Getting to Yes, And

Slow Productivity


Cal Newport

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Kelly welcomes Cal Newport back to the podcast. Cal is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University where he is also a founding member of the Center for Digital Ethics. He is the author of many books, including “Deep Work.” His latest book is called “Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout.”

The thesis of the book starts with the idea that we aren’t operating with scientific understandings of what productivity means in basic office work.

“We don't have good definitions of productivity. We don't know what that means.  And this is a problem. So, we've fallen back on these default heuristics, including what I call pseudo productivity, which is that activity is better than non-activity; busyness is better than non-busyness. If you're doing something it’s better than not doing something. We fall back on these heuristics as well as these factory style ideas of what hours are you working? And let's make sure that it's enough hours - that's all we have. And that's not working as a sustainable way to organize or try to even optimize cognitive work. So we need better ideas. And slow productivity is a better idea.”

So, we have no science about what productivity is and individuals think they know, but they don’t.

"People think that they know what productivity means. But what they really have in mind is a vibe. They have kind of a vibe of what that means. So, I ask people, right? In the book, I talk to about 700 people in a survey. One of the questions I asked is ‘define productivity.’ Really, no one could do it. All these knowledge workers, like the best they could do was basically describe the various things they work on in their jobs. They're like, 'Well I produce reports and I’m accountable to my stakeholders in a timely manner.' That's not productivity.”

Couldn’t you argue that technology has made us more productive?

“My grandfather didn't own a computer. He would write longhand on legal pads, and then his secretary would transcribe what he wrote on legal pads, and then he would go over those with a pen or a red pencil, and then they would take it back, and they'd just be typed. I mean, an incredibly inefficient way. He published a ton of books. He published a lot. He was a very productive scholar. And we have the same jobs. He's a more productive scholar than I am. He didn't have email; he didn't have word processors; he didn't even have a computer. I think those wormhole examples really get at this reality, that just because we throw a lot of technology that makes isolated things more efficient at our jobs doesn't make us better at our jobs.”

Photo Credit: Penny Gray Photography

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