By Ezra Klein
We were promised, with the internet, a productivity revolution. We were told that we’d get more done, in less time, with less stress. Instead, we got always-on communication, the dissolution of the boundaries between work and home, the feeling of constantly being behind, lackluster productivity numbers, and, to be fair, reaction GIFs. What went wrong?
Cal Newport is a computer scientist at Georgetown and the author of books trying to figure that out. At the center of his work is the idea that the technologies billed as offering us more productive, happier, socially rich lives have left us more exhausted, empty and stressed out than ever. He’s doing something not enough people do: questioning whether this was all worth it.
My critique of Newport’s work has always been that it focuses too much on the individual: Telling someone whose workplace communicates exclusively via Slack and email to be a “digital minimalist” is like telling someone who lives in a candy store to diet. But his new book, “A World Without Email,” is all about systems — specifically, the systems that govern how we work. In it, Newport makes a radical argument: We are living through a massive, rolling failure of markets and firms to rethink work for the digital age. But that can change. We can change it.
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(A full transcript of the episode can be found here.)
Stop. Breathe. We Can’t Keep Working Like This.
Stop. Breathe. We Can’t Keep Working Like This.
Cal Newport explains how Slack and Gmail are making us miserable — and what to do about it.
Well, I’m Ezra Klein. Welcome to “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Before we get into it, a bit of housekeeping. We are looking for an associate producer. That job is still open, but not for much longer. If you have two years of audio experience and want to work on the show, go check out the link to the job listing and show notes. But to the show today, I want to begin here with a concept that’s going to be important throughout the episode — the hyperactive hive mind. That’s the idea at the center of Cal Newport’s new book, “A World Without Email.” And it’s the idea he says at the center of how a lot of us are working and living these days. He defines the hyperactive hive mind as a workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools, like email and instant messenger. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but if you’re someone working in an office, maybe a remote one now, where there’s just a constant stream of digital work-like chatter, that you kind of always need to be keeping up with, but also you sense it’s distracting you from doing your work and also from seeing your family and just relaxing pretty often, that you’re in a hyperactive hive mind. And a lot of us — not all of us, but a lot of us — are in this now. I’ve been a fan of Newport’s work for years, going back to his book, “Deep Work.” Newport has been circling this idea that all of the digital wonder around us has come with a cost. We’re losing our ability to concentrate. These remarkable vistas of information that have been opened to us have also been polluted by endless distraction. And so, we’re not benefiting from any of this the way we thought we would. Instead of getting more done in less time, we feel like we have less time than ever and are never getting enough done. It’s really weird. Something is wrong here. And one reason I like Newport’s work is I think he is right on this. I think we have a lot of trouble seeing the cost of technology, at least when that technology comes with a lot of good, as the internet and digital communication, of course, does. But we have to be able to step back and look at it because the way we adopt a technology at the beginning is never going to be — never going to be — particularly when it is harnessed to firms trying to sell it all to us. It is never going to be the way we ultimately should use it. But the weakness, I would say, of Newport’s previous book — so a weakness he agrees with — is that they were about individuals. They were sometimes the equivalent of giving diet advice to somebody who lives in the chips and cookies aisle of the supermarket. There’s not a lot you can do around that much temptation, but even more so when your built environment is decided for you, when so many choices about how you have to work and what you have to be part of are already made for you. But this book is a step forward in that way. This book is about systems, and in particular, about workplaces. Newport is making a radical argument here, that companies that obsess about efficiency, that think of themselves as rational economic actors, they are utterly failing to question and experiment with their own workflows, like the fundamental nature of how they do their business. And in that, they are making their employees unhappy. They are making their products worse, and they are just contributing to an overall degradation of society. It’s a pretty stunning indictment. I’m not sure I agree with all of it. But I think there’s really something to it. As always, my email is [email protected] Always interested to know who you’d like to see on the show next, so send me your guest suggestions. Here’s Cal Newport.
So this is a book about how the information technology revolution went wrong in the workplace. What went wrong?
Well, once we had the arrival of email in the workplace, it very quickly gave rise to a really new way of organizing large groups of people to work together. It’s what I call the hyperactive hive mind. But essentially, we said, OK, now that we have low friction, low cost digital communication, we can just figure things out on the fly. We’ll plug everyone into an inbox, or later, into a Slack channel, and ad hoc unstructured back and forth messages, just figure things out with people as you need them. And that swept basically the entire knowledge sector. And I think that ended up being a disaster.
Why? What is your evidence it’s a disaster?
Well, I have two main threads. So the first thread of evidence is that it makes it essentially impossible to work. And essentially, the culprit here is network switching. Human brains take a long time to switch. If you’re going to put your target of attention on one thing and then switch it to a new target, that takes a while, right? There’s biological things going on here. You have to suppress some networks. You have to amplify other networks. It takes some time. When you glance at an inbox or when you glance at a Slack channel, as is required that you do constantly, if back and forth messaging is how you organize most of your work, you begin to trigger all these network shifts, so all of these complex biological cascades initiate. And you see all these unresolved issues and things you can’t get back to. And then if you wrench your attention back to what you were trying to do, it creates this whole pile-up in your brain, which we experience as a loss of cognitive function. We also feel frustrated. We feel tired. We feel anxious. Because the human brain can’t do it. And so essentially, the hyperactive hive mind, on paper, had this really good attribute, which is it’s flexible and it’s easy and it’s cheap. You just kind of figure things out on the fly. But the biological reality is it made us really bad at doing our work. And then we have the second thread, which I think had been somewhat unexplored, which is this way of working makes us miserable. It just clashes with our fundamental human wiring to have this nonstop piling up of communication from our tribe members that we can’t keep up with. And that hits all of these deeply rooted social networks in our brain to take this type of thing seriously. No matter how much the frontal cortex tells us it’s OK, we don’t have to answer these emails right away. There’s a deeper part of our brain that’s worried. And so it makes us miserable, and it makes us terrible at work. But other than that, though, it’s been pretty good.
I want to pick up on this question of whether or not it’s making us miserable. Because one way of looking at this is that it is a triumph of workers who don’t want to work all that hard and want lots of opportunities for distraction over bosses who want them to work really hard. So Slack is just an amazingly deceptive piece of enterprise software, in my mind. I was at an organization that we didn’t have it. And then I helped bring it to that organization. And now, it’s completely clear to me that Slack makes organizations less effective. It’s very well built to help workers slack off, right? To help me slack off. I enjoy slacking off on Slack. I mean, it’s literally right there in the name. It’s called Slack. And they’ve made all these wonderful — you can put GIFs in so easily and little reaction emoji. It’s a great way to bullshit around the water cooler digitally. And so there’s one perspective on this, which is that we’re seeing a failure, and then another that we’re seeing a kind of success of people taking their time back and having more socializing at work. Why should that not be the attitude or conceptual frame I put around this?
Well, no, I think you’re getting at some truth there. I had a recent New Yorker piece that was titled, “Slack is the right tool for the wrong way to work,” where I was trying to really grapple with this notion that there’s a reason why Slack is popular, and there’s also a reason why we hate it. It’s serving two purposes, which kind of complicates the story. I think it’s absolutely true that one of the benefits of the hive mind is it gives you obfuscation. So say you don’t want to work as hard. Let’s say I don’t want to do as much, or I’m in a situation maybe where I can’t work as hard. There is an obfuscation you can get because it’s so ambiguous and ad hoc and on-demand that you can basically generate smokescreens by rapid responses and being on active on the Slack channels. And there’s also a social component to it. And I think those are both really interesting aspects of the hive mind. But I don’t think either justify the hive mind is the right way to work.
A point you make in the book is productivity growth across the economy is not way better today than it was before the widespread adoption of email or before the widespread adoption of Slack. One might have thought that speeding communication would make it so we could get a lot more done a lot quicker. That does not appear to be happening. What problem does interoffice communication solve, and at what point does it become too much?
Well, so what Slack was trying to do — or at least, this was my argument in that former piece — is, Slack said, OK, if we’re going to use the hyperactive hive mind as our primary workflow — that is, if we’re just going to work things out on the fly with back and forth messaging, email is not that great at it. We can do it better with Slack. So when I called Slack the right tool for the wrong way to work, I mean, it’s a tool that is optimized. If we’re going to do the hive mind, this is a better tool for implementing constant chatter than email was, which is why we both love and hate it. We love it because if our organization runs on constant chatter, it does a better job as a tool of that than an inbox does with email. We hate it because this way of working has fundamental issues. But if we go back in time, what problem was email solving? I mean, my ultimate argument is that the original rise, which I document, came from the reality that having fast, but asynchronous communication was sort of a productivity silver bullet. It was an issue that rose once the rise of large offices emerged in mid century, this notion that you might have 1,000 people working in a non-industrial manner for the same company. How do they communicate? And the telephone, the interoffice telephone introduced a synchronous option, but there’s a lot of overhead to getting someone on the phone at the same time. Memos and mail carts, this gave us an asynchronous option, but they were slow. There was people involved. You had to put things on carts. It could take all day. So email was solving a really real problem. I want to do asynchronous communication. I want to do it fast and with low overhead. But once it was there in a way that was unintentional, unplanned, no one thought this was a good way to work, it spiraled us into this hyperactive hive mind, where we basically threw out any other processes or structures for organizing our work and said, why don’t we just figure it out on the fly? And there’s a lot of reasons why that happened. But what I want to underscore here is that shift was unintentional and unplanned. We live in this hive mind not because some corporate consultant said this will make us more productive. It’s actually a lot more accidental.
From an economic perspective, what you’re positing here is not just a very big market failure, but a really big failure of firm organization and management. What you’re saying is that the people in charge of these firms, certainly the people in charge of the digital structure internally at these firms, have actually failed at a very profound level. They’ve brought in these tools. These tools have gotten out of control. They’re reducing worker productivity and firm productivity. They’re reducing worker happiness and firm overall happiness. All that seems basically true to me, but then what is your explanation for why so very, very few major firms have come up with some really, really aggressively alternative way to work? If this is all working so badly, why is it spreading so ubiquitously?
This was one of the big ideas I did some original reporting on for the book. We have a big explanation from this from the late management theorist, Peter Drucker, who coined the term “knowledge work” and really helped American industry in particular understand how this type of work was different than industrial work. He sort of set the trajectories in place. One of the big ideas he emphasized was autonomy. Knowledge workers, unlike industrial workers, need autonomy on how they get their work done. You cannot tell them how to work, how they organize themselves productivity. So he was really pushing autonomy. He introduced this very influential notion of management by objectives. Don’t tell me how to work, just give me clear objectives, and leave it up to me how to actually get things done. And there’s a lot of truth in that, right? I mean, he was right in the sense that you can’t tell an ad copywriter or a computer programmer, you know, how to write ad copy or how to program a computer in the way that you could go to an assembly line in a car plant, because he used to study GM, and say, OK, here’s the step-by-step process for building a steering wheel. So he was right about that. But I think it went too far. My argument is that we are so insistent on autonomy on how we execute work, we accidentally expanded that envelope to mean autonomy on how we also organize our work, how we assign our work, how we figure out who should be working on what. And so we fell into this autonomy trap where we feel as managers or entrepreneurs or people who run companies, like, look, it’s not our job to try to figure out the best way to organize work. We’ll just let individuals do that. And when you leave it entirely up to the individuals, you end up with the hyperactive hive mind because it’s the kind of the easiest, least common denominator thing, that if you have no other control, that’s where we’re going to end up. So I think we’re in a trap because we took truckers’ autonomy maybe a little bit too literally.
I want to try out an alternative explanation I knew that I’ve been thinking about. And this one comes more from the incentives of enterprise software companies like Slack or Microsoft in making Teams. Or I guess, Facebook has Blue Jeans as their Zoom competitor and so on and so forth. Which is that you might think the way productivity software, firm level productivity software, gets marketed is that you go to the people who run IT for a big firm and you show some studies about how your software will make the firm work better, and they compare that to the other people trying to sell them something and then go with you if your studies are best. But actually, particularly once you hit a critical mass of other firms using something, there’s actually pressure from employees. And the employee pressure comes from, I would enjoy this software, so I could be good. We would prefer — I remember pushing for Gmail at The Washington Post because we were using Lotus Notes at that point, or Lotus mail, whatever the Lotus level mail software was. And of course, Gmail made it easier to be on email all the time. And so, there’s a funny way in which what we think of as enterprise software is actually sold for the ones that are the real winners in the space through employee demands. But the incentives are misaligned. Then what you’re actually trying to do is win over employees, and you’re going to do that through software that’s more fun to use.
That actually just underscores this interesting autonomy trap we’re in. I mean, you want to imagine a car factory, right? How is it that might be the more fun way to build the cars, right? So in other sectors, people are more process engineering focused, right? What’s the evidence? What’s the best way to do this? And in the knowledge sector, you can imagine a similar thought about how should brains collaborate, what’s the right way for brains to work, how much work should be on everyone’s plate, where should we store things, what’s the right way to communicate. Should it be back and forth messages? Should it be more synchronous meetings? You would think that we could be doing tons of thinking and engineering like that. But we don’t because we’re in this autonomy trap. We’re like, look, that’s not up for us. We put up the OKRs. You guys figure out how to work. And if you tell us you think Slack is more fun, then maybe we’ll buy Slack. But if you step back, I think the metaphorical house is on fire here. We’re at a point now where it’s completely common in a lot of knowledge ware companies that not only do you spend a lot of time doing things like email and meetings, you now spend all of your time doing that, every working hour. And actual work has to get done in these hidden second shifts that happen in the morning or happen in the evening, which creates all of these unexpected inequities. I mean, the fact that that is happening now should be alarm bells ringing, but instead, we’re like, it’s busy. It’s modern times. We’re high tech. That’s just what life is like. We have acceded to it, which I find surprising.
So there’s a thread here that I think is interesting. So you go back to more of the period you’re talking about. Well, let’s call it the early 2000s. So now you’re seeing the very sharp rise of your Google’s. Apple’s already pretty big, but you begin to see Facebook, et cetera. And you remember all this. There was a real vogue for, can you believe all these Silicon Valley firms have ping pong tables? Just like, it’s ping pong tables everywhere. And, right, Google had all of these features done on their workplace culture. And there were slides in a bunch of the offices and on-site laundry and these beautiful lunches with fancy chefs and cafeterias. Initially, this was all presented as paradise for a worker. And then, slowly, this alternative narrative began to take hold, which is, no, this is actually a quite insidious kind of trap. This is a way of making workers spend all of their time at work. It’s a way of making it so people don’t go home easily at night. It’s a way of blurring the lines between what is fun and social and community, which we normally think of as not happening in your office, and what is your office. And it’s a way of getting people to put in 10, 12-hour days. And a lot of the software that emerges out of these companies and out of this period actually seems to me to take that physical insight, that by blurring the line of fun at work, you could allow work to colonize spaces that hadn’t colonized before, and it becomes a software insight. And so then, as you say, things that look like fun at the front end, right — we can chatter with our employees all day — now begin to overwhelm things that actually would have been more fun or more restful or more fulfilling. Like, you have Slack pings hitting your phone at night when you’re supposed to be with your family, or you’re sitting with your friends, and you’re looking at your phone because you’re just so used to being in that constant communication. That the blending of work and fun, which I do think of as a distinctive work culture thing of our era, has actually been really toxic for real fun — and maybe for work, too.
Well, it certainly doesn’t help. And I agree that it’s really a culture of 20 to 30 somethings living in the Bay Area during a certain period, who had emerged with this lifestyle that was entirely integrated with the digital, especially once you get post-smartphone, post-constant connectivity. And you do see that trend move into these tools. But there’s also countervailing trends. So I’ll give you a counter example. I was fascinated working on the book on this notion of extreme programming. So it’s like a workplace methodology and the guy who was telling me about it is a real zealot. His company had been bought by Google, and he had gotten disillusioned that Google wasn’t hardcore enough about his methodology. So he left to start his own lab. But if we think about extreme programming as like an extreme case study, what they do in these shops is all built around, OK, we have brains that can produce good code. If that’s really what we want to maximize, how do we do it? So there’s no email, there’s no Slack. You come in, you sit at a screen with another programmer. If you have two brains working on the same thing, you push each other, and you get more insights. But also, you take less breaks. You slack less, right? Their project leads handles all communication on their behalf. You have no inbox, you have no whatever, and they just code. And it’s so intense that they’re done by 3:00 or 4:00. And there would be no notion that you would stay there late. It would be impossible to. We work really hard, and then when we’re done, we’re done. They said when people are newly hired here, they end up having to go home and take naps for the first couple of weeks, just to adjust to the load. Now that is rightfully called extreme, but what boggles my mind is why aren’t there dozens and dozens of experiments of all these different ways of working? Clearly, you can change the way you work. When you start thinking about, OK, how do you get value out of human minds? How do you stop the human mind from burning out? How do we stop people from being miserable? There’s all of these options. And the fact that it’s so unexplored, that something like an extreme program is this weird outlier case study, to me, I think that’s very striking, right? I mean, to me, it’s a revolution waiting to happen. We’ve seen this in past intersections of technology and commerce, that there’s these long simmering revolutions, where we’re not doing things the way that would be smart. We’re doing what’s convenient. We’re doing what the momentum pushes us. We’re following inertia. And then, overnight, suddenly, we have electric motors and factories. Overnight, they don’t build cars craft method anymore. They do it the assembly line. So these tend to be non-contiguous, right, so these kind of discontinuities when we have these jumps. I just think something like this is coming for knowledge work. This constant back and forth chatter, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And so something has to change.
Let me pick up on the cars example. I love the way you tell the very oft told story of Henry Ford and the Model T and the assembly line. Because I’ve read a version of that story I don’t know how many dozen times in productivity and management and innovation books. But it often feels like there was bespoke artisanal car manufacturing, and then all of a sudden, here comes Henry Ford and the Model T. And you focus on what is happening between those two moments, right? This period when Ford is experimenting, how difficult the experimentation must have been, how frustrating it must have been, and that there are a bunch of experiments that failed. Can you talk a little bit about that, the path from one to the other?
Yeah, I think it’s very, very illustrative. So, Ford, when he was first running his factory, when you have the early days, let’s say, of the Highland Park Factory, the craft method did dominate, right? So they took this bespoke method, where just some craftsmen would build a car. And the way they scaled it is they just had more teams working on more cars. They put them up on sawhorses, and you would surround it, you and five other guys. And you would build a car. And so he started experimenting. OK, this seems like it’s not that fast. And so he went through a whole series of experimentations, which I thought were really interesting once you uncovered them. They tried lots of things. Like, what if we have one guy who is the wheel guy, and he just goes from sawhorse to sawhorse and puts on the wheels? Well, what if we put the materials in the ceiling so that they can come down chutes? And then you could have it come right down to where you are without having to take on space on the floor. Well, what if we have a whole team that moves from car to car? So he was doing all of these experiments to try to figure out, is there a better way to actually take all this material, and then on the other end, have a car built? And the two things I like to emphasize is, one, the way they were building cars before was very easy and very convenient and very natural. And we actually see this story come up a lot in the history of industrial manufacturing, that when you had early factories, you built things the way that was convenient and natural because it seemed too foreboding to try to figure out something else, right? And this goes back to sort of the history of industrial manufacturing. And, two, it was a huge pain to get past that. It was all those experiments, but the assembly line was a huge pain. Once it got running, they had to hire a lot more people. They had to spend a lot more money. I’m sure no one liked the notion who was an investor in Ford. Like, you’re doing what? We’re going to double the amount of floor managers who don’t build things, but just watch things? And it would get stuck all the time. When you’re trying to figure out how to make this thing work, if the steering wheel guy is a little bit too slow, the whole assembly line would stop. So it was really inconvenient. It was a pain, and it cost more money at first. But it was 10 to 100x more productive once they figured it out, which, to me, is a good metaphor for we gravitate towards what’s easy and convenient. And it can be a pain to move to what works better at first. There is an upfront cost to figuring out, let’s say, better ways of producing things.
So you’ve been studying this over the course of your last two or three books. You’ve been circling this book, I would say. And for this book, you’ve spoken to a lot of firms that were trying to change the way they worked pretty radically. They’re the exceptions. And then I’m sure you’ve spoken to a lot of people in firms that weren’t. What is your explanation for why firms are more loath to experiment? Is it just the Peter Drucker thing at this point? Or do you see more happening in terms of the status quo bias, the lock in, the power dynamics of firms that make this kind of experimentation hard for managers to try?
So there’s sort of three hypotheses on the table I was looking at. So there’s the Peter Drucker autonomy trap. There is the — it just been hard, right? Let’s call this the Henry Ford lesson, right, that it’s actually a real pain to figure out what works better. This is convenient, this is cheap. When I was interviewing Gloria Mark, she told me about how, when she was in the computer supported collaborative work scene back in the early 1990s and computer networks were new, there was all this exciting research about look at all these tools we’re going to build that are going to sit on networks, and we can access them on networks. And it’s going to make our work so much more effective and productive. And she said the whole field basically went away once email spread because it was just cheaper to buy an email server. It’s like, look, we can just do this all with file attachments and CCs and it’s fine. We don’t need it. And then the third reason would be power dynamics, right? Which is something I heard hypothesized a lot that maybe that for a boss or something, this them more power. It could be either productivity power play, like I’ll get more out of my workers. Or it could be a sort of egotistic self-regard. I like people answer me, sort of powerplays. All three hypotheses play a role. As far as I can tell, though, it’s a combination of the first two that probably play the biggest role. So, the bosses, manager, C suites, at all these levels, I think there’s this growing awareness that this is terrible. It’s a terrible way to work. Our output as a company is lower, and employees turnover and leave the workforce because it makes them miserable. So the power dynamics didn’t show up to be as important as they once suspected. But I think it’s a combination of the autonomy bias and just the fact it’s hard. The companies I document that do replace the hyperactive hive mind with more bespoke processes that reduce all this constant back and forth, it wasn’t easy to do. It’s like figuring out how to make the assembly line work. There’s going to be false starts. There’s going to be experiments. It’s going to cost more overhead. Bad things are going to happen temporarily. And you have to be willing to go through that. And that’s a big hurdle.
So one of the obvious objections to your theory here is that if this is a market failure, if most firms are running this wrong, then it should be relatively easy to correct in the sense that firms will emerge that are working off of more Cal Newportian theory of the case. And they will come to overwhelm the market because their productivity will be higher, their output will be better. They will get better employees because it’ll be more fun to work there. When I read through the book, it obviously seems some of these firms are more fun, right? So you spend some time in firms that have shorter work weeks. You have firms that have way better work-life balances. I know some of those firms, and they don’t dominate their industry. Their practices are not spreading like wildfire. And that implies to me that something is wrong somewhere in the model because if this is such an economic drag, or at least, such a drag on worker happiness, then there should be a really huge competitive advantage to the firms who have figured out a better way or who are wandering around it. What’s your theory there?
I think it’s coming. There is a huge competitive advantage. It’s why I think we’re going to experience a punctuated equilibrium here. The shift is going to seem to be practically overnight when the shift does come. And a couple of reasons to believe it’s coming — one I like to emphasize that the timeline here is not unusual. I mean, how long did it take from the beginning of industrial car manufacturing to the change that was the assembly line? It was about 20 to 25 years. We’ve had email as a large presence for about 20 to 25 years. If you look at the electric dynamo, its integration into factory construction, it took about 50 years, even after we had generators who could generate electricity and we had electric motors. And clearly, the right thing to do was to put electric motors on the factory equipment, as opposed to having all these overhead cams and belts that were powered off of old steam engines. It still took 50 or 60 years until there was this moment where, OK, everything shifted over, and there was a lot of reasons about inertia and infrastructure that’s already been invested. So my argument is, you basically should hold this to me, right? So I’m making a falsifiable — this is my Karl Popper moment here. I’m saying, let’s look in five years. I think we’re going to see a big difference. Now partially what I’ve noticed is between when I started talking to people about this for my 2016 book, Deep Work, and now, there’s a notable shift in some of the CEOs I talked to. There’s a notable shift in some of the investors I talked to. This is on the radar, I should say, of these communities. Because they’re beginning to realize there might be hundreds of billions of dollars of GDP on the table, and that is a really rich pie. There’s been a lot of investment activity in the last couple of years on companies that are trying to better help extract this. In the conclusion of my book, I quote anonymously but a relatively well known CEO, who’s saying, like, this is going to be the moonshot of the next decade, is figuring out how to get past the hive mind and have much more sustainable productive ways of working. He calls it the moonshot because there is so much value there, but also it’s going to require so much energy to figure it out. So I would say five years from now, things will look different. And that’s a falsifiable hypothesis. I mean, if we’re in the same place five years from now, then maybe not. But we’re basically on track. This is a very normal timeline in technology and commerce. For a new technology comes, we do what’s easiest. We finally have this moment of punctuated equilibrium. We’re like, OK, enough is enough, and we shift to a different phase. [MUSIC PLAYING]
One of the things that I think about in the difficulty here because we’ve known each other a long time, and you know that I’m a believer in the Cal Newport oeuvre on these subjects. I care about deep work. Back when I was at Vox, we had a little deep work icon you could put on in Slack. And you’d be doing deep work, and nobody should bother you.
That’s a very ironic thing you just said, by the way, a deep work icon on Slack.
Listen, it’s all ironic. I’m aware of that. One of the things that I notice in myself as a worker — and others for that matter, too, but I’ll be the example here — is that as much as I know I get more done if I don’t flick over to Twitter, if I don’t flick over to Slack or my email, and I use freedom and I cut myself off from those things when I’m trying to get things done, there’s still a big part of me that wants to. And one of the tricky parts of this is, is that it’s not one of these things that is good for us and it feels good when we do it. It’s incredibly tiring to work in a sustained, focused way without getting those little dopamine hits of distraction. And the more often you get those little hits, the more you crave them. I mean, this is part of Deep Work, that you begin to train your brain to demand these little bits of feedback. And so it becomes very hard to change the way your firm works or to even just change the way you work, not because you don’t think you should, but because you are so trained to do the other thing, right? You’ve come to expect it. Then once you do it, you kind of fall back into old patterns. I’m curious how you think about that part of it, that retraining of our own expectations and rhythms.
Well, so one of the changes I’ve had in my thinking, let’s say between “Deep Work” and this book, is thinking about the individual. I think one of the issues people had — let’s say you read something like “Deep Work.” You’re like, OK, I get it. Like, concentration produces more than non-concentration. I try to spend more time in the deep work. And so then, as an individual, you should try to put more time on that. And you’re talking about how that’s very difficult. Well, that’s difficult in part because not a failure of will, you as an individual, but because it is a necessity of this underlying hyperactive hive mind workflow that this inbox is where everything’s happening. Like, there’s people who need you. Everything you’re involved in is taking place in that inbox. This back and forth messaging is how this is getting figured out and that is getting resolved and how this issue is also getting handled. And so this urge to, I need to go back and check this, I think we too often think of it as a failure of will, but it’s a failure of workflow. And it’s the reason why I think a lot of people had a hard time executing ideas of deep work. It’s the reason why I think moves to have email-free Fridays, or let’s have better norms about response times, the reason why this has failed to really calm any issues with inbox or email overload is because this is where the work happens, and when you’re away from it, it causes problems. Which is, this is my big revelation, is that we can’t solve these problems in the inbox. We have to solve these problems below the inbox. We actually have to go and take the implicit work processes that are generating all these back and forth messages and expectation of ad hoc unstructured communication, and we have to replace them with things to generate many fewer messages. We need to make the inbox a lot less interesting. I think that’s more important than trying to convince people to ignore the interesting nature of the inbox. And so, that’s something I’ve really been thinking about. Because it’s not helping to keep all of our focus on — and by our, I just mean the culture that deals with email overload — to keep all the focus on hacks and tips and how to better engage with your inbox. The problem, I think, is below.
And one of the difficulties here, too, is that there are some — advantages may not be exactly the right word, but benefits that come out of being personally engaged and sorting through the information flow. So I believe — you can tell me if I’m wrong. I believe I make an anonymous appearance in this book. And there’s this moment where you say I was talking to the editor-in-chief of a new media, a new journalism company.
This is you, yes, OK.
It is me, yeah. And I was saying to him, why didn’t you just have somebody checking Twitter on behalf of your staff and telling them if anything interesting is coming. And you say, well, this unnamed journalism EIC had never thought of this before and thought, well, what if — and that’s actually not how I remember that conversation. I’m going to give you some shit about this. And so I remember the issue there, what I said, it’s true I thought about that. That’s not a lie, but is that the difficulty with having somebody else check Twitter on my behalf, is that I am doing the information processing. And only I know what I find interesting. And only I see the things in it that I will see. And even worse for journalists — and this might be distinctive to my industry, but it is a problem in my industry — Twitter is an important place where you build your own brand. And so, I think collectively, it would make sense if we’re not all herding on there and thinking the same way and talking to each other. But for any individual to leave is a little bit irrational because you deprive yourself of mindshare and the people who could give you future jobs. And in the sort of ways your peers understand you as fitting into the firmament, which is very important for the future of your career. And so this is a situation where not every but a lot of journalists I know do not like how much time they spend on Twitter. There’s a lot of talk about this health site, all of that. And people drop off and they’ll come back because to not be there feels like it has worse consequences, even though to be there is very unpleasant. So I want to hear your response to my more nuanced explanation of why journalists are on Twitter.
Yeah, no, I remember you having that response, and I still don’t buy it. I think it’s — [LAUGHTER] I think Twitter is melting journalist brains. I mean —
I’m not arguing that.
Yeah, it’s making journalists miserable. I still hold by my original stance. Like, there’s got to be a way that the — I mean, you mentioned it was like breaking news was important. And hearing from sources was important, so that went over to email a little bit. And that’s where I figured —
No, I don’t think — I will say I don’t think the breaking news function is that important. I think a lot of journalists will tell you it is, but I don’t agree with them on that.
I think it’s actually more esoteric things one sees that can be important.
Right, but at the time, I think the breaking news was a thing that — and I think we’ve in general, as a culture, I think have evolved on that because we realize like, oh, wait, we’re not getting on the ground AP reports from Twitter. We’re getting a lot of randomness and a lot of false information, too. I would still argue there’s got to be a way — I mean, this is like digital minimalism 101. So let’s say there is something about direct encounter with the esoterica of Twitter that helps sort of you gain a better zeitgeist understanding of cultural trends, which will then inform your writing. OK, let’s say we buy that premise. Minimalism would say, great. What’s the right way to get that benefit while minimizing the cost? It would probably be like, I have my Twitter hour, where I go. The thing that I think was killer for a lot of journalists is this notion of, I always am on this thing, and I’m always checking this thing. And Twitter has its own emotional issues. It has its own issues like you’ve talked about. And I heard you talk about this with Zeynep Tufekci recently on your podcast. It has idea hurting issues, but it also has the issues I talk about, which it significantly reduces your cognitive capacity. You can’t think as clearly. You feel tired. You feel anxious. The work you produce as a journalist, all of that is worse as well. When I was doing the digital minimalism promotion a couple of years ago, there was one — I’ll leave this anonymous. And it’s not you, though — I will say that. There was one interview I did with a well-known journalist. And this journalist producer admitted to me, I didn’t really have you on for the audience, I wanted the host to hear these ideas because I think this person is going insane. I have to get them off of Twitter, so.
Did it work?
Oh, no. Oh, no. It got worse.
[LAUGHS] You say something, though, around this issue that I think is really wise, which is that one thing that a lot of these mediums do is that they make us all think we should be generalists. They make us all think that we should and can do everything. So something about the way Twitter does news is that it feels like you should be on top of everything. And I think actually something that I try very hard as a journalist to do is say, there are some things that I’m just not going to know that much about because I need to know a lot about the things I write on. And so, I need to let other things pass me by. But in general, you have a section of the book — this is more towards the end, but where you talk about specialization as an answer here and how one of the odd effects of hyperactive hive mind thinking is that it has cut against specialization. Could you talk a little bit about specialization, why you think we’ve lost it and what kinds of ways we could get it back?
One of the claims I try to back up in the book is that when you remove the friction required to communicate with people inside your organization, both the amount and diversity of things that’s on their plate that they have to deal with explodes. Right? So now you just have many more things you have to do. You have many more, some of it administrative and some of it non-administrative. But if you just look at the sheer variety of things that the knowledge worker has on their proverbial task list — and I say proverbial because they probably don’t actually have a real task list. It probably is just all mungled in their inbox, which is its own issue. It’s huge, right? So there’s a really interesting notion from the literature on this. And it’s this idea of diminishment of intellectual specialization. And it’s a term that was coined by an economist named Peter Sassone, and he was at Georgia Tech. And he wrote this paper back in the ‘90s that I cite all the time because I think it’s just really fascinating. But he studied earlier technologies arriving. He had five companies, 20 departments within these companies, more like the personal computer, right? So this would have been the late ‘80s. So not email, but we can extrapolate from this. And what he documented happened in these companies is that these computers had time-saving, quote unquote, software, word processors and early email and these type of things. And so these companies say this is great. We can fire support staff. We don’t need a typing pool. We don’t need secretaries. We can fire support staff because now everything is kind of easy enough. The friction’s low enough that the executives or the employees themselves can just do the work. The problem was, is, all this work now shifted onto the plate, so that the people that maybe were doing five main things for the company now had 15 things on their plate, so they could get less of the original value producing work done. So they had to hire more of these higher priced employees to actually keep up with the same amount of output. And Sassone crunched the numbers and said, actually, their salary costs ended up, after all this was done, 15 percent higher. So they cut the salaries of support staff, but then they had to add more of these higher priced salaries because people were less productive, and they ended up worse off than they were before. And he called this the diminishment of intellectual specialization. I think this is something that’s just really being amplified right now in our age of the hyperactive hive mind. Every unit in your company, every vendor, every client, every other team that might need your time and attention, can just easily grab you, grab that time and attention, put more and more things on your plate. It makes everyone’s life a little bit easier in the moment. But we get so much less done of the primary things that originally produce value, is that you’re not actually getting ahead. And in the end, you’re producing less. So I think this notion that we all do a lot more, we all can do a lot more, is not necessarily compatible with trying to get the most out of people. And I’m going to real argue that we need to return to much more specialization. I do very few things.
One of my criticisms of some of your past books — and we’ve talked about this — is that they felt to me very much about the individual creator, that it felt to me sometimes like you are really creating a structure that made sense for Cal Newport, university professor, or even maybe Ezra Klein, article writer. But that there were managers in this world that were collaborative workers in this world, and it wouldn’t work for them. You have more on that in this book in a way that I find persuasive. But something you talk about here is that management has to be about more than responsiveness, and that one of the things happening with a lot of these tools is they are changing the expectations of managers. They are changing how responsive their employees expect them to be. They are changing sort of the work that management is actually able to do. And so probably degrading or at least changing the way firms are managed. Can you talk a little bit about this from the manager’s perspective?
Yeah, and there’s research on this. I mean, I found this interesting study where they could look at inbox levels. Like, how much email is managers having to answer? And they could correlate this with what they call leadership activities. So the type of activities are important for getting the most out of your team, moving your team to where it needs to be, seeing issues that are coming from down the road and make sure that you’re around them, giving the support that individual team members need to thrive. All these leadership activities significantly decrease as you increase the amount of email that managers have to answer. And what these researchers documented is that as the email load increases, managers retreat into a task-oriented productivity mode. And they’re just like human network routers. Like, I’m just trying to take care of small things to come at me via email, answering questions, moving things around. And a lot of the managers I talked to when I was working on this book just have this vision of themselves as, I’m like an operator. And little questions and concerns come to me, and I try to answer them as quickly as possible. And one of the big points is, that’s not really good management. There’s some of that have to figure out how to do. Of course, questions need to be answered. But if all you’re doing is just trying to keep up with a hyperactive hive mind flow of all these ongoing conversations, the real important stuff doesn’t happen, that managers, too, need to be able to do one thing at a time, give things the attention they deserve. And that’s basically impossible if the hyperactive hive mind is the main way that your team coordinates and organizes. [MUSIC PLAYING]
So I want to ask a little bit about solutions here. And you go into sort of some granular detail on different ways different firms end up doing Trello boards and other things. But I want to talk about it in more high level. Let me start here. Let’s say you are somebody running an existing firm right now. You’re not starting something new. You have 100 employees or used to certain ways of doing things. You have all the accoutrements of modern enterprise software. You have Slack, you have Gmail. You’re an advertising firm, a media firm, whatever it might be. Where do they start implementing the ideas of this book?
Well, so the big idea is, whether you name it or not, you have processes that repeatedly happen that produce the stuff that has to happen in your company. Now if you don’t have names for them, if you haven’t thought about them, you’re probably implementing most of these processes with the hyperactive hive mind. Just, let’s figure it out on the fly. So the first step is just to identify what these things are. We have a deal with client question process. We have an article production process. We have a strategizing for future business moves process, right? You name them. You see what they are. What are the things that we actually do on a repeated basis? And what I recommend is what you really want to do is, process by process, say, OK, how do we actually want to implement how this happens? And the metric that I push, it’s not like how much time is it going to take or how hard is this particular method, but to what degree can we minimize unscheduled back and forth communication? So how can we implement this particular process, like responding to client questions, producing articles, whatever it is, in a way that does not require the sort of asynchronous back and forth messaging that, in turn, will require check after check after check after check to kind of keep that ping pong ball bouncing. Once you know that what you’re looking at is processes and what you’re trying to do is reduce unscheduled back and forth messaging, it opens up endless innovations. Like, oh, there’s all sorts of different ways we might do this, right? But if you don’t have the right metrics in mind, if you’re not looking at the right target, you’re just going to get stuck looking at these overcrowded email inboxes and sending around memos about, let’s have better norms on response times, or let’s write better subject lines or something like that. You’re putting your energy into the wrong process. So that’s that process oriented thinking. Optimize, optimize one by one. Back and forth messages, that’s the killer. That’s what we want to reduce. You just do that, and you’ll begin to see, I think, almost immediate results. It reduces the pressure on the inbox, as opposed to have better organizational tactics for dealing with the inbox.
And how about if you’re somebody starting a new firm or at a new firm? If you buy the Cal Newport theory that there are huge gains to be unlocked by building a radically different culture of communication and process, how do you unlock them? How do you keep focus on that, particularly when people are going to come in, expecting it to work or the way they’ve known other places to work?
It’s not easy. I mean, first, there’s a general culture that you want to try to instill, which is a culture that really thinks about tools like email are great for sending information. I’d rather send you a file with an email than a fax machine. They’re terrible for interaction. We should not be trying to collaborate or coordinate ourselves with back and forth messages. Two, you really have to separate execution from how we organize the work. Execution has to be really autonomous. You have to be very careful that you’re not stepping on the toes of creative skilled professionals about how they actually write their ad copy or how they actually write their code, that making that sacrosanct is what allows knowledge work to be much more satisfying and meaningful and allows us to avoid the drudgery that industrial work fell into. You’re putting your focus on the workflows that organize that work. What are the processes by which information moves? We make decisions. We agree on things. Where do files go? Where do we take them from? So make sure that execution is sacrosanct. It’s all of the organization around the execution that you’re trying to optimize. And then, two, lead by example. So even if it’s really convenient for you just to grab that purse and be like, OK, let me not do that. Let me try to think about these processes. And I document somewhat in the book what it’s like to try to get these things in place. They need buy-in. They have to be bottom up. Everyone involved in the process has to be involved in making it. And you have to have a culture of evolution. It’s not quite working, let’s tweak it. So put those things into place, it’s still not easy. But, again, it was a pain to build the assembly line. So at least there’s incentives to push you through that pain.
And one of the things that is a little bit counterintuitive about this book is, I think people building new things, meetings, in-person meetings, phone meetings, they have a really bad reputation. I often say to people, like, let’s try to just make this an email, which means I have a lot of emails bouncing back and forth. You have a little bit higher of an opinion about what it means to save more things for meetings than I think the dominant culture holds. So if you were to preach the value of actual meetings as opposed to having things be done through communication, how would you tell a CEO or tell a CEO to tell their employees that they should think about meetings with a little bit more affection, and email with a little bit less?
Well, any time you have to make a decision or have back and forth — there’s interaction that has to occur — real time is exponentially better than asynchronous, right? It’s better to be able to just talk with you on the phone or on Zoom or in person to go back and forth. The amount of bits of information that’s able to be established in a back and forth conversation is of a different order of magnitude than when you’re in a purely linguistic medium. Like, I put some text in an email, it goes to you. Later that day, you send an email back that has some more text. That type of asynchronous communication has huge overheads, and it’s not very effective. So I’m a huge believer in real time interaction as a highly effective and efficient way to get things done, to reach decisions that do interactions. The problem with meetings people have is that they’re not coupled with well thought through processes, right? So if you look at a software development firm, where they think a lot about this type of stuff, and if it’s a software development team that’s running an agile methodology like Scrum, they will have these daily stand-up meetings. They only last 20 minutes. They fit very clearly into an overall structure of how tasks are identified, assigned, and reviewed, right? So they have these 20-minute meetings that incredibly efficiently people figure out, here’s what I did. Here’s what I’m working on. Here’s what I need from you. I need it by now. Great, we’re on the same team. Go right, right? It’s a meeting done well. That’s way more effective than try and do that over email. What happens I think in a lot of hyperactive hive mind style knowledge firms is that we throw meetings as issues as a proxy for productivity. I don’t really want to think about this. If I put a meeting on my calendar, then at least I know that has to happen. So at least I won’t forget it. I think meetings are often used because people don’t have systems where they trust themselves to remember or make progress on things. Like, well, if it’s a recurring meeting, then I do look at my calendar. They’re not tied to other processes. They’re not tried to optimize ways to get things done. So, meetings not connected to processes can make work really unbearable. I think a lot of pandemic workers have discovered that doing Zoom all day long can’t possibly be the best way to organize. But a meeting tied to a really smart process can actually save you a lot of time.
I guess a good place to come to a close. So end of the show, I always ask for a couple of different book recommendations, and let me start here. What’s a book that’s done the most to inspire your work and your explorations?
Well, it probably depends on the topics that I’m reading, but when it came to these explorations of email, I was really taken by a lot of these books that were the 20th century techno determinists. So there was all this interesting philosophy of technology thinkers in the 20th century that were really trying to understand a way that if you introduce a new technology into an ecosystem, it can actually really unsettle this ecosystem in ways that are unpredictable and unintentional. And that opened up a lot for me because it got me out of this mindset of, well, if we’re all doing email, it must be because it’s helping somebody. There must be a reason why we’re doing this. It’s got to be maybe adversaries versus the good guys and what’s the battle going on. But the idea that technology itself can just have these ecological changes I think is really important. So probably Lewis Mumford’s “Technics and Civilization,” that’s an early 20th century book that really pushed those ideas. I think that’s really interesting. A lot of Neil Postman — Postman was a very famous techno determinist. I actually cite a speech from Postman at the end of the book that was influential to me. It wasn’t a book that he wrote. It was a summary of his thoughts on technology. And it’s really rich, and I put it in the citation in the book. But that’s where he made really clear this notion that technology is not additive, it’s ecological. He was like the Middle Ages plus the — once you got the printing press, it was not just the Middle Ages plus printing presses. It was an entirely different world. And that notion really shaped the way I thought about email. The arrival of email did not give us the 1990 office plus now we had email. It gave us an entirely different notion of what work meant. And so any of these writers who were writing in this vein of technological determinism were very influential. I think it comes through in a lot of my thinking.
You talk a lot about the difference between the kinds of products one creates and the hyperactive work worlds many of us exist in and the slower, more thoughtful, more deeply creative spaces of “Deep Work.” What’s a fiction book or piece of art that you think is what it looks like when “Deep Work” works, the kind of thing that you’re not going to be able to do checking Twitter every couple of minutes?
Well, I mean, basically, any award caliber literary fiction has to be created in that mindset. So whatever your favorite sort of award caliber literary fiction novel is, there’s really no way to produce real insight in writing at that level without actually just having the ability to be alone with your own thoughts and observing the world, and just letting that percolate and letting that move, and trying to craft and move and work with it. I’ll say it’s not a book, it’s a video. I actually wrote an essay about a blog post about not too long ago. It was a stone carver. A young woman, I think she’s based in the — near you, actually. I think she’s she’s based in the Bay Area. And it was just this video they had put up on Vimeo that just captured what it is to carve a statue out of stone. And something about that was really affecting to me. It’s just all you do all day long, and she’s looking at the stone and she has the bust. And then it’s manipulating the material and manipulating the real world. And it’s in this warehouse, and the doors open out into some trees or something like that. And I don’t know — there was something very affecting to me about that story. But it’s someone that’s just, they are 100 percent in the world of trying to take this block of stone, and from it, make manifest some sort of intention that exists just in their mind. I mean, that’s human depth personified, and the opposite, I would say, of Slack.
So my son just came home and is crying in the background. So this final one feels apropos. What’s your favorite children’s book?
When my first kid was born, my literary agent sent me a bunch of books. And there’s one that all of my kids have loved. It’s called “Andrew Henry’s Meadow.” And it’s an older book. It’s illustrated. And the premise is this young boy who builds things. It’s beautifully illustrated. And he’s not sort of — it feels like he’s not appreciated by his family, so he leaves. And all the kids follow him across the creek and through the woods and to Andrew Henry’s meadow. And they build these elaborate, beautifully illustrated houses. There’s like a castle, and there’s like a tree house. It’s all built from sort of found objects. And then the parents realize at some point that they’re gone, and they’re all panicking. And they go and they find them. And when they finally bring them back, they make a space for Andrew Henry in the basement to be able to build his contraptions. Kids love it because of the illustrations. It somehow just gets into the psyche of kids. But there’s kind of a nicer message lurking in there. I’ve always kind of liked that message of understanding what it is to drive your kids and then making room for it. So that’s my underground favorite because almost no one’s heard of it. And we’ve gone through a couple of copies now.
Cal Newport, thank you very much.
Thanks, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]
That is the show. Thank you for listening. I always appreciate you being here. Give us a review on whatever podcast app you’re listening on if you’re enjoying it, or send it to a friend. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact-checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld.
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