull system if the company doesn't agree to a global one:

Sometimes, a little friction is all that is needed to combat incoming work, e.g., when your manager starts seeing the reality of your work plate, and you also request additional information for the task. If you already have too much on your plate, then decline the new project or make room for it in your calendar. If you present a large task list, others will struggle to assign more to you.

Limit your daily goals. A good measure is to focus on one goal per day. You can time block time for deep work on your daily goal. During that time, you won't be easily available to others.

The battle against distractions must be fought to be the master of your time. Nobody will fight this war for you. You have to do it for yourself. (Also, have a look at Cal Newport's "time block planning" method).

Put tasks on autopilot (regular recurring tasks).

Work at a natural pace

We suffer from overambitious timelines, task lists, and business. Focus on what matters. Don't rush your most important work to achieve better results.

Don't rush. If you rush or are under pressure, you will be less effective and eventually burn out. Our brains work better then not rushy. The stress heuristic usually indicates too much work, and it is generally too late to reduce workload. That's why we all typically have dangerously too much to do.

Have the courage to take longer to do things that are important. For example, plan on a yearly and larger scale, like 2 to 5 years.

Find a reasonable time for a project and then double the project timeline against overconfident optimism. Humans are not great at estimating. They gravitate towards best-case estimates. If you have planned more than enough time for your project, then you will fall into a natural work pace. Otherwise, you will struggle with rushing and stress.

Some days will still be intense and stressful, but those are exceptional cases. After those exceptions (e.g., finalizing that thing, etc.), calmer periods will follow again.

Pace yourself over modest results over time. Simplify and reduce the daily task lists. Meetings: Certain hours are protected for work. For each meeting, add a protected block to your calendar, so you attend meetings only half a day max.

Schedule slow seasons (e.g., when on vacation). Disconnect in the slow season. Doing nothing will not satisfy your mind, though. You could read a book on your subject matter to counteract that.

Obsess over quality

Obsess over quality even if you lose short-term opportunities by rejecting other projects. Quality demands you slow down. The two previous two principles (do fewer things and work at a natural pace) are mandatory for this principle to work:

Go pro to save time, and don't squeeze everything out that you can from freemium services. Professional software services eliminate administrative work:

Adjust your workplace to what you want to accomplish. You could have dedicated places in your home for different things, e.g., a place where you read and think (armchair) and a place where you collaborate (your desk or whiteboard). Surround yourself with things that inspire you (e.g., your favourite books on your shelf next to you, etc.).

There is the concept of quiet quitting. It doesn't mean quitting your job, but it means that you don't go beyond and above the expectations people have of you. Quiet quitting became popular with modern work, which is often meaningless and full of shallow tasks. If you obsess over quality, you enjoy your craft and want to go beyond and above.

Implement rituals and routines which shift you towards your goals:

Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.

It appears to be money thrown out of the window, but you get a $50 expensive paper notebook (and also a good pen). Unconsciously, it will make you take notes more seriously. You will think about what to put into the notebooks more profoundly and have thought through the ideas more intensively. If you used very cheap notebooks, you would scribble a lot of rubbish and wouldn't even recognise your handwriting after a while anymore. So choosing a high-quality notebook will help you to take higher-quality notes, too.

Slow productivity is actionable and can be applied immediately.

E-Mail your comments to paul@nospam.buetow.org :-)

Other book notes of mine are:

2023-03-16 "The Pragmatic Programmer" book notes
2023-04-01 "Never split the difference" book notes
2023-05-06 "The Obstacle is the Way" book notes
2023-07-17 "Software Developmers Career Guide and Soft Skills" book notes
2023-11-11 "Mind Management" book notes
2024-05-01 "Slow Productivity" book notes (You are currently reading this)

More books and other resources I found useful.
Back to the main site