Hustle Culture Is Over. Slow Productivity Is the Way to Meaningful Work

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 5, 2024
African American man working at laptop on couch

At the end of a productive day, how do you feel? If your answer is exhausted and depleted, instead of proud and energized, you might need to rethink the definition of “productive” altogether. That’s what New York Times bestselling author Cal Newport does for us in his new book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout

Hustle culture is not the answer. Slow productivity is.

Newport’s book is a response to blatant and subtle callouts from his readers and followers, as well as his own family. “Two things happened at the same time. First, in my own life, my three boys arrived at an age where it suddenly became clear that they needed as much time as possible with me. This created a real tension with my desire to produce impactful work,” he says. “Second, my podcast listeners and newsletter subscribers began sending me notes about their increasing frustration with productivity culture.”  

He calls it productivity culture, others have called it “hustle” culture—the idea that you have to do more, work long hours, buckle down, push through the grind and overschedule yourself until you are working nights and weekends to “make it.” Yet, the people who are doing this find themselves burned out, and worse, not producing meaningful work, Newport asserts in his book.

“Being busy has very little to do with producing good results. In many cases, speeding up your tempo of work makes you worse at your job,” Newport says.

But we’ve all heard “slow down,” a cliché we breeze right through on the way back into our busy inboxes. Here’s how Newport says it can actually be done.

Determine your natural pace of work and build your schedule around that

Newport says in his book that our brains perform best at their own pace, creating less meaningful work when we are rushed. And while we think it’s our bosses or deadlines, or even our bottom line driving the stress to produce, he tells readers it’s someone else pressuring us—ourselves.

“Slowing down the timelines on which I tackle big projects, such as writing books or major articles, has massively reduced the stress in my life. The funny thing is, that while I now enjoy these great benefits from ‘working at a natural pace,’ no one ever complained about it. I was the one who was ultimately driving myself to work as fast as possible, not an outside force,” he says.

Newport has specific hacks for cutting items on your list, including:

  • Specifically asking the assigner to take things off your plate by cutting projects that you clearly don’t want to do, aren’t capable of doing or are dreading doing
  • Holding “office hours” where conversations that would otherwise result in seriously long email chains can be taken care of much more efficiently
  • Determining your bandwidth for different seasons of your life, through improved awareness of your output abilities in each season
  • Delegating to essential team members, from a lawyer to an accountant, to eliminate “extra” tasks

Removing items from your list and delegating tasks allows you to work slower and more efficiently, which in turn, translates to more meaningful work. 

Don’t mistake visible productivity for slow productivity

Newport dives into the pandemic’s impact on our work lives, which became so Zoom call-laden when we switched to remote work, that companies became more concerned with measurable productivity that was “visible.” Visible productivity’s origins started much before that, when work shifted from using our talents to do a job, to completing all the tasks “around” work, such as that never-ending email inbox. 

Newport calls this “pseudo” productivity: “The use of visible activity as the primary means of approximating actual productive effort.” He points to one study that showed that participants check their inbox every six minutes. While this type of productivity is an improvement for knowledge workers, it is doing silent damage as well, he says, pushing workers toward exhaustion. 

In particular, technology (and all those notifications) paired with pseudo productivity is pushing us to a “collision course with the burnout crisis that afflicts us today,” he adds. So, looking busy and proving busyness to others, such as a watchful boss, has its price. Research shows emotional exhaustion is one of the biggest factors responsible for killing real productivity.

Also, keep an eye out for “really silly ways” employees and bosses are measuring productivity, he says, such as how many academic papers a researcher produces, as opposed to the quality of those papers. Instead, research supports that flexibility impacts productivity, which should be the focus for employees over arbitrary measures.

Build intentional slowness into the busy workweek

Newport has plenty of advice for how to streamline your workload and concrete tips for how to work slower, be happier and be more meaningful in your work, which research shows is directly related to productivity. 

But here’s what he hopes readers do right after finishing his book on slow productivity: “Find the next empty weekday on your calendar (even if it is weeks in the future), and block the whole thing off with an all-day event titled ‘unavailable.’ Keep this day completely protected to take time off work. When you get to it, go for a long walk in the morning, see a movie in the afternoon and read a book with a drink in the evening,” he says. “Take a vacation day if you have to, but just make sure you have a moment of pure, intentional slowness waiting for you.”

Photo by Kite_rin/