Animation by Fanny Luor
Animation by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

Work slower, achieve more: A talk with Cal Newport


Published on April 26, 2024

Could simplifying your task list lead to greater work? Cal Newport makes the case.

Cal Newport
Cal Newport. Penny Gray Photography

The cover of Cal Newport’s latest book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout features a grand western mountainscape. This sweeping view serves as a metaphor for the big change the writer proposes: that in the modern workplace, we’re often too caught up in the minutiae—the trees—to appreciate the broader scope of our work. Even if the view could be great, we might not see it. We’re too busy. 

Newport—author of bestsellers Deep Work and Digital Minimalism and a professor of computer science at Georgetown—criticizes the performative hustle of our current work culture. He argues for a return to "time-tested traditions" for a more meaningful approach, drawing lessons from the work processes of the Romantic novelist Jane Austen, scientist Isaac Newton, painter Georgia O’Keefe, the singer/songwriter Jewel, and others, for evidence that focusing deeply on fewer tasks can lead to greater, more meaningful outcomes.

Slow Productivity champions the philosophy of trimming our to-do lists: doing less to achieve more, emphasizing quality over quantity, and challenging the unsustainable pace of modern work expectations. We talked to Newport to dig into these concepts.

Can you discuss what modern workers can learn from historical figures like Jane Austen and Isaac Newton, who didn't have modern distractions like Slack or email?

There were three big principles that I saw. One was working on fewer things at a time—not frantically jumping back and forth between 50 tasks. Second, their work pace was natural and varied. They had busy periods and less busy periods, and they measured productivity over longer timescales, such as decades, rather than days. And third, they really cared about quality. The antidote to busyness is really caring about craft. They had a whole vocabulary and set of habits built around doing what they do really well.

"The antidote to busyness is caring about craft."


How does the concept of craft fit into modern professions, and how can we cultivate a craftsman-like approach to our work?

In modern office jobs, the concept of craft is often obscured because visible activity has become our primary measure of productivity. We're caught up in calls, meetings, and emails which distance us from true craft. But when you peel that back, especially beyond entry-level roles, you’re likely doing one or two things that are truly valuable and bring real value to the company. For a manager, it might be setting strategy and supporting the team's execution. Rediscovering and focusing on what you do that’s most valuable is crucial—no one’s paying you for emails or meetings. Isolating that and striving to excel in it is a real step toward embracing a slower, more meaningful notion of productivity.

What led you to explore the idea that became Slow Productivity? 

During the pandemic, I heard from my readers and podcast listeners who were exhausted by work that felt performative—the endless Zoom calls, the emails, the Slack messages. They questioned, "What are we really doing here?" 

The pandemic revealed the flaws in knowledge work. As it became a major economic force in the mid-20th century, the old productivity definitions from factories and farms no longer applied. We used Adam Smith-inspired metrics, focusing on output per input like bushels of wheat per acre, supported by well-defined production systems for measurable efficiency improvements. 

But none of that made sense in knowledge work, where each individual worker could be working on many different things. Organizing work and managing time were personal, making traditional productivity ratios irrelevant. This led to pseudo-productivity, where visible activity became a proxy for effective effort—the basic idea being "I just want to see you're doing stuff, because then I can assume it's probably useful."

You point out that knowledge workers had (and still have) similar schedules to workers at Bethlehem Steel—even though they are doing vastly different jobs.

Yeah, the same hours, which come out of the Fair Labor Standards Act from the 1930s, were intended for monotonous physical labor. What's the maximum time you could work before your body and mind shut down? This number comes from a very specific context.

With the advent of network computers, mobile computing, and ubiquitous wireless internet, using visible activity as our productivity measure really began to go off the rails. The introduction of productivity software meant to increase specialization actually had the opposite effect: the amount of tasks each person could handle skyrocketed.

Larger networks made it easier to pass work around. You could now send a low-friction message. Mobile computing allowed us to show we're working from anywhere. Looking at productivity literature from the early 2000s, you see a shift. People became overwhelmed, the pace of activity increased, and burnout began to rise.

"Rediscovering and focusing on what you do that’s most valuable is crucial—no one’s paying you for emails or meetings."

I wanted to discuss the idea of obsessing over quality versus the belief that “done is better than perfect.” How do you balance these perspectives?

In a lot of knowledge work, because of pseudo productivity, we don't think at all about quality—we think of visible activity. So it's a mindset shift towards “the thing I care about most is doing my craft.” 

Once you make that shift, perfectionism really matters. So you have to be careful, because you still have to ship. In the book, I talk about tactical things to do, ways to put stakes in the ground: “I promised to deliver this on a certain date, which is enough time for me really to do something good. But I have to deliver.” 

I liked your exploration of Newton's work, suggesting that once someone creates something great, nobody remembers how long it took—or the mediocre attempts that led up to it. Can you elaborate on how this idea can influence creative work?

It took a really long time for Newton. And I write about Marie Curie. She was honing in on the research that was going to win her her first of two Nobel Prizes while on a three-month vacation in the French countryside. People often think of vacations or breaks as unproductive. If your goal is over the next 20 years to do something great, you might want to use that example and give yourself more breathing room and flexibility in the short term.

"Once you make that shift, perfectionism really matters."

Do you have a favorite moment from your research into moments of creativity and production that felt particularly impactful, or changed how you personally approach your work?

The Jane Austen story was important for me. I had always heard about how she managed to write on scraps of paper, hiding her work when she heard a door creak. But truthfully, when her life was too busy, she couldn't write at all, and it frustrated her. It was only when they moved to a cottage and stepped back from social events that she was able to write five books in four years.

That gave me peace, realizing that when you have a lot going on, it's really hard to produce significant work. Don't be down on yourself if you can’t wake up at 5 a.m. and get a novel out. Jane couldn't do it. I found that almost relieving. 


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.