Less Is More: The Case for ‘Slow Productivity’ at Work - Kanebridge News
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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 9:40amGrey 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 organized 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.


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Milestone birthdays and anniversaries, weddings, and graduations are momentous life occasions that some like to mark with large and elaborate celebrations.

And the deep-pocketed set are still in catch-up mode after a party-throwing standstill during the pandemic that went on for many months during the height of the lockdowns and social distancing. Bashes since then have become ever more extravagant and experiential—mere get-togethers, they’re not.

Hosts are also seeking any excuse to throw an event and having parties with the same “wow” factor for far less significant reasons, or for micro-occasions as they’re called, and even “just because,” according to luxury event planners who work with this elite set.

Colin Cowie, a planner based in New York and Miami who regularly orchestrates multimillion-dollar gatherings and was behind Jennifer Lopez’s and Ben Affleck’s wedding, calls it the “event revolution.”

“Large-scale events have become the norm,” Cowie says. “The wealthy, who are used to celebrating their life moments in a big way couldn’t do anything during the pandemic and are now going all out for anything they host.”

His company, Colin Cowie Lifestyle, plans 30% more events today than pre-Covid and has a lineup booked for the next two years. An example includes an upcoming million-dollar dinner party in the Hamptons simply to socialise with friends. It’s an affair with free-flowing Dom Perignon, centre-cut filet mignons, and unlimited caviar.

Colin Cowie Lifestyle plans 30% more events today than pre-Covid
Calen Rose

Other high-end planners also attribute the rise of over-the-top celebrations to a “live life to the fullest” attitude that’s become prevalent in the last few years. But they say that these parties aren’t necessarily about spending more than before—rather, they’re increasingly creative, thoughtful, and, with respect to weddings, longer.

Lynn Easton, a Charleston-based planner, says that her typical wedding used to span two days and entailed a rehearsal dinner plus the wedding itself. “Now, it’s a five-day bonanza with events like a groomsman lunch,” Easton says.

Easton also plans glitzy milestone birthdays such as one for a 60th where the host flew 60 friends and family to a private island. Dinners were multi-hour affairs in various locations around the isle with the showpiece being a five-course meal where the food was presented on dishes that were hand-carved in ice.

Another planner, Victoria Dubin, based in New York and Miami, says that, in a new precedent, the weddings she’s tapped to design kick off with striking welcome meals. She recently planned an al fresco rehearsal dinner at the Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s that recreated a Tuscan garden. Elements included potted herbs, lemon trees, vintage olive oil cans, ceramic plates, and table cards presented with palm leaves in limoncello cans.

Another planner, Victoria Dubin, recently planned an al fresco rehearsal dinner at the Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s that recreated a Tuscan garden.
Aletiza Photo

Pashmina shawls hung from chairs to keep guests warm, and freshly baked pizzas and Aperol spritzes were in ready supply throughout the evening.

Stacy Teckin, the groom’s mother, hosted the party with her husband, Ian, and says she sought to pull off a dinner that made an impression on their guests. “The wedding was delayed because of Covid, and now that we had the chance to celebrate, we wanted to go all out,” Teckin says. “I’m not sure we would have done that before.”

In another example, acclaimed planner Norma Cohen threw a wild safari-themed bar mitzvah for a client.

A four-day wedding in Paris where the ceremony was in a historic chateau and the host paid for guests to stay at Hotel Crillon
Norma Cohen Productions

The memorable occasion transpired at Spring Studios in downtown Manhattan and saw 400 guests be transported to the African plains: Details included mammoth replicas of wildlife such as giraffes and elephants, servers in safari themed attire, and entertainment dressed like giraffes. The event was one of several over-the-top parties Cohen’s arranged recently.

A four-day wedding in Paris where the ceremony was in a historic chateau and the host paid for guests to stay at Hotel Crillon, one of the city’s most luxurious properties, also ranks high in Cohen’s memory.

Then there’s a destination party in London that Cohen planned for a client who was turning 40. It as a six-day affair with dinners at swanky spots such as Cipriani, the Arts Club, and Cecconi’s at Soho House. The finale was Lancaster House, a mansion in St. James, where guests were entertained by cabaret dancers from the famed Ibiza club Lio Ibiza and feasted on prime rib and lamb chops and imbibed on Krug champagne.

“People today don’t want to host events,” Cohen says. “They want experiences that take you away to a different place and make you forget that the real world exists.”