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Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of several non-fiction books. His latest, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout examines the hallmarks of great achievement by sharing stories about figures from history and the modern-day who have achieved great success. 

The common thread he draws from their stories is a rejection of “pseudo-productivity,” which he defines as “The use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort.” 

Newport calls on knowledge workers to take a less frenzied, more deliberate approach to their work and their lives. “Working with unceasing intensity is artificial and unsustainable,” he writes. “…A more natural, slower, varied pace to work is the foundation of true productivity in the long term.” 

If you’ve been reading my work over the past two decades, you know I take a similar approach. Both Newport and I believe the products knowledge workers create as a result of a less distracted, more deliberate approach are of far greater benefit—both to the individual workers and to their organizations. 


The Cost Of Pseudo-Productivity

Newport describes that pseudo-productivity often involves signaling to others that we are hard at work without truly being focused on our most important projects. An example of this signaling might be frequently responding to emails or Slack messages. 

According to Newport, the problem with these signals is that they don’t measure any meaningful progress. I fully agree and have worked with thousands of leaders who complain at an introductory meeting that they are busy all the time, but at the end of their days (or weeks, or years), they don’t feel the meaningful pride of true accomplishment. They frequently tell me they are burning out.

It’s no wonder. As our lives accelerate, and digital technology makes the world appear to spin faster and faster, it’s easier than ever to succumb to the temptations of pseudo-productivity. Technology distractions weaken our connection to work and prevent us from finding meaning through our unique talents and creativity. In other words, these distractions prevent us from unleashing our genius.


The Antidote

The antidote to pseudo-productivity, Newport argues, is slow productivity. He defines slow productivity as “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.”

The main concept underpinning Slow Productivity is that knowledge workers are not factory laborers—we require variation in our days over long periods of time, even years, to deliver our best results.

The bulk of Slow Productivity is about how knowledge workers can actualize Newport’s three principles of slow productivity in service of greater satisfaction in our everyday work and personal lives. 


Case Studies From History And Today

I tend to write about corporate knowledge workers who are tied to a team and use their minds to generate output. However, the knowledge workers Newport focuses on most tend to be those with more autonomy over their workdays. Think entrepreneurs, professors, artists. 

To illustrate the principles of slow productivity in action, Newport does a deep dive into the work habits of historical figures like Jane Austen and Benjamin Franklin, and then more modern-day legends like the Beatles. If you enjoy stories, these case studies make for a fascinating read. 


Strategies For Corporate Knowledge Workers

While there are case studies about research scientists, professors, and entrepreneurs, none of the in depth case studies in the book focuses on the corporate office worker in a medium to large company. 

Still, for these types of knowledge workers, Newport describes practical strategies we can apply to our lives to gain more autonomy over our time. Newport argues that it’s in regaining ownership over our time that we can do the focused work that enables us to ultimately achieve the double reward: the high-quality output paired with deep satisfaction.

For example, in the chapter on “Do Fewer Things,” Newport writes, “Small tasks, in sufficient quantity, can act like productivity termites, destabilizing the whole foundation of what you’re trying to build.” He then recommends several practical strategies for containing the “overhead tax” of these small tasks. 

Strategies include using an “autopilot schedule,” which involves completing regularly occurring tasks on specific days and in specific locations. He also advocates for holding daily “office hours,” when individuals can pop over to discuss any relevant matters, as well as weekly “docket-clearing meetings,” when an entire team gets together to grind through questions about collaborative tasks. This is useful advice that most office workers can easily implement.


Turbocharge Results With Attention Management

If you work with a team and want to truly achieve the best results using the strategies Newport offers up in this book, I strongly suggest you first master the skill of attention management. Simply put, attention management is the ability to consciously direct your attention in any given moment, to be more proactive than reactive, and to maintain control rather than inadvertently relinquish it. 

No matter what job you have, attention management skills can help you succeed at implementing Newport’s strategies. Without this foundation, you’ll be much more likely to succumb to the distractions that suck you back into a world of pseudo-productivity. You’ll be swimming against the tide, as most of your coworkers are still signaling their busyness and pressuring you to do the same. 


The Empowered Productivity System

Over the past 20 years, I’ve developed the Empowered Productivity™ System, a training program that helps knowledge workers throughout an organization dismantle a culture of urgency (or what Newport would call a culture of pseudo-productivity). 


Training For Teams

Through Empowered Productivity training, I’ve helped thousands of global leaders create a culture in which the true genius of each employee is unleashed in the service of achieving the company’s most significant results. Empowered Productivity training also supports the idea that by slowing down and doing less, today’s knowledge workers will accomplish far more.

It’s ideal for whole teams to learn the Empowered Productivity System, because everyone in the organization will row in the same direction and support one another. When this happens, team members generate an undeniable momentum as they move to create their new, restorative and vibrant work culture. 

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Training For Individuals

Many years ago, I just couldn’t ignore the requests from individuals who wanted help organizing their personal and professional lives based on the principles of attention management, too. That’s when I put together my video-based, self-paced online Empowered Productivity course. 

In just 10 minutes a day, I teach the individual knowledge worker how to get back in the driver’s seat of their work and their life. Interested? Click the button below to learn more and get notified when we are open again for registration, which I expect to be very soon.

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Read Cal Newport’s Slow Productivity

Overall, I recommend Cal Newport’s book. It’s full of interesting stories and strategies that everyone can implement to increase satisfaction with their work and their lives. It offers a great complement to Attention Management and the rest of my Empowered Productivity System.

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