Slow Productivity author Cal Newport explains how we can achieve more by doing less

Virgin Radio

14 May 2024, 11:10

Cal Newport talks to Chris Evans at Virgin Radio.

Credit: Virgin Radio

New York Times bestselling author and productivity expert Cal Newport visited Virgin Radio to turn the pages of his new book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout.

Joining the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with webuyanycar, he said: “We have this idea that emerged in the 20th century, that activity is our marker of productivity. So doing more things is better than doing less things, doing more things fast is better than doing less things as well. So we have this idea that busyness is going to alchemize in the results. The issue is it doesn't really match reality. That's not how you produce stuff that matters. It's also a recipe for exhaustion.”

The Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University continued: “We were not meant as a species to work eight hours a day, full intensity all year long. We never did that. Until mills and factories came along. And when we started doing that, and mills and factories, we forget it was terrible. I mean, we had to invent labour unions and regulatory frameworks just to try to make that type of job tolerable. Then knowledge work comes along. And what do we do? Yeah, we say, ‘Let's just do what they're doing in the factories, clock in eight hours.’

In the book, Cal exemplifies his point with case-studies from scientists, philosophers, artists and scholars, including Isaac Newton, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jane Austen. “There's a story about Jane, which is not true, that she used to hide her writing, she would squeeze it in between other things, that the hinge on the door would squeak so she could hide her writing before people came in, completely untrue. She famously wrote about how she was too busy to get any writing done. It wasn't until later where her father had died, her and her mum or sister and a family friend basically left the social scene, left the busy life, retreated to a cottage where she could do nothing but write. That's when she wrote off the five books she's known for. All of that was written in two years. She had to do less before she could actually do anything that really mattered.”

He explained: “What happens that makes us even worse at knowledge work is that when we take on too many things, too many projects, now they bring with them, in our modern world, administrative overhead. So if I say yes to a project, I have to send emails about that project, I have to go to meetings about that, we have to collaborate, right? So if I say yes to seven or eight projects, that overhead aggregates, and eventually you cross a threshold where my entire day is servicing the overhead of my projects, and nothing actually gets done. 

“This is why with knowledge work, if we apply the Jane Austen idea, if we do fewer projects at once, we have fewer overheads taking up time in our schedule, we can actually get this work done. I mean, we're gonna actually finish things faster if we work on fewer things at the same time. So that idea from the 18th century from Austin can apply to the 21st century when we're thinking about our current types of project loads.”

Ca, who has sold over two million books world-wide and they have been translated into over forty languages.l added: “You need the sweet spot in between the relentless but sustainable pace. I’m continuing to work on this, but giving it my full attention when it gets my attention. But not too much time, spread out over time, that's where good stuff emerges.”

In the book, Cal gives a philosophy for productivity based on three simple principles. He explained: “We have ‘do fewer things’, which terrifies people by the way, but it shouldn't, because it's just ‘do fewer things at once’. Not ‘accomplish fewer things’, do fewer things at once. We have ‘work at a natural pace’, right? So this is, you can't be all on, all day long, all year round. You’ve got to vary that intensity, and then ‘obsess over quality,’ care about your craft, everything else becomes easier.”

He told Chris: “When we think about life, we think about what gets me going, what turns me on, what's exciting to me. And then when work, we turn that all off, and we can be like, ‘Yeah, we're just information processing machines, we're just going to sit here and route emails back and forth in between Zoom meetings.’ That's not the way humans are designed. It's like one of my big arguments in the book is that if we adjust knowledge work to match the way humans actually function, we're not only going to be better at it, we're not going to be miserable.”

Slow Productivity: The Lost Art Of Accomplishment Without Burnout is out now.

For more great interviews listen to The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with webuyanycar weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or catch up on-demand here.