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When Modern Workplace Busyness Becomes A Deterrent To Actual Productivity

Cal Newport urges knowledge workers to do less, but better. His diagnosis of modern work is accurate, but his prescriptions border on naive.

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Since 2012, Cal Newport has been sounding the alarm. First, he criticized knowledge workers for seeking job satisfaction through “following their passion” rather than building skills through what he called “deep work.” By incorporating regular, focused skill-building sessions, or “deep work,” into their day, Newport argued knowledge workers could create higher quality output, which in turn would provide leverage to gain ever greater autonomy for honing their craft. His new book, Slow Productivity, further develops this formula, but it feels increasingly out of step.

Contemporary knowledge work can sometimes seem like a satire. A 2023 Microsoft report found that “the average employee spent 57% of their time using office software for communication — in meetings, email, chat.” Because so much of the workday is spent talking about work rather than doing it, people end up logging in early, late at night, or on weekends. During the workday, there’s no time to actually work.

“Collaboration tools” like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams that are supposed to streamline workplace communication easily become productivity impediments with their pings and the pressure to stay always available. Toggling between all these tasks takes a toll since our brains cannot change operations as seamlessly as our computers can. One UC-Irvine study found it can take up to 23 minutes to return to full focus after a distraction. Newport calls these constant distractions “productivity poison.”

This work style of keeping plates spinning and endless meetings has made many malcontents, and “burnout” is a household term now. At root, the pace of modern work prizes short-term efficiency and convenience over long-term output and sanity. The culinary version of this problem — fast-food culture — led to the Slow Food movement, an approach that sought to restore a healthy, historic, connected relationship to eating.

Similarly, Newport proposes we look to history’s “knowledge workers” — philosophers, novelists, scientists — so that we might emulate their dedicated, unhurried, but undeniably productive approach. For instance, Marie Curie went on an extended vacation in the summer of 1896 while she was in the thick of groundbreaking experiments involving radioactivity. This seeming lack of commitment is belied by her two eventual Nobel Prizes. In the long run, sustainable pace trumps maximal activity.

The obvious caveat is that Slow Productivity’s self-described target audience, “freelancers, solopreneurs, and small-business owners, as well as those in fields like academia,” is a small segment of white-collar workers. For most people, the norms of constant availability (and distraction) are deeply entrenched. Nevertheless, Newport’s case is compelling, his diagnoses are insightful, and there are helpful nuggets, no matter your work situation.

Pseudo-Productivity and Digital Lies

Newport coins the term “pseudo-productivity” for “using visible activity as the primary means of approximating productive effort.” Unlike other fields like manufacturing or agriculture, productivity in knowledge work is more slippery. For those who can’t point to a novel or academic paper as proof of their value (and an excuse to escape from constant interruptions), it’s easy to feel like you’re “pulling a fast one,” getting paid but not doing all that much. Appearing busy through rapid email replies and volunteering for numerous projects can ease that insecurity.

Ultimately, though, that dodges the question of how you might best create value for your employer and even a sense of meaningful progress for yourself. Pseudo-productivity is the professional manifestation of a much larger challenge of the digital age: the widening gap between public performance and private reality. People signal that they’re hustling via Slack, that they’re virtuous via Twitter, and that they’re beautiful via Instagram, but all these digital tools hinder becoming genuinely capable, thoughtful, and desirable.

Newport helps elucidate the difference between meaningful progress and workplace performances of busyness. He profiles journalist and author John McPhee, who published 29 books and numerous long-form pieces for The New Yorker. In a 2010 interview with The Paris Review, McPhee explained:

If somebody says to me, “You’re a prolific writer” — it seems so odd. It’s like the difference between geological time and human time. On a certain scale, it does look like I do a lot. But that’s my day, all day long, sitting there wondering when I’m going to be able to get started. And the routine of doing this six days a week puts a little drop in a bucket each day, and that’s the key.

This patient application of skill produces meaningful, even prolific output, but only viewed from the “geological” or “slow productivity” scale. His measured pace reduces activity but directs it more effectively. Most knowledge workers do precisely the opposite, expending most of their energy on administrative tasks and juggling email threads. By failing to define what tasks are most valuable and protecting them, workers suffer death by a thousand Zooms.

Something to Strive For

Historic “knowledge workers” and contemporary creatives both avoid constant, trivial activity to create necessary mental space. McPhee sits around, waiting to start. Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1748 as he was selling off various businesses: “I am settling my old accounts and hope soon to be quite a master of my own time.” Freed from what he called the “little cares and fatigues of business,” Franklin could delve into the new field of electricity. In just a few years, he introduced a theory of positive and negative flow, invented the battery, and built a rudimentary electric motor.

The fact is, much of modern office life is a result of inertia, not careful consideration. The 40-hour workweek is a holdover from labor laws meant to protect physical laborers, not maximize cognitive contributions. The norms around Slack and email encourage easy but not always fruitful efforts. The bottom line, though, is to create a more humane knowledge work set-up, you would have to find a disciplined and well-managed company, or you would have to join the ranks of solopreneurs, freelancers, academics, and others with a large amount of autonomy.

So Slow Productivity may be more aspirational than actionable, but something to aim for is better than nothing at all.


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