We’ve been given no shortage of digital tools that should, in theory, help us work better, with more focus and efficiency, and connect us more easily with our colleagues. Instead, email, instant messaging, remote-meeting apps, work-flow and project-management software and so on can feel like so many buckets with holes in the bottom, maddeningly inadequate to the task of keeping us from drowning in work. It’s clear that something in the great digital-workplace experiment has gone wrong. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s still too early to expect that we would have figured out how to make things go right. “We’re working now with disruptive new technologies that only emerged in the late ’90s,” says Cal Newport, a Georgetown computer-science professor and the best-selling author of “Deep Work,” “A World Without Email” and “Digital Minimalism.” (He’s currently writing a book about what he calls “slow productivity.”) “The idea that we immediately figured out the best way to use them is ahistorical. Of course we haven’t gotten it right yet.”
When I mentioned to a few folks that I was talking to you and that you wrote about work and technology, every one of them said they had problems focusing in front of their computers. So for people who can’t help cycling through their open tabs every five minutes, what’s your biggest piece of advice? The critical mind-set shift is understanding that even minor context shifts are productivity poison. That’s the foundational message. We used to multitask, and then research came out and said you can’t literally multitask. Your brain can’t have your inbox open next to the memo you’re writing while you’re also on the phone. So everyone, in the first decade of the 2000s, said: I turned off my notifications. I do one thing at a time. But what we didn’t realize is that even when you jump over to check the inbox and come right back, it can be just as damaging as multitasking. When you looked at that email inbox for 15 seconds, you initiated a cascade of cognitive changes. So if you have to work on something that’s cognitively demanding, the rule has to be zero context shifts during that period. Treat it like a dentist appointment. You can’t check your email when you’re having a cavity filled. You have to see it that way.
But how realistic is the expectation that we set up a no-distractions system when we live in a workplace world of email and Slack and co-workers and managers who expect quick answers to questions? That’s a problem of the hyperactive hive-mind work flow. I can’t individually log off the New York Times Slack channel and make myself more productive, because everyone else is using that as the way for coordinating work, and so we’re all stuck there. The only way to get out of that suboptimal equilibrium is to completely change the way the organization collaborates. We have to replace the hyperactive hive-mind work flow with explicit alternatives for the assignment and organization of work, and individuals can’t do that on their own. But one of the questions here is how did productivity become personal in the first place? It’s an unusual notion in the history of large-scale economic organization — this idea that we leave it up to the individual to figure out how to organize their work. But with knowledge work, you can’t break it down to an assembly line. You can’t have a small number of executives figure out the right way to do the work and then dispense it. The problem is that when you make productivity personal, you put the pressure on individuals to figure out the tension between different roles in their life. You’re telling them: You figure out how you organize the work, how you execute it. The more you do, the better. Now you have this tension of: If I spend less time with my family, I could do more work, but I don’t want to spend less time with my family. And individuals have to figure out this tension internally, which is a hard thing to place on people. So we have to change the way we work at the organizational level. There’s a carrot-stick thing here, too. It’s not just better for the workers. I think it will be a quantum leap in the actual production of organizations, because the way we do it now is not very productive. The only thing holding us back is that it’s hard to change.
What’s an example of the kind of change you’re talking about? I’m usually pushing for companies to move away from the hyperactive hive mind, where collaboration is mainly ad hoc back-and-forth messaging. The big cost of that is those context shifts. If you and I are trying to figure out when we’re going to talk later today, we need that decision before later today, and if that’s going to take five or six back-and-forth messages, those messages have to be responded to quickly so we can get to all of them. So I have to keep checking Slack or my inbox, waiting for your next message. It’s all about getting away from constant checking, because constant context shifting not only makes you miserable, it also makes you worse at doing anything with your brain. Office hours is a solution that comes up. You say, Every day at these times, I’m online, my phone’s on, I’m on Zoom, my door’s open. You can defer half a dozen different quick conversations to these office hours. It makes a big difference, because six little conversations might otherwise be 50 to 60 messages, each of which requires relatively quick turnaround. It could make the difference in how much context shifting is going on.
But hasn’t the cultural-technological ship sailed when it comes to this stuff? Or, to mix metaphors, part of me is wondering if what you’re suggesting is a little like saying that getting from place to place by horse is a lot more cognitively rewarding and humane than driving everywhere — which may be true, but no one’s going back to horses. What company is going to tell its employees to cut back on email and Slack? The right metaphor here is not “Let’s stick with horses, even though automobiles get around,” because automobiles were clearly a more energy- and monetarily efficient way of moving things from A to B, just like email is clearly a more efficient way for me to deliver a memo to you than a fax machine. The metaphor is that it took a while before we figured out traffic rules and understood that it can’t just be cars going wild through the street. Eventually we figured out we need stoplights and lanes and traffic enforcement. If we look through the history of the intersection of technology and commerce, we always see something similar, which is: When disruptive technology comes in, it takes a long time to figure out the best way to use it. There’s this case study from a Stanford economist about the introduction of the electric motor into the factory. He characterizes how long it takes before we figure out what was in hindsight the obvious way to use electric motors in factories, which was to put a small motor in every piece of equipment so I can control my equipment at exactly the level I want to use it. We didn’t do that for 20 or 30 years. History tells us that it will probably take a generation to figure out what the best kind of collaborative cognitive work looks like when we have external computational aids connected by high-speed digital networks. It’s going to take awhile.
This is slightly tangential, but do we even know if knowledge workers are more productive now than they were in the predigital era? There is an argument to be made that the answer is no. This is a big point. I wrote about this a couple of years ago. I was pulling sources from the ’80s, when the notion of a chief information officer was being created. Back then, there was this real enthusiasm that we’re going to have this productivity explosion. But there’s a lot of evidence that didn’t happen. The main metric to look at is probably nonindustrial labor productivity. That has been largely stagnant throughout the period of these massive advances in not just network computers but in completely mobile high-speed internet. All these advances in communication, and we don’t see a big jump in nonindustrial productivity. Robert Gordon kind of gets into this. He points out that if you introduce computers to the back office, productivity as measured by this metric jumps up, because we can computerize our inventory systems. But then we put computers on the front-office worker’s desk, and we didn’t see it. A professor named Peter Sassone in the late ’80s and early ’90s took a collection of major companies that were bringing computers to the front office and followed them through this transition. These computers made certain activities easier, like typing, so they fired a bunch of support staff, because we don’t need typists, we don’t need secretaries. At first, salary expenses went down. But now that the workers who were being supported had to do all this on their own, their productivity went down. So they had to hire more workers to get the same things done, but their salaries were higher than the support staff they fired. My theory is that technology made things just easy enough so we can put more on people’s plates, and we didn’t factor in how much that would pull out of their time. Then the communication revolution, which kicked off 10 years after that, had the issue of all the context shifting, which meant that miraculous advances in computing and mobile-computing technology never moved the needle on nonindustrial productivity.
You’re working on a book about slow productivity. What is that? We don’t have good notions of productivity. Traditional economic productivity largely requires people working toward a singular measurable output with a transparent process. You have this input-to-output ratio and a process generating it, and you can tweak that and see what it does to the ratio. None of that works in knowledge work. So we fell back to a proxy for productivity, which is visible activity. If I can see you doing work, it’s better than I can’t see you doing work. That was OK until we got to the ’90s and the 2000s, when we threw into the mix a lot more freelancing but also email and the I.T. revolution. Visible activity as a proxy for productivity spiraled out of control and led to this culture of exhaustion, of I’m working all the time, I’m context shifting all over the place, most of my work feels performative, it’s not even that useful. Slow productivity is all about identifying alternatives. I’m trying to develop this notion of productivity that’s based on, at the large time scales, the production of things you’re proud of and that have high impact, but on the small time scale, there’s periods where you’re doing very little. Right now, I open the book with a story of John McPhee working on one of his first really complex New Yorker pieces. He spent two weeks lying on a picnic table in his backyard trying to figure out, How am I going to make this piece work? On the small scale, you’re like, you spent all day lying on a table, you’re incredibly unproductive. But zoom out to John McPhee’s career, and you’re like, you’re one of the most productive and impactful writers of all time. So how do you actually work with your mind and create things of value? What I’ve identified is three principles: doing fewer things, working at a natural pace, but obsessing over quality. That trio of properties better hits the sweet spot of how we’re actually wired and produces valuable meaningful work, but it’s sustainable.
How does that way of thinking about productivity jibe with the reality of the existence of managers? Isn’t a large part of the reason that so many of us feel a need to look busy that our bosses require it? It’s kind of hard to imagine many managers being OK with the insecurity of their reports being idle for long stretches. That’s a big part of the issue when we’re talking about organizations with management layers. So the term “knowledge work” was coined in 1959 by Peter Drucker in “Landmarks of Tomorrow.” Drucker is doing all this hand-holding for the world of business: Here’s knowledge work. Here’s why it’s different. He’s saying things that are a nightmare for managers: Look, the employees, the people doing the work, often know more about what they’re doing than the people managing them. They’re a skilled copywriter for an ad agency, and they’re better and know more. This is different from industrial manufacturing, where a small group of people figures out the best way to work and then the workers execute. So Drucker is saying that knowledge workers need to manage themselves. Managers just need to set them up to succeed. But then what do you manage? Visible activity as a proxy for productivity was the solution. We need something we can focus on day to day and feel that we’re having a role in pushing work: Let’s just manage visible activity. It’s this compromise that held the pieces together in an imperfect way, and then in the last 20 years, this centrifuge of digital-accelerated work blew it apart. The compromise is now failing. But what’s tricky about it is that a manager can’t just change. There’s a lot of issues with the way they do it, but it’s also not easy to fix. We’re kind of in a mess that we can’t change on a dime.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and writes the Talk column. He recently interviewed Lynda Barry about the value of childlike thinking, Father Mike Schmitz about religious belief and Jerrod Carmichael on comedy and honesty.