Are you a victim of a productivity trap and feel burned?

Cal Newport - Slow Productivity

Our work has changed dramatically over the years. I represent the generation that was one of the first to get a corporate email (80s), and even then, it was limited to a group of technologists I also represented. Looking at my life now, especially with a mostly virtual job, many things have changed since I started my career.

This time, I wanted to bring up an issue that many of us might feel every now and then. Our bosses or clients often want us to show productivity to the detriment of quality. We hear the words, "Just get it done, and stop the whining." The increase in productivity is also due to many new technological innovations, such as Microsoft Copilot, in many forms. It is like magic to have Microsoft 365 Copilot" working with me," even if I know it is driven by AI and LLMs (plus TELLUS internal documents).

I am currently running virtual educational sessions with 10+ senior Partner Development Managers (PDMs) as part of TELLUS International education programs. After each session where I have the PDM present the case to me, I can use Copilot to summarize the findings, recommendations, and everything that had to do with the session. How unreal is that? I still can't believe I am in the position to experience such advancement in technology, even if I am one of those who educate organizations on how to embed AI in their operations or solutions.

The book I want to discuss in this review is "Slow Productivity—The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout" by Cal Newport, a Computer Science Professor at Georgetown University. He is also the author of "Digital Minimalism" and "Deep Work," both based on the philosophy of pursuing meaningful accomplishment while avoiding overload.

The book is geared towards knowledge workers who might not similarly see their productivity as people working with physical things—in other words, any person who works in an office. I regard myself as a knowledge worker. I educate people in tech, facilitate management workshops,and sell technology solutions for organizations. You get the picture of the target audience.

The author introduces the concept of "Slow Productivity," which consists of three simple ideas:

🎯Do fewer things

🎯Work at a natural pace

🎯Obsess over quality

The concept of "Do fewer things" is a concept that I have to remind myself of on a regular basis. As a business owner, there are so many things in the "cooking" that I have to remind myself that it is not healthy to jump between different "projects" during a work session but to focus on one and then move to another. The author claims nobody should have more than 3 "projects" at any time. It is so easy to get distracted when working on something and then getting an email with a burning question related to another project that takes away your focus from what you were working on. The author describes the third principle in the following way:

Strive to reduce your obligations to the point where you can easily imagine accomplishing them with time to spare. Leverage this reduced load to more fully embrace and advance the small number of projects that matter most.

The concept of "Work at a natural pace" I love the stories the author brings in his book of inventors such as Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, and many others took time with their inventions, sometimes years or even decades. The principle is defined as follows in the book:

"Don't rush your most important work. Allow it instead to unfold along a sustainable timeline, with variations in intensity, in settings conductive to brilliance".

I sometimes miss when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, where I withdrew myself into our Helsinki downtown apartment and lived like a "hermit," just focusing and pondering about my contribution to this world. There was no distraction of anything I just wanted to "be alone" and sink into the topic. I also need an inspiring environment when doing my "thinking," it could be the beauty of nature, sunset, sunrise, or whatever makes my inspiration flourish. Academic university environments are also something I am fascinated about, and one of my favorite areas to visit is the Paris Sorbonne University area.

The final "Obsess over quality" is something that I think we have kind of forgotten in our current fast-paced working environment. I see too many of those "subpar" deliveries resulting in me having to spend time fixing things somebody else caused. The author describes the principle in the following way:

"Obsess over quality of what you produce, even if this means missing opportunities in the short term. Leverage the value of these results to gain more and more freedom in your efforts over the long term"

I have been told sometimes to be guilty of this. When I deliver a workshop report to my customer, I want to ensure I can stand behind my findings and recommendations. It is about quality, and it is, to some extent, what I want my brand to look like. If the work is subpar, how will that reflect on me? What will my customer say if there is a reference call? Could I have been quicker in releasing a report? Sure. Would I take it back if I could reverse it to send the report more quickly? No. Easy decision.

The book is full of fantastic examples of historical and current cases exploring each of the 3 principles that he introduces. I think you would benefit from reading the book just to remind yourself that sometimes it is good to pace yourself, reflect, and focus on what is important to get done and focus on fewer things. You can get burnt out quickly if you overcommit and underdeliver. That is a promise.


Dr. Petri I. Salonen

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