June 28, 2023 By IBM Education 5 min read

Slow productivity can be defined as working at a slower pace on fewer tasks at a time to increase workplace productivity and satisfaction. The trend toward slow productivity is for businesses and employees to rethink what productivity looks like and create an environment where quality of work is emphasized over quantity of work.

In his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes taking a working sabbatical where he got an enormous amount done but also experienced it as an extremely leisurely time. He says he realized the conventional thinking about our working hours and productivity is all wrong.

Slow productivity calls for a change in how we define productivity. It encourages companies and their workers to think differently about what it means to be productive, considering questions like:

  • In what work environment do you do your best work?
  • What practices support sustainable productivity (i.e., is it a sprint or a marathon)?
  • What kind of work are you doing, and does it demand speed or thought?

Origins of slow productivity

The phrase “slow productivity” was coined by Cal Newport, computer science professor and best-selling author of Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. He also has a podcast called Deep Questions with Cal Newport on living and working deeply in what he calls an increasingly shallow world.

In the New Yorker, Newport discusses the four-day workweek but says it’s only a partial solution to the real problem—overwork. Cutting back on the number of hours one person works without reducing their workload, he says, would only make the situation worse. He asserts that productivity should be about the quality of work, not the quantity.

Slow productivity is similar to other slow movements, such as the slow food movement of the 1980s, which also supported more mindfulness.

The productivity fallacy: The opposite of slow productivity

The productivity fallacy says that if we work hard or fast enough, we’ll have the time to do the things we most enjoy. But being busy doesn’t necessarily mean being effective. Keeping work days full of tasks and activities may keep employees too busy to explore their capabilities and creativity. Just staying busy can distract from finding purpose and meaning, and it can lead to burnout.

With support from the Harvard Business Review, a survey of 1,500 respondents across 46 countries found that burnout is an enormous and global problem. Key findings included the following:

  • 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse.
  • 85% said their well-being had declined.
  • 56% said job demands had increased.
  • 62% of the people struggling to manage their workloads reported they experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.

According to UC Berkeley and Deakin University researchers, six primary causes of burnout are work overload, lack of control, insufficient reward, breakdown of community, absence of fairness and value conflict. Burnout can also be a symptom of something else, such as employees having endless task lists that they’ll never finish.

Another hindrance to productivity is busywork. Working harder and faster on more tasks can keep employees perpetually busy and further away from achieving their goals. Work teams can move from busywork to productivity by setting fewer goals that are more attainable, focusing on one thing at a time, and eliminating distraction.

The benefits of slow productivity to businesses and employees

There are some easily recognizable benefits of slow productivity. People who work at a slower pace on fewer things at a time often experience better mental well-being and have more energy to achieve their goals. Streamlined, more intentional work can also give employees more time to socialize, self-reflect or create a better work-life balance.

Slow productivity benefits businesses, as well. Even if employees aren’t burned out, they aren’t always as productive as they should or could be. Slowing down can boost productivity and improve business outcomes by allowing more time to focus on what matters most to customers and other stakeholders.

How to put slow productivity into practice

“What else can we do in the face of endless tasks but begin to disengage?” asks science and business writer and educator Karla Starr. “When we know that the To-Do list is never going to get shorter, why would we naïvely summon extra motivation when we know that it’s not going to change our overall circumstances if the tasks just won’t stop?”

Some European countries outlaw emails outside of work hours, such as Belgium’s new “right to disconnect” law. Employers can also advise employees to turn off notifications for email, Slack and other social media. Company policy may suggest they post a notice that they’re in “deep work” mode instead.

In his New Yorker article, Newport purports that if a four-day workweek became the federal standard, working less wouldn’t be a “disruptive experiment undertaken by a few start-ups.” Instead, he writes, it would be an option employers would have to justify not offering. And that justification might become harder to sustain as time marches on and the benefits of a shorter workweek become more apparent.

Managers can encourage slow productivity by keeping an employee’s workload at sustainable levels by prioritizing fewer, but higher-impact, projects.

The challenges of slow productivity

There’s opposition to slowing down in the workplace. “Hustle culture” among knowledge workers means a workplace environment that emphasizes hard work and long hours, despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) says overworking is dangerous.

Competition in the workplace can also derail slow productivity. For example, Starr describes the U.S. as a capitalist, winner-take-all society with deeply entrenched social norms. Such norms run counter to slow productivity.

Newport discusses another challenge to slow productivity—the challenge of managing “work that’s not yet assigned.” In other words, some managers may resist slow productivity because it would require them to prioritize and assign work instead of just emailing an employee, in the moment, about a task that needs to be done. 

Excessive work volume for computer workers is built into the system, according to Newport, and a shorter work week, or merely capping the number of hours worked, won’t solve it. Organizations should consider slowing down the pace of the workday itself and spending less time overall on work that doesn’t matter.

Slow productivity may be worth experimenting with because lost productivity is expensive. For example, HubSpot found that lost productivity costs U.S. businesses alone $1.8 trillion USD every year.

IBM and slow productivity

Technology can be both a problem and a solution when it comes to productivity. It’s a problem when employees are overloaded juggling a variety of apps to get work done. It’s a solution when employees can automate repetitive tasks and spend more time on the actions that drive results. And spending more time on higher quality work is core to the slow productivity movement.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, applied in the right way, can help decrease the burden of busywork and the number of tools employees manage to get work done. By putting AI to work across processes that are complicated or where the day-to-day is routine, you free employees from repetitive work and empower them to deliver better outcomes and make better, data-driven decisions. This can lead to higher levels of job satisfaction, which can lead to lower rates of attrition—and happier employees are more likely to produce happier customers.

Productivity is about getting more out than you put in. Slow productivity is about the quality of work versus the quantity. Intelligent automation is about giving employees easy, conversational access to the information and task automations they need to better serve customers and get the most important work done.

Unlock productivity with AI and automation
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