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"Creation without toil"—Yeats and the hyperactive hive

Fascinating discussion a couple of days ago (March 5) in the New York times between Ezra Klein and Cal Newport, an author and academic who’s field is research into productivity (and lack thereof) in the digital age.

The podcast is paywalled, so I’ll provide a précis here:

Newport's own research (and others') show that Slack and similar tools (including e-mail itself) that were supposed to improve our productivity have in fact made productivity much worse.

Why? Because we’re distracted the whole time in the workplace, with the need to provide immediate answers to questions fired at us in real-time and near real-time.

Here's the thing: the human brain is not wired to “network switch” from concentrating hard on one thing (your work) to concentrating on another (a question coming via a Slack channel)…and then back again. So when you do this (as we all do, pretty much all the time) huge amounts of cognitive momentum is lost. Plus you end the day feeling drained and even depressed.

Not good: Newport calls this the “Hyperactive Hive Mind.”

We all know how distracting digital "productivity" (ha!) tools can be. What's new here is that there are increasing numbers of studies and experiments that show that cutting out this kind of low-friction communication actually helps productivity. Newport re-states the problem as follows (lightly edited from the transcript):

"What the research is discovering is that, as the e-mail and Slack load increases, managers retreat into a task-oriented productivity mode. Now that’s not really good management! Of course, questions need to be answered—but if all you’re doing is just trying to keep up with a 'hyperactive hive mind', the flow of all these ongoing conversations, the real important stuff doesn’t happen.”

So: what to do about it? One response comes from the software development companies whose workflow is called “Extreme Programming”: coders work in pairs, in rooms, in intense collaboration. No e-mail, no Slack, no distractions (other than rare and tightly scheduled meetings).

It’s intense and (at least initially) exhausting. But you know what? The coders' workday ends at 4pm! And this means there’s no bleeding of work into home and family time. No evening or weekend e-mails. "Always on" is not a thing for these knowledge workers.

Once they’re used to the routine, coders report feeling refreshed with very high levels of job-satisfaction. And they’re more productive!

Newport’s larger point is that a revolution is on the way (he gives it five years): companies that employ knowledge workers are about to realize, if they haven’t already, that the modern workplace is not set up to optimize how we as humans work best. He equates this to Henry Ford’s re-conceptualizing of factory production line: it took a long time to figure out how humans worked best together to produce the Model-T. We’re in that "figuring out" phase now with knowledge work: the status quo is dysfunctional.

In five years, says Newport, many companies will have realized this—and the focus will be on more prescriptive processes that limit the number of back-and-forth communications that can happen during the development process (less e-mail, fewer Slack channels). This will allow people to do better work and, overall, be happier and more productive. Interestingly it requires a more “top-down” approach from management, saying: “This is how we do things here.” But the benefits will, in five years (according to Newport) be seen to outweigh the reduction in autonomy.

And now to explain the title of this post. The conversation between Klein and Newport reminded me (if I may be permitted a literary tangent) of what W.B. Yeats said was the “chief temptation of the artist”—namely “creation without toil.” Yeats was referring to his own political activity—where he started to feel satisfied with himself for canvassing among the people of Dublin, for talking to voters on the doorstep and so on. For him, this was not “real” work, although it had the appearance of work—just as much of what we do on Slack can appear to us (and our bosses) as work. But is it really the deep, highly-focused (and effortful) work that’s going to lead to insights and truly creative solutions and ideas? This work requires high degrees of focus and concentration, of which Slack (the clue is in the name!) is perhaps the enemy—masquerading as our friend.


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