Image credit: Dolce far Niente by John Singer Sargent 

This is the fourth in a series of essays I’ve written on time. You can view a list of all of them on the first essay.

This was going to be a somewhat different essay before I read Cal Newport’s Slow Productivity. I read the book the day it came out, interested in seeing how he incorporated the ideas from slow movements into the world of productivity, since in so many ways, productivity is the enemy of slowness. Given what I’d read of his work in the New Yorker, I was skeptical that he would really embrace slowness in his book and I discovered my skepticism was more than justified. I’m going to start by critiquing Newport’s book, but then get into my own vision for what it might take to achieve slow productivity.

In late 2021, Cal Newport began writing about “slow productivity,” largely in response to a tidal wave of published books that questioned our society’s focus on productivity (for productivity pundits, the answer is always productivity). He saw the goal of slow productivity as “keep[ing] an individual worker’s volume at a sustainable level” and argued that this will not have a negative impact on organizational productivity because less overloaded workers will be less focused on managing a glut of information. He envisioned systems that will track people’s work and assign new tasks based on when the people with the needed skills have time available. In a world full of unique individuals whose capacities vary day by day and where most tasks are far from mechanistic, I question whether this is possible. Tack on the fact that we have people working at varying levels of precarity plus the fact that our reward systems incentivize overwork and we’re always going to have some people who feel the need to do significantly more to prove themselves. Creating systems that don’t change the underlying realities and inequities in the world of work will not adequately address the issue of overwork and overwhelm. 

Strangely, though, his book has no suggestions for how slow productivity could be achieved at the systems level. It’s so individual-focused, that he suggests only taking on projects that don’t require meetings with others (the “overhead tax” on projects he calls it). The idea that meetings with others could make us better at our jobs doesn’t seem to occur to him. His understanding of slow proves to be surface-level at best. The slow movement isn’t just about individuals choosing to step away from fast culture; it’s about changing the culture so that everyone can slow down. Otherwise it just becomes an elitist enterprise where only those with the most privilege can actually access the benefits of slow living.

Mountz, et al. (2015) wrote about slow scholarship, arguing that it “is not just about time, but about structures of power and inequality. This means that slow scholarship cannot just be about making individual lives better, but must also be about re-making the university” (1238). Slow Food advocate, Folco Portinari (the author of the slow food manifesto though I rarely see him credited), wrote “there can be no slow-food without slow-life, meaning that we cannot influence food culture without changing our culture as a whole.” Slow Food isn’t just about buying local and slow scholarship isn’t just about not buying into the productivity expectations of the academy. It’s about collectively working to change the systems themselves.

But, really, Cal Newport is not writing this book for most of us. He’s writing it for white, male (there are plenty of critiques of his previous work on the basis of sexism), affluent, lone geniuses who aren’t accountable to a boss. He waits until the end of the book to explicitly state that his advice is for academics and people who work for themselves, but when he offers advice like go see a movie matinee on a weekday once a month, take month+ long vacations to gain perspective, cut your salary, and only take on projects that require no collaboration with others, we see how unrelatable this is to most knowledge workers. 

I’ll bet he pulled himself up by his bootstraps!

All you need to know about Newport’s philosophy you can get from page 7 of the book:

Slow productivity [is] 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

I agree that these are good goals, but his book won’t help you get there. The rest of the book is recycled productivity tips from his previous work (many of which won’t work unless you have total control over your work) punctuated by completely unrelatable stories of famous figures throughout history that don’t connect well to any sort of usable takeaway. I read his story of Jane Austen and how she was only able to really be productive in her writing when her brother inherited an estate, she went to live there, and the family decided not to participate in society anymore. So is the takeaway that I need no children, plenty of servants, and no social engagements to be productive? Cool cool cool.

I will never understand why we trust advice from people who have zero experience working the sort of jobs we have. It would be one thing if his work was research-based, but it isn’t. Early in the book, he writes about how people don’t really understand why people are suddenly so exhausted and burned out by work, but there’s ample research in the sociology, anthropology, business, and psychology literature that addresses this. I know because I’ve read a lot of it! And if we’re trusting his experience, what does a person who went from Ivy League undergraduate work, to graduate work at MIT, to a post-doc, to a tenure-line position at Georgetown in computer science really know about what it’s like to work in a typical knowledge organization with a manager and peers who rely on them? I am in a massively privileged position where I have tenure and summers off and even I found very little that I could apply to my own work. As an instruction librarian, I teach students to look into the author of something they are going to rely on and determine if/why they would trust that particular author’s expertise on that subject. Maybe we should do the same?

If you’re looking for really brilliant and well-researched work relevant to slow productivity, check out Melissa Gregg’s Counterproductive, both of Jenny Odell’s books, Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, Carl Honoré’s book on the slow movement, and Wendy Parkins and Geoffrey Craig’s Slow Living. They will not offer you concrete tips for being more productive, but, really, there’s no magical list of tips that will work for everyone. They will open your mind to what’s wrong with how we’ve been working and what is possible if we came together to collectively fight for change.

In my next post, I’ll share my own vision of what slow productivity looks like (I decided to break this up into two posts because it was getting a bit long). My tips for slow productivity are quite different from Newport’s in that they’re much more focused on our collectivity. He was right in his piece on “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done” that productivity advice is broken because it is not changing things at the level of the system (though he then produced another book focused on individual productivity, go figure). In organizations, we are often dependent on one another to complete our work. We are also held to the collective norms of the organization around productivity and performing busyness. Therefore, slow productivity must be a team sport. 

See you again in a couple of weeks!!!

Burkeman, Oliver. 2023. Four Thousand Weeks : Time Management for Mortals. First paperback edition. New York: Picador.

Gregg, Melissa. Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy. Durham North Carolina; London, Duke University Press, 2018.

Honoré, Carl. In praise of slow: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed. Vintage Canada, 2009.

Mountz, Alison, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu et al. “For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14, no. 4 (2015): 1235-1259.

Newport, Cal. “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.” The New Yorker, 17 Nov. 2020,

Newport, Cal. “It’s Time to Embrace Slow Productivity.” The New Yorker, 3 Jan. 2022,

Newport, Cal. 2024. Slow Productivity : The Lost Art of Accomplishment without Burnout. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

Odell, Jenny. 2019. How to Do Nothing : Resisting the Attention Economy. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Odell, Jenny. Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond Productivity Culture. Random House, 2023.

Parkins, Wendy and Geoffrey Craig. 2006. Slow Living. Oxford: Berg.

Petrini, Carlo. Slow food: The case for taste. Columbia University Press, 2003.