The very busy writer telling everyone to slow down
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The very busy writer telling everyone to slow down
Cal Newport argues that genuine productivity for “knowledge workers” requires not “jittery busyness” but “deep contemplation.” A research paper finds that companies price stock options at steep discounts just before going public and take steps to obscure them. (Igor Bastidas/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Szalai

NEW YORK, NY.- About halfway through his new book, “Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout,” Cal Newport presents the example of Galileo, whose summertime visits to a villa near Padua, Italy, gave him a chance to rest and reflect between scientific pursuits. “Once there,” Newport writes, “he would take long walks in the hills and enjoy sleeping in a room ingeniously air-conditioned by a series of ducts that carried in cool air from a nearby cave system.”

But that “ingeniously air-conditioned” room also happened to be deadly. As Newport puts it in a footnote: “During one unfortunate evening, noxious gases from the cave system, fed through the ducts, caused Galileo and his two companions in the room to suffer a grave illness that killed one of them and afflicted Galileo for the rest of his life.”

It’s an intriguing detail, though Newport doesn’t do anything with it. He argues that genuine productivity for “knowledge workers” requires not “jittery busyness” but “deep contemplation.” Yet there’s a marked busyness to the profusion of examples in this book, which include anecdotes about Marie Curie, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alanis Morissette and the Agta people of the northern Philippines, to name just a few.

The glancing footnote about Galileo’s ailment gestures at something profoundly connected to Newport’s subject: the tension between contingency and control, and the specter of mortality that looms over our preoccupation with productivity and time. But Newport, who writes that the idea for this book came to him during the pandemic, isn’t inclined to explore anything so complicated. For his purposes, Galileo is just another input — an exemplar like any other.

“Slow Productivity” is Newport’s eighth book; he is also a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and a contributing writer at The New Yorker — no slouch, in other words. In his acknowledgments, he thanks his wife for “putting up with all the sacrifices involved in having a partner with a troubling addiction to writing books,” among them the bestsellers “Digital Minimalism” (2019) and “A World Without Email” (2021). He started out writing advice guides for students, steering them away from the sinkhole of over scheduling so that they could become “relaxed superstars,” like him. In “Deep Work” (2016), he provided step-by-step tips on how to reclaim our powers of attention from the clutches of electronic distraction.

The ceaseless demands of busywork, the temptations of digital interruptions, the fracturing of our attention spans — you probably notice a theme. “Slow Productivity” delivers another variation on it, revisiting ideas Newport has previously explored, though the framework this time is how our cultural obsession with productivity was shaped (and consequently warped) by the Industrial Revolution. Even “knowledge work,” which “lacks useful standard definitions of productivity,” has been commandeered by a vision of “continuous, monotonous labor that never alters,” Newport writes, pointing out how people will often “gravitate away from deeper efforts to shallower, more concrete tasks that can be easily checked off a to-do list.” He calls this “mood” of frenetic activity “pseudo-productivity.”

Newport opens the book with a description of The New Yorker staff writer John McPhee during the summer of 1966, lying on a picnic table in his backyard, staring at the ash tree above him as he tried to figure out how to fashion an article from all the material he had amassed about the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. Newport says that there is much we can learn from such “languid intentionality.” He proposes three main tips, or what he calls “principles”: “Do fewer things,” “Work at a natural pace” and “Obsess over quality.”

These recommendations sound appealing, though the individuals who need to hear them most are perhaps not the burned-out knowledge workers in Newport’s audience but the people who control the means of paying them. Newport’s “principles” presume a certain constellation of factors, all of them working in your favor. He is aware of this, and concedes that McPhee’s circumstances aren’t replicable for many readers, slipping in dutiful caveats about “bosses or clients making demands” and “the realities of 21st-century jobs.” But he insists that “it’s often our own anxieties that play the role of the fiercest taskmaster.” On occasion, he can get defensive. “It’s easy to therefore reject these case studies with a dismissive nod to privilege,” he writes. “Though satisfying, this isn’t a useful response, given our broader goals.”

Those “broader goals” revolve around achieving success in the world as it currently is. So Newport advises life hacks (some of which he has proposed in earlier books) like “time blocking” and limiting your major tasks to one project a day. If people try to bombard you with requests, create a “deflection project” that allows you to let them down gently by making it seem you’re busier than you actually are.

He also recommends “high-quality leisure activities,” such as seeing a matinee movie once a month in order to “improve your taste” — treating taste as yet another thing to be optimized instead of exploring knottier questions of style and idiosyncrasy. Newport earnestly recounts all the steps he took to “give cinema a try,” which included reading a lot of books and, in an “advanced twist,” looking for “detailed discussions of lens and framing techniques.”

All this cinema, Newport declares, has made a difference in his work: “Film has nothing to do with my writing career, but studying film enlarged my ambitions as an author.” Yet “Slow Productivity” offers little evidence of such risk-taking in his writing or in his thinking; he keeps returning to territory covered in his earlier books, repackaging warmed-over ideas as “revelations.”

Watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” made Newport realize how much he liked using “lower genre tropes” from self-help while “pursuing higher ends.” This is a lofty way to describe his bestselling formula. By clinging to the same concepts over and again, an author will undoubtedly realize some productivity gains, only for a reader to realize something else: Maybe none of it is really that deep.

Publication Notes:

‘Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout’

By Cal Newport

Portfolio. 244 pages. $27.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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