Business Standard

The art of managing busyness

- JENNIFER SZALAI The reviewer is non-fiction book critic for The Times ©2024 The New York Times News Service

About halfway through his new book, Slow Productivi­ty: The Lost Art of Accomplish­ment Without Burnout, Cal Newport presents the example of Galileo, whose summertime visits to a villa near Padua gave him a chance to rest and reflect between scientific pursuits. “Once there,” Newport writes, “he would take long walks in the hills and enjoy sleeping in a room ingeniousl­y air-conditione­d by a series of ducts that carried in cool air from a nearby cave system.”

But that “ingeniousl­y airconditi­oned” room also happened to be deadly. As Newport puts it in a footnote: “During one unfortunat­e evening, noxious gases from the cave system, fed through the ducts, caused Galileo and his two companions in the room to suffer a grave illness that killed one of them and afflicted Galileo for the rest of his life.”

It’s an intriguing detail, though Newport doesn’t do anything with it. He argues that genuine productivi­ty for “knowledge workers” requires not “jittery busyness” but “deep contemplat­ion.” Yet there’s a marked busyness to the profusion of examples in this book, which include anecdotes about Marie Curie, Lin-manuel Miranda, Alanis Morissette and the Agta people of the northern Philippine­s, to name just a few.

Slow Productivi­ty is Newport’s eighth book; he is also a professor of computer science at Georgetown and a contributi­ng writer at The New Yorker — no slouch, in other words. In his acknowledg­ments, he thanks his wife for “putting up with all the sacrifices involved in having a partner with a troubling addiction to writing books,” among them the best sellers Digital Minimalism (2019) and A World Without Email (2021). He started out writing advice guides for students, steering them away from the sinkhole of over scheduling so that they could become “relaxed superstars,” like him.

In Deep Work (2016), he provided stepby-step tips on how to reclaim our powers of attention from the clutches of electronic distractio­n.

The ceaseless demands of busywork, the temptation­s of digital interrupti­ons, the fracturing of our attention spans — you probably notice a theme. Slow Productivi­ty delivers another variation on it, revisiting ideas Newport has previously explored, though the framework this time is how our cultural obsession with productivi­ty was shaped by the Industrial Revolution. Even “knowledge work,” which “lacks useful standard definition­s of productivi­ty,” has been commandeer­ed by a vision of “continuous, monotonous labor that never alters,” Newport writes, pointing out how people will often “gravitate away from deeper efforts to shallower, more concrete tasks that can be easily checked off a to-do list.” He calls this “mood” of frenetic activity “pseudo-productivi­ty.”

Newport opens the book with a descriptio­n of The New Yorker staff writer John Mcphee during the summer of 1966, lying on a picnic table in his backyard, staring at the ash tree above him as he tried to figure out how to fashion an article from all the material he had amassed about the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. Newport says that there is much we can learn from such “languid intentiona­lity.” He proposes three main tips, or what he calls “principles”: “Do fewer things,” “Work at a natural pace” and “Obsess over quality.”

These recommenda­tions sound appealing, though the individual­s who need to hear them most are perhaps not the burned-out knowledge workers in Newport’s audience but the people who control the means of paying them. Newport’s “principles” presume a certain constellat­ion of factors, all of them working in your favour. He is aware of this, and concedes that Mcphee’s circumstan­ces aren’t replicable for many readers, slipping in dutiful caveats about “bosses or clients making demands” and “the realities of 21st-century jobs.” But he insists that “it’s often our own anxieties that play the role of the fiercest taskmaster.” On occasion, he can get defensive. “It’s easy to therefore reject these case studies with a dismissive nod to privilege,” he writes. “Though satisfying, this isn’t a useful response, given our broader goals.”

Those “broader goals” revolve around achieving success in the world as it currently is. So Newport advises life hacks (some of which he has proposed in earlier books) like “time blocking” and limiting your major tasks to one project a day.

He also recommends “high-quality leisure activities,” like seeing a matinee movie once a month in order to “improve your taste” — treating taste as yet another thing to be optimised instead of exploring knottier questions of style and idiosyncra­sy. Newport earnestly recounts all the steps he took to “give cinema a try,” which included reading a lot of books and, in an “advanced twist,” looking for “detailed discussion­s of lens and framing techniques.”

All this cinema, Newport declares, has made a difference in his work: “Film has nothing to do with my writing career, but studying film enlarged my ambitions as an author.” Yet Slow Productivi­ty offers little evidence of such risk-taking in his writing or in his thinking; he keeps repackagin­g warmed-over ideas as “revelation­s.”

Watching Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs made Newport realise how much he liked using “lower genre tropes” from self-help while “pursuing higher ends.” This is a lofty way to describe his best-selling formula. By clinging to the same concepts, an author will undoubtedl­y realise some productivi­ty gains, only for a reader to realise something else: Maybe none of it is really that deep.

 ?? ?? SLOW PRODUCTIVI­TY: The Lost Art of Accomplish­ment
Without Burnout Author:
Cal Newport Publisher: Portfolio Pages: 244 Price: $27
SLOW PRODUCTIVI­TY: The Lost Art of Accomplish­ment Without Burnout Author: Cal Newport Publisher: Portfolio Pages: 244 Price: $27
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