Slow Productivity Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: Slow Productivity offers a holistic new philosophy for a better relationship with work that allows us to make meaningful contributions at a sustainable pace, rooted in three pillars: fewer commitments, taking our time, and insisting on delivering high-quality work.

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Slow Productivity Summary

Every day, more than 333 billion emails hit inboxes around the globe. That’s almost 4 million times someone’s phone goes *ding* — every second. What’s more, since only around 55% of the world’s population uses email, that’s around 77 emails both per sender and recipient. More than 3 every hour!

And while neither every email is sent by a human nor read in full, the brunt of email lands with knowledge workers. Do the math how you will, the sheer cognitive load email demands from us is insane — and that’s just one of countless communication channels. Add in other digital and non-digital distractions, from social media algorithms to banner ads and billboards, and it’s a miracle we can get anything done at all these days.

Enter Cal Newport. In a loud and fuzzy world, the MIT-trained computer scientist and professor at Georgetown University has been a calm voice of reason and focus since 2007, both with his blog and his books, which include bestsellers like Deep Work, A World Without Email, and Digital Minimalism. Now, after years of refinement, Cal has condensed his entire body of work into a single, coherent philosophy: Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout.

Here are 3 lessons outlining the simple, 3-part framework that will help us do meaningful, valuable work without grinding ourselves to the bone:

  1. If you want to have time to do and achieve what matters most, you must reduce your obligations.
  2. Your biggest goals both deserve and need time. Don’t rush them.
  3. Be obsessed with making high-quality work, and the rewards will eventually come.

Let’s discover a better, more sustainable way to work!

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Lesson 1: Limit your obligations big and small so you have time to work on — and accomplish — the work that matters most.

“Pseudo-productivity” is what Cal calls “the use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort.” Pair the dominance of knowledge work starting in the 90s with computers, the internet, and infinite communication tools, and you get a working population that’s busier talking about work than doing work.

That’s the corporate culture we live in today: It’s more important to look busy than to complete meaningful tasks. A study among 50,000 workers by RescueTime, for example, showed they check their email every 6 minutes on average. 

So how can we get back to doing real, deep, rewarding and relevant work? Start by doing fewer things, Cal suggests. This is the first principle of Slow Productivity. “Strive to reduce your obligations to the point where you can easily imagine accomplishing them with time to spare. Leverage this reduced load to more fully embrace and advance the small number of projects that matter most.”

How can you do this? By limiting both the big and the small kinds of work in your life. Big work includes:

  1. Missions, which are your big, ongoing goals.
  2. Projects, which are the milestones on the way to those goals.
  3. Daily goals, which is what you put on your to-do list on any given day.

Cal also presents 5 ideas on containing the smaller demands of work. Two of them are putting recurring tasks on autopilot and synchronizing with people in real-time. For example, you could set a fixed time slot to pay your bills and offer regular office hours for coworkers. The latter takes more time up front but reduces endless digital back-and-forth later.

Reduce your commitments, and your contribution to those commitments will drastically improve.

Lesson 2: Take your time with your biggest goals. They both need and deserve it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a composer, actor, and playwright best-known for his 2 smash-hit musicals In the Heights and Hamilton. But Miranda first performed In the Heights in 2000, 8 years before it hit Broadway and he won a Tony Award. His secret? He gave his masterpiece time. He kept working on it on and off until it was ready for its success.

This kind of slow-paced but relentless dedication was rare even before our distracted age, but nowadays it’s almost unheard of, Newport writes. It illustrates his second principle of Slow Productivity: Allow your work to progress 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.”

Some actionable ways to do this? Make a 5-year plan, double your timelines, and forgive yourself when you miss your deadlines. Longer-term planning reduces the pressure to be busy just for busyness sake. Doubling timelines corrects our bias of making too optimistic predictions. And forgiveness prevents you from falling into the busyness trap as a punishment for your lack of progress.

Great work, like life itself, happens in seasons. Embrace slower periods, and give your best work as much time as it needs to truly bloom.

Lesson 3: Relentlessly insist on producing quality work until you succeed.

What do musician Jewel, Apple founder Steve Jobs, and small-business proponent Paul Jarvis have in common? They obsessed over quality instead of quantity. Jewel refused to make a certain kind of music to sell more records. Jobs trimmed down Apple’s product line and concentrated their energy on the Mac. And Jarvis went from popular creator to indie SaaS founder with no internet presence.

They all illustrate Newport’s 3rd principle of Slow Productivity: “Obsess over the quality of what you produce, even if this means missing opportunities in the short term,” Cal writes. “Leverage the value of these results to gain more and more freedom in your efforts over the long term.”

The 2 main ways of doing this? Developing a good sense of creative taste and then betting on yourself.

Newport, for example, became a cinephile in his 40s, studying movies deeply instead of just watching them. You could also start a book, writing, or poetry club like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Inklings. Finally, higher-quality tools for creating, like an expensive microphone, can make us feel professional enough to take our art seriously.

Ultimately, however, it’ll take effort and risk to see your quality work through to the end. You could create in the wee hours of the day, take a pay cut to have more time for focused work, or attract a patron to bridge financial gaps, Newport suggests.

Whatever you do, remember: Slow and steady wins the race. “Do fewer things. Work at a natural pace. Obsess over quality.” Follow these tenets, and sooner or later, Slow Productivity will carry you to your biggest goals!

Slow Productivity Review

Slow Productivity provides a short-ish but elegant overview of more than a decade of productivity research. Cal practices academic rigor in his claims and then illustrates them with compelling, human stories. Like all his other books, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one!

Who would I recommend our Slow Productivity summary to?

The 22-year-old college student who’s drowning in studying materials and assignments, the 40-year-old professional who doesn’t know how she is supposed to “keep this up” for another 20 years, and anyone who feels constantly busy but rarely proud of what they’ve accomplished.

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!