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Less Is More: The Case for ‘Slow Productivity’ at Work

We’re thinking about productivity at work all wrong, Cal Newport says. But how do we tell the boss that?

Tue, Apr 30, 2024 9:11amGrey Clock 4 min

You’re oh so busy. You’re on Slack and email and back-to-back Zoom calls , sometimes all at once . Are you actually getting real work done?

Cal Newport doesn’t think so.

“It’s like, wait a second, none of this mattered,” says the Georgetown University computer science professor and crusader for focus in a distracted age.

Newport, 41, says we can accomplish more by shedding the overload. He calls his solution “slow productivity”—and has a book by the same name —a way for high achievers to say yes to fewer things, do them better and even slack off in strategic doses. Top-notch quality is the goal, and frenetic activity the enemy.

This, he told me, is the thing that can save our jobs from AI and layoffs, and even make shareholders happy.

I had questions. Can we really be less is more at work, or have we grown addicted to constantly crossing endless tasks off our to-do lists? What will our bosses think?

After all, so many of us yearn for a burnout cure-all that will preserve our high-achiever status, and this isn’t the first you-can-have-it-all proposition we’ve heard. Champions of the four-day workweek promise we can ditch an entire workday just by working smarter. Remote-work die-hards swear it’s a win for employers and employees. Few dreams are more seductive than bidding goodbye to hustle culture, while still reaping the benefits of said hustle.

Newport acknowledges that saying no to preserve our productivity can be a delicate act. He knows that entrepreneurs have more flexibility, but says those of us who answer to managers can carve this out too. We might even find we have more power and value to our employers.

“You should take that value out for a little bit of a spin,” he suggests. He offers some pointers.

Less is more

The way we work now is a “serious economic drag,” Newport says. Knowledge workers have devolved into a form of productivity that’s more about the vibes—stressed!—than actually making money for the company. Data from Microsoft finds that lots of us spend the equivalent of two workdays a week on meetings and email alone.

One mistake we make, Newport says, is taking on too many projects, then getting bogged down in the administrative overload—talking about the work, coordinating with others—that each requires. Work becomes a string of planning meetings, waiting on someone from another department to give us a go-ahead.

Newport recommends giving priority to a couple projects, then bumping the others to a waiting list in order of importance. Make that list public, say, in a Google doc you share with bosses and colleagues.

“When workloads are obfuscated behind black boxes, it’s just people throwing stuff at each other, it’s very dangerous to say no,” Newport says.

If someone comes to you with more work, have them consider where it should go on your list, Newport says.

When you do say yes, double the estimated timelines you set to complete a project. That’s how long it’ll take to do it well, he says. And try what he calls a “one for you, one for me strategy.” Every time you book an hour-long meeting, block an hour for independent work on your calendar.

Be the one to trust

It’s a foreign and bracing approach for those of us who reflexively say yes to work requests. Newport’s philosophy requires transparency and confidence. Instead of “let me see how fast I can turn that around!”, try, “This request will take six hours. I’ll have that time in three weeks.”

This could be heresy at some companies. The trick is in the delivery, he says. Never make it seem like work tasks are a burden you shouldn’t have to face. Instead, stress that you’re trying to be as effective as you can for the team and the company. Be positive, and deliver on the timelines you promise. You’ll be seen as someone who’s organised and on top of your game.

We think bosses want someone who’s always accessible—fast to respond, fast to jump into action, Newport says. But what bosses really want is to know that a project they hand you will get done.

Bite-size shirking

Quiet quitting permanently is a bad idea, Newport says, but a little bit is good.

Don’t feel guilty, he adds. You’re working under a new, better system. We weren’t meant to work all out , every day, without seasonal shifts and pauses.

Pick a time—say, the month of July—to slow down. Don’t volunteer for extra work. Don’t offer Mondays as a possibility for meetings. Take on an easier project for cover.

He also recommends taking yourself out to a monthly movie during the workday. Say it’s a personal appointment, and enjoy the sense of control and creativity it brings.

You don’t have to nail a manifesto to the wall, he adds, or try to change the whole company culture. Instead, quietly carve out change for yourself.

Coming into your power

The catch: You have to be really good at the part of your job that matters. And you have to get big stuff done. Remember, this is about being a happier high performer, not slacking.

“There’s no hiding,” Newport says.

I suspect this terrifies a lot of people. They’ve gotten good at being always on and typing up yet another meeting agenda. Tackling a major project or goal is often harder, and comes without a guarantee that you’re going to nail it.

Scary or not, real work is becoming imperative. AI is coming for the rote parts of our jobs. Leaders are sussing out the “nonsense” projects and roles in their ranks as they cut jobs, Newport says. No boss wants to be left with a team of people who are aces at responding to emails.

Mastering a valuable skill puts you in control. Newport writes of people who leave corporate America behind and move where they want , working remotely as contractors, charging wild fees for fewer hours of work. The more you shed the work that doesn’t matter, and spend that time getting better at the stuff that does, the more leeway you’ll get.

“The marketplace doesn’t care about your personal interest in slowing down,” Newport writes. “If you want more control over your schedule, you need something to offer in return.”

Figure that puzzle out, and you might just be able to have it all—high achievement, and your sanity.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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Worrying about the cost of living is causing accelerated ageing, household arguments and creating significant stress, according to new research. More than half of Australians say they have experienced personal setbacks due to financial strain over the past year. Almost 20 percent say that have suffered a stress-related illness, 33 percent have lost sleep and almost one in five are seeing signs of early ageing.

Household hostility is also rising, with 19 percent of Australians admitting they have argued with their partners about money, and a further one in 10 have argued with family and friends.

The Finder survey of 1,070 Australians reveals women are bearing the brunt of financial stress, with 62 percent reporting they have worried about money compared to 42 percent of men.

Younger Australians are struggling the most, with almost 7 in 10 Gen Z respondents reporting financial strain compared to 58 percent of Gen Xers and 24 percent of baby boomers.

The impact of cost-of-living pressures among different age groups and income levels is reflected in new data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The selected living cost indexes show employee households are under more strain from inflation, with the CPI measure for this population group at 6.5 percent today compared to the official overall CPI figure of just 3.6 percent.

The discrepancy is due to higher mortgage interest payments – which make up a higher proportion of expenditure for employee households — as well as an increase in primary and secondary school fees, and the indexation of tertiary education fees at the start of the year. The official CPI does not include mortgage payments, so the living cost indexes provide a more accurate picture of how rising interest rates are impacting households with mortgages today.

The inflation rate is much lower for older Australians, who have often paid off their mortgages. The inflation rate on living expenses for age pensioner households is below the official CPI level at 3.3 percent, and it’s only slightly higher at 3.4 percent for self-funded retirees.

Graham Cooke, head of consumer research at Finder, said that despite cooling inflation, Australians were still under significant financial pressure.

This can be seen in Finders Cost of Living Pressure Gauge, which has been hovering in the extreme range for the past year and a half, Mr Cooke said. The gauge returned a reading of 78 percent in March this year compared to 47 percent in March 2021, when inflation was 1.1 percent and the Reserve Bank’s official cash rate was 0.1 percent.

Interestingly, Australians’ cash savings are higher today than they were in 2021, likely reflecting stimulus payments received and saved during the pandemic. The Reserve Bank has cited pandemic savings as a factor in keeping mortgage arrears low despite much higher interest rates. The Finder research shows Australians have an average of $37,206 in cash savings today, up from $24,928 two years ago.

Money concerns can cause problems in your everyday life and snowball quickly if you don’t get them under control,” Mr Cooke said. Building financial resilience is as vital as ever as costs continue to rise. Pay close attention to where your money is going so you keep impulse spending to a minimum, and don’t overspend.

Australians appear to be heeding this advice, with the latest ABS retail figures showing seven straight quarters of declining per capita spending. “Per capita volumes show retail turnover after the effects of inflation and population growth have been accounted for,” explained Ben Dorber, ABS head of retail statistics. “Following an unprecedented seven straight falls, it is very clear how much consumers have pulled back on spending in response to cost of living pressures over the past two years.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

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Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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