Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout by Cal Newport

As I have progressed in my career, I have become more and more impatient with what I call BIC managers. BIC stands for “butt in chair”. These managers, rather than measure your productivity based on the results you produce, focus instead on your presence in the office where they can see your butt in your chair. Especially for any kind of salaried position, this has always felt absurd to me. These workers aren’t paid for the hours they work. They are paid for their expertise and the results they produce. The challenge of measuring productivity in this context leaves such poor managers scrambling for how to measure it. In his most recent book, Cal Newport explores both the history of why this is so as well as outlines how knowledge workers can create the space for the slow productivity that leads to outsized results.

Slow Productivity starts with a history of measuring productivity. This was easy in the industrial and agricultural ages. You measured output for each unit of input. But knowledge work is more creative and less easily measured. Still needing a way to measure success, managers fell into using what Newport calls pseudo-productivity. This is measuring hours on the job rather than results, which are much harder to quantify and manage (or micro-manage, as the case may be). He then goes on to outline what it means to slow down and focus on outcomes.

The final three chapters outline how to accomplish slow productivity in a world that insists on quarterly results. He does this by focusing on three principles: do fewer things, work at a natural pace, and obsess over quality. When he suggests doing fewer things, he means to focus on only one project at a time, keeping a ranked list of what comes next. Communication and transparency are key. Working at a natural pace means recognizing the ebb and flow of work and adjusting with it. No one does or can work pedal to the metal every day all year long. And when you relentlessly make sure that your results are high quality, those around you will trust your methods.

The details he covers in each of these final chapters are highly practical suggestions that readers can do right now to move their work out of the crazy making of pseudo-productivity and into the realm of a more peaceful and natural way of working that actually produces better results. This book is beyond the usual productivity business book just trying to help you squeeze more out of already busy days. Instead, it is the antidote to that life outlining how you can be an even more effective contributor. Highly recommended.

My rating: 5/5

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book last year when someone suggested it in my book club. It didn’t get chosen then, but I heard more about it on a podcast episode. I was blown away by the story of these young women (girls, in many cases). So when this book came back around this year as a possibility for our book club, I was excited when it was selected.

It is the well-researched history of mostly teenage women who worked painting luminous watches and other instruments in the early part of the twentieth century. What made the watches glow was radium in the paint. At that time, they weren’t fully aware of the dangers of radiation. In fact, radium was often seen as a miracle cure. But as the dangers became known to the employers, they did nothing to protect their employees. These young women would even put the tip of the paint brush in their mouths to get a fine point. And they were playful with it, painting themselves with it like makeup before they went out after work.

Years down the road, they started having medical problems that no one understood. The most common was their teeth falling out and their jaws literally coming apart. Eventually they discovered that it was the paint that had caused their issues. They hired lawyers to sue the employers who fought them with everything they had.

This is a hard read, but not because of the writing. The writing is excellent. But to read what these women went through physically and emotionally due to the negligence and heartlessness of their employers was deeply effecting. If this had been fiction, I would have had a hard time finding it believable. It is important to remember what these women went through to fight for workers’ rights.

My rating: 4.5/5

Chokepoint Capitalism by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow

I picked this book up as a follow-up to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. While that book is a detailed look at how we got to Big Tech and what to do about it, this book focuses on culture. It covers creative arts industries like book publishing, music, news, movies, video games, and live performances.

The first part of the book outlines how culture got in its current state where artists are beholden to Big Tech. Each chapter covers a different aspect of culture (i.e. books, music, live events, etc.). Part two covers the authors’ proposed solutions to the issues outlined in the first part. These chapters focus more on collective action than steps that individual artists can take.

This book is an excellent look at the problems Big Tech presents to artists and how artists can act collectively in response. It is a good companion to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, especially if you are an artist or someone looking for a quick view on cultural issues in our digital world.

My rating: 4/5

Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff is one of the most important books of the twenty-first century. It outlines how our economy has largely shifted away from an industrial base to a technological base of surveillance-driven advertising. And like the industrial revolution introduced new ways of economic engagement that required decades of adjustment, we must also adjust to this new economic modality. Unfortunately, the pace of the change this time is so fast that we aren’t adjusting to it quickly enough to head off as much of the negative consequences as we have in the past.

This work is well-researched with extensive notes. What I first thought of as a criticism became a benefit as I continued to read. The author keeps coming back to the basic points and reiterates them in the context of the content she shares. It is a bit like a spiral staircase that turns on itself in order to take you up higher in a limited space. It is just as effective here, ensuring that the reader is able to follow a very complex argument that builds to a very complete picture.

The book is a bit long (over 240,000 words), but is worth every minute of time it takes to read. For those concerned about surveillance, privacy, and inequality it is an essential work explaining how we got here and what we might be able to do to about it.

My rating: 5/5

The Great Mental Models, Vol. 3: Systems and Mathematics by Rhiannon Beaubien and Rosie Leizrowice

A lone person stands on a grid with a set of mountains in the background.

I’ve been listening to the Knowledge Project podcast for a number of years now. It is put out by an organization called Farnam Street. As part of their mission they have published a series of books called The Great Mental Models. I’ve most recently read the third volume in the series. Each volume covers a few areas that it focuses on. For volume 3, these are systems and mathematics.

The book is divided into two section (systems and mathematics, naturally). Each chapter delves into a particular aspect with examples for how it is applied as a model. These are written in clear, easy-to-understand prose.

While I liked this volume, I feel like I didn’t really learn much new. As a result, I don’t rated as highly. But I highly recommend this volume and the previous two for building up a set of models for how to look at and interact with the world. These might be particularly helpful to teenagers.

My rating: 3/5

A Product Management Guidebook

Escaping the Build Trap book cover

Originally published at myreadinglife.com.

Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value by Melissa Perri was recommended by the agile coaching office where I work. They came back from a product conference raving about it. After reading it, I’d say their attitude is well warranted.

I have read many product management books in the last ten years. Most of these focus on what the product manager needs to do to succeed. This one does too but goes further. It also addresses what needs to happen organizationally to support the entire enterprise becoming product-led.

This change requires more than simple order taking or building features like crazy. It takes a top to bottom curiosity for what the customer problem is, seeking it out, and looking for the best solution to that problem. And this isn’t done once but over and over again to make sure you really dig it and find the root problem.

Any team looking to be better product managers and help their company make better products would do well to read this book and discuss it.

Language and Process for the Modern Workplace

Leadership Is Language book cover

I read Leadership Is Language by L. David Marquet after reading Turn the Ship Around! by the same author. This book is an elaboration of the method he shares in that previous book.

In this newest book, he shows the need for combining both focused work and strategic planning across organizations. In our industrial past, these tasks were separated by role. Blue collar workers got the work done that the white collar workers planned. In our information age world this no longer makes sense.

The author calls focused work redwork and planning work bluework. Then he advocates a cycle of bluework-redwork-bluework where everyone on the team engages in both kinds of work. This matches well how agile software development works, so it really resonated with me.

Throughout the book he gives both good and bad examples of putting this into practice. In addition, it lays out a framework for moving from the old language of the industrial age to this method that works better in a world where we all need to be involved with both planning and executing. I look forward to using this process to help my team both plan and work better.

Stick With the Original

Turn the Ship Around! Workbook book cover

After I read Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet, I told my boss about it and suggested that we read it as a team. He loved the idea and asked me to lead it. In my preparations to do that, I came across a workbook that was published to go along with the book. It’s called The Turn the Ship Around! Workbook. I bought it to help me prepare for our meetings. I recently finished. I don’t recommend it.

It covers the same material as the book it is based on, even following the same chapter format. It includes some additional content which is valuable, but the book is largely repetitive. The questions at the end of each chapter in the workbook are the same as in the book.

While I did bookmark a few of the exercises as valuable, they weren’t enough to justify the cost of the workbook. I would recommend simply sticking with the source book itself. It has plenty of powerhouse ideas to discuss and implement.

Sanity in the Workplace

It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work book cover

A lot has changed about our work spaces since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. Before this, very few companies considered allowing any portion of their employees to work from home. Then we were all forced to figure out how to do so if it was at all possible. Now, as the pandemic starts to wane, businesses are trying to figure out how to manage with the new expectation of working from home.

Just as the pandemic has challenged employers to revisit their attitudes toward their employees working from home, so have the authors of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work challenged traditional views of how companies should be run. Their company (Basecamp) is 100% remote and has been since it started. And in this book the authors outline many other aspects of how they run their successful company (it has been profitable from day one).

In short essays, they talk about how they run their business. Here is a sample of some of the subjects covered.

  • Paying for their employees’ vacations
  • Limiting work to only 40 hours a week (32 hours in the summer months)
  • Paying everyone in the same job the same salary
  • Doing less but doing it better

The writing in the book is straightforward, funny, and approachable. But perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is that they state right up front that they developed these ideas as they went. That some things that worked when they were a small company of only three people didn’t work when they were a company of fifty people. I find it refreshing—that kind of perspective and willingness to change policy and procedure.

So while not all of the ideas in this book may appeal to you or your company, the thinking behind these ideas is worth you time to contemplate and consider.

A Guide for Going Agile

Doing Agile Right book cover

My company is in the midst of an agile transformation. We’ve pretty much got it working at the tactical level, but we are struggling a bit at the strategic level. We are getting there, but progress is slow. So I went looking for a book to educate myself with the goal of being more of an asset during this transition. What I found was Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez—and it was a good find.

I love that it starts out by showing how agile really works and how agile is scaled across a large enterprise before moving on to the details of agile transformations. Along the way the authors ask questions, never making any assumptions. For instance, they ask, “How agile do you want to be?”, pointing out that agile is definitely not the solution to every business problem.

My favorite chapters were chapters four and five about leadership and planning respectively. Leadership must buy in and, more importantly, model agile principles. Furthermore, they must be practiced in the finance process – planning and budgeting. Every chapter ends with a summary of five key takeaways.

Perhaps most importantly, the foundation for the book is the case studies throughout it that are the basis for the thoughts and conclusions expressed. I took a lot of notes reading this book, and I am looking forward to putting the principles I learned into practice.