In the workplace, trust is as important as “productivity" (Dusica Paripovic/Alamy Stock Photo).

Everyone wants to get things done, but it can be hard to predict how long they’ll take. Mathematicians needed three centuries to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem—first proposed around 1637, the solution only came in 1994. Was that remarkably fast, or pathetically slow? What about rebuilding bridges and highways? Construction timelines often seem like testaments of wild optimism. Instagram tells me that in Austin, there’s a restaurant whose Michelin-starred chef spent two years “perfecting” his recipe for a double cheeseburger. I think the claim is meant to impress—here is a true craftsman—but it also made me wonder about the chef’s priorities. How could this task have taken more than a weekend?

To complicate matters, we Americans can’t make up our minds about whether it’s better to work a lot or a little. We flaunt long workweeks and disdain anyone working less than full-time. But we’re likewise seduced by get-rich-quick schemes and “labor-saving” gimmicks. The rich may work long hours, but much of their income is passive, the fruit of asset appreciation and other people’s labor. Students who use ChatGPT to write their term papers probably hope AI won’t take their jobs in ten years.

Amid this uncertainty, we turn to productivity gurus from Ben Franklin to Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek) who offer a clear, enticing path: follow this method, and you’ll accomplish more than your rivals with less effort. That’s also the promise of Cal Newport’s new book, Slow Productivity, which is aimed at professionals, entrepreneurs, and freelancers—workers in a knowledge economy whose results are hard to quantify. Newport begins by noting that white-collar workplaces often value “pseudo-productivity,” appearing to be busy—sending emails, holding meetings, putting in pins and circling back—without measurable results. Newport’s book is a commercial success (it’s already visited the bestseller lists) but, as other reviewers have noted, an intellectual failure, offering little more than shallow repetitions of ideas from his previous books. There’s a deeper problem, too: Newport’s “me first” ethos suggests that, at a moment when more and more people prefer to work from home, we are no longer sure how to work together.

Newport himself seems to keep pretty busy. He is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University—a day job that’s normally considered full-time, if not all-consuming. In addition, he blogs, hosts a weekly podcast, writes for the New Yorker, and churns out books on how to work. Slow Productivity is his eighth, and his fifth since 2012. (He signed a deal for the first while still in college.) He is also a husband and father of three boys.

In light of this activity, Newport’s three recommended principles of slow productivity—“do fewer things,” “work at a natural pace,” and “obsess over quality”—might call for the caveat, “do as I say, not as I do.” To his credit, Newport doesn’t say outright that these principles worked for him and thus will for you. Still, he does borrow anecdotes from his own life, including how one of his key insights (about what productivity looks like on daily timescales versus longer ones) came while on vacation in Maine; he says he wrote an essay about it on the spot.

Newport’s principles make sense at first glance but fall apart on closer scrutiny. For instance, the second principle, “work at a natural pace,” means that we should “give our important efforts more breathing room, allowing them to take longer and unfold with intensity levels that vary over time.” Expressed this way, it sounds great. I’m not lazy or incompetent, I just work at different levels of intensity, thank you very much. But let’s think about this. Is a slow pace of work, or any pace for that matter, truly “natural”? Newport proposes hunter-gatherers as a model. The force of their labor fluctuates throughout the day; perhaps this is human nature, and we need to work more in tune with it.

But don’t people in agricultural societies—and technological ones—already do this? Haven’t we always? What about Pieter Bruegel’s or Vincent van Gogh’s harvesters napping in the sun? Isn’t your ESPN or eBay browser tab open for a similar reason? And besides, hunter-gatherer societies don’t produce enough food to support knowledge workers and our questionably useful labor. And as Newport admits, only agricultural societies have lengthy festivals and slow seasons. (Though I would add that even then, care work, traditionally done by women, continues apace.) Nature doesn’t know whether it’s Memorial Day weekend. Newport’s advice, then, is no match for the world we’ve constructed.


Slow Productivity is filled with stories of patient geniuses accomplishing great things without breaking a sweat: Isaac Newton, Jane Austen, John McPhee, Jewel. Someone Newport does not mention is Immanuel Kant, born precisely three hundred years ago this April. Already forty-six years old, Kant took a post at the University of Königsberg in 1770, and then produced nothing noteworthy for a decade. He was working on a tome, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), that would upend every philosophical assumption of its era. Following this breakthrough, Kant produced a cascade of important works on morality, aesthetic judgment, politics, and religion.

One of Kant’s most enduring ideas is the categorical imperative, the notion that the implicit rules you follow in your conduct should only be ones that could serve as universal laws. Kant’s goal was to eliminate the free riders who undermine moral order. On his account, you shouldn’t lie to gain advantage, because if everyone did so, societal trust would break down to the point where deceit would no longer give you an edge. In fact, you couldn’t reliably get ahead at all amid the social chaos. The maxim “lie to get ahead” is self-defeating.

Newport’s principles make sense at first glance but fall apart on closer scrutiny.

Newport’s principles fare poorly by the categorical imperative’s standard. At one point, he poses a choice that’s meant to clarify the type of work to take on: you can either write a detailed report or organize a conference. The report would be cognitively more difficult, he notes, but the conference is a likely “task engine,” creating many back-and-forths and requiring you to loop in new people who will, in turn, increase your workload. Take option A, then, and you’ll save the hassle.

This advice obviously does not scale up. If everyone acted according to the maxim, “choose to write a report rather than organize a conference,” there would no longer be any conferences (and thus, no choice between writing reports and organizing conferences). Maybe there are more conferences than we need, but surely the right number is more than zero. Yes, some large projects feature many proliferating, annoying tasks. Someone has to do them.

The lesson of personal productivity books like Newport’s is, Yeah, someone has to, just not me. Newport contends that, to work more sustainably, you should learn how to “leverage the autonomy and ambiguity intertwined into most modern knowledge sector jobs.” In other words, try to cut the occasional corner without seeming like a shirker. Shift some work to others, so long as it’s “not enough that they’ll notice or really care.” Similarly, “no one is going to notice” if you sneak away from your desk to see a movie one afternoon a month. And if you periodically set up a “deflection project” that is “highly visible but low-impact,” then you can beg off of more challenging work for a while. “A month or two of a relatively slower pace is unlikely to be noticed,” Newport counsels.

It’s true; your boss or coworkers might not notice. That doesn’t mean they won’t be affected as they pick up your slack. People don’t always notice small harms until they’ve piled up and become big. Slow Productivity is billed as a guide to working effectively without burnout. But anyone following its principles will likely add stress to other people’s lives. And if everyone took Newport’s advice, our workplaces would be even more dispiriting places, with workers isolated and untrusting and, therefore, contrary to Newport’s promises, unable to get much done.

Both Newport’s appeal to nature and his individualism reveal his failure to reckon with the fact that work is inescapably social. In the world Newport describes, idiots are always bothering you with their petty requests, keeping you, the only person doing anything important, perpetually distracted and unproductive. And sure, it can feel like this sometimes, like your only recourse is calculated self-protection. But it is not, in a final sense, true.


Burnout is a risk we incur because we work alongside other people and are subject to their needs and expectations. Workers do not burn out because of individual failings. They burn out because the cultural ideals they bring to work are not realized in their jobs. And often, the reality of work is one of unreasonable demands, inadequate reward, harassment, or unfairness. Because burnout is a social failing, we will only get past it if we reform how we work together.

Burnout is a risk we incur because we work alongside other people and are subject to their needs and expectations.

Even as work puts us in contact with other people, we also are other people. We impose ourselves on people who are also just trying to do their jobs. And we have needs and expectations we hope work can help us meet.

Those needs are material and moral, even spiritual. In a society where so much depends on having a job, and where workers have so few protections against losing theirs, pseudo-productivity can become a way to prove that you should stay employed. One person’s tedious administrative burden—the juggling of forms, approvals, and cost centers—is another’s way to pay their mortgage and feed their children.

And, in fact, many rituals of apparent pseudo-productivity—handshakes, calls, conferences, coffees—foster the mutual trust and shared norms that make real productivity possible in knowledge fields. No single person owns this means of production; it’s broadly distributed and only built up through countless small actions that, in the moment, have no cash value.

We need to work productively because to have a society, we need the fruits of our own and others’ labor. We need highways and theorems, treatises and cheeseburgers. We also need dignity, retirement income, and health care. I would like to live in a world where these things are attainable without so much frustration and resentment. No productivity hack—especially not the thinly masked selfishness Newport calls for—will get us there. Instead, it will take, if not universal moral laws, at least broadly agreeable local ones. People inside organizations will need to decide: this is the work that needs to get done, and here is how we’ll do it fairly, so no one’s burden is too great. Just as important, they will need to decide what doesn’t need to get done.

Your coworkers, clients, and supervisors are, in all likelihood, reasonable people just like you; you can talk to them about how to improve your and others’ work. You can try to organize a union and collectively bargain for better conditions. You can demand that legislators enact laws to make workers’ lives better.

This collaborative effort to change minds and conditions, to build up and build on human solidarity, will be slow. But it will be worth taking on, because it is the only way we’ll produce a more humane way to work.

Slow Productivity 
The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout
Cal Newport
$30 | 256 pp. 

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Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
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