May 4th, 2016 · 5 comments
The Economic Operating System
I recently read Douglas Rushkoff’s provocative new book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.
Rushkoff is a media theorist, but this book falls comfortably into the area of big think economics. Its premise is that the underlying “operating system” of our economy — capital growth above all else — is not a fundamental law of markets, but was instead something selected four hundred years ago for some less than noble reasons.
(For a more grounded take on the same premise see Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, which, if you’ll excuse a bit of trivia, was also a titular inspiration for my most recent book.)
Its Implications on Distraction
I’m not as interested as Rushkoff in making a moral judgment on the nuances of our market economy — a discussion above my pay grade.
What caught my attention with respect to our conversation here was the conclusion, implicit in his argument, that many of the features that have built the Internet into a weapon of mass distraction are not intrinsic to the medium, but are instead a side-effect of its cooption as a tool for capital growth.
That’s a heavy sentence. Let me attempt to unload it…
- Rushkoff notes that after the biotech crash of the 1980’s, investors needed a new sector that could continue to fuel capital growth.
- The Internet filled this role. Among other things, it exposed net users’ attention and personal data as an under-exploited resource that could be extracted and sold, and therefore support growth much in the way colonizing a country and extracting minerals from the ground once did.
- As in any extractive industry, the more resources you can mine, the better. This led the way to attention engineering and the general/inevitable push to make applications and sites as addictive as possible.
- This capital-driven push toward maximum addictiveness led to the shiny tangle of apps and infotainment sites that have become the bane of potential deep workers worldwide.
This is an important distinction.
When I take a stand against social media, in other words, I’m not taking a stand against the contents of your feed, but am instead taking a stand against these large companies’ insistence that the intrinsic value of my attention should flow into their coffers instead of being directed by me toward deep work on things I find important.
Rushkoff’s observations, however, do more than fuel righteousness. They also provide hope.
The Internet can and should be a source of peer-to-peer connection, serendipity, interestingness, and even revenue generation. But we shouldn’t necessarily expect the venture-backed corporations sprinting to generate 100x returns to be the best source of these rewards.
April 29th, 2016 · 13 comments
Top Performer Returns
Last October, Scott Young and I launched an online course called Top Performer, which teaches knowledge workers how to apply the insights of deliberate practice to excel professionally. The first session of the course was a big success, so, by popular demand, we’re going to open up a new session later in May.
To help prepare for this new session, Scott and I wrote a series of articles that share the most interesting insights we’ve learned from the over 1000 individuals who have gone through our curriculum to date.
We’ll be posting these articles over the next two weeks only on our email newsletters (to keep our respective blogs tidy).
Therefore, if you’re intrigued by the idea of deliberate practice in the workplace, sign up for my newsletter using the form at the top of my right sidebar.
If you already receive my posts in your inbox from me (e.g., and not from Google) then you’re all set. Similarly, if you already receive Scott’s posts by email — and if you don’t, you should! — you’re also all set.
What to Expect from the Launch Process
I know some of you don’t like when I sell things (e.g., this course, my books), so I want to let you know in advance exactly what to expect from this launch process…
The article series mentioned above will be published on our email lists over the next two weeks. After those two weeks, we will briefly open Top Performer for sign-ups, so there will probably be a flurry of 2 – 3 posts/reminders on the blog and email list surrounding that short window.
And that’s it.
April 22nd, 2016 · 16 comments
A Deep Case Study
Tom works in marketing for a venture-backed tech start-up in Silicon Valley. After reading Deep Work, he realized that prioritizing uninterrupted concentration would help him excel in his job, which centers on cognitively demanding research and writing.
But he despaired that regular deep work was impossible given his company’s culture.
As he explained:
Our company uses email and Slack as our primary means of communication. I get so many emails and chat messages every day, and there’s this unspoken expectation in my department that if someone emails/messages you, you should respond almost immediately, even if you were in the middle of something. If you didn’t respond quick enough people would assume that you were slacking off (this expectation was especially strong with instant messages).
Communication environments of this type are increasingly common in knowledge work (and near ubiquitous in tech). And they can be quite distressing.
As Tom admitted, he really didn’t get much “actual work done,” as his days were filled with “putting out fires” and “reacting to other people’s needs.”
Fortunately, however, all hope was not lost…
Read more »
April 19th, 2016 · 15 comments
The Switching Cost
I want to close my recent series of posts on email with a practical observation that’s often missed:
The main productivity cost of email is not the time you spend reading and replying to messages, but instead the abrupt context shift caused when you switch your attention from the task at hand to the cognitive cacophony of an inbox.
As I write about in Deep Work (see also: this excerpt), when you shift your attention from one target to another, the first target leaves behind an attention residue that can linger for at least 10 to 20 minutes reducing your cognitive capacity.
(One oft-cited study found the impact of these shifts on your mental ability to be comparable to being stoned.)
The neural damage, in other words, is caused during the first moments of firing up your inbox. Whether you then go on to spend just a couple of minutes or a half hour wrangling your message doesn’t much change this impact.
Read more »
April 15th, 2016 · 22 comments
Sometimes it’s the simplest productivity hacks that end up returning the greatest benefits over time. Here’s one such strategy I’ve been toying with recently:
The Meeting Margin Method
Assume you have to schedule a meeting that lasts X minutes. Instead of blocking off X minutes on your calendar, block off (1.5)*X minutes.
For example, if you agree to attend a 30 minute meeting starting at 2:00 pm, try to block out 2:00 to 2:45 on your calendar. Similarly, if it was a 60 minute meeting, try to block out 2:00 to 3:30. And so on.
The key is that you’re not extending the time of the meeting itself. That is, you still attend the meeting for the originally proposed time. The extra 50% on your calendar is a meeting margin protected for your own personal use.
In particular, the margin can be used for the following purposes:
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April 12th, 2016 · 26 comments
Two Tales of Empty Inboxes
I have a friend who runs an investor-backed online education company. He recently made an interesting change to his email setup. When you send a message to his normal address, you now get back an autoresponder that reads (in part):
“I appreciate you reaching out. I’m currently in hermit-mode creating as much value as I can for all of our stakeholders and having fun seeing if I can eliminate email from my life…Of course, if this is important, we’re here to help! Just email <address of a virtual personal assistant> and we’ll use our evolving email-free strategy to communicate.”
This extra step of re-sending your message to the assistant should add, at most, 10 extra seconds to the process of emailing this individual. Rationally speaking, therefore, it should have minimal impact on the number of messages that make it to my friend.
But this is not what happened.
As he reported to me recently, this additional step has “massively” reduced the amount of communication he receives.
Earlier this week, a reader wrote me with a similar tale. A computer programmer by trade, he setup a custom system that responds to incoming emails with a web form in which the sender can describe his or her purpose and needs in a series of text boxes.
Again, the extra effort of re-entering this information is minimal.
But the effect was significant.
His incoming message count reduced by a factor of 40. (He measured.)
Read more »
April 8th, 2016 · 9 comments
A Deep Revolution
I’m a little over 300 pages into Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton (I also highly recommend his biographies of Washington and Rockefeller).
Hamilton, of course, knew how to get things done.
“His collected papers are so stupefying in length that it is hard to believe that one man created them in fewer than five decades,” writes Chernow.
But this productivity reached an apex during the period when Hamilton, along with Madison, and to a much lesser extent, John Jay, collaborated to write and publish the Federalist Papers.
During one particularly frenzied two-month stretch, Hamilton “churned out” twenty-one of these now immortal essays.
How did he do it?
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April 6th, 2016 · 24 comments
A Productive Mystery
Reading the Washington Post this weekend, Robert Samuelson’s column caught my attention. It was titled, “Solving the productivity mystery,” and it focused on a trend that both concerns and puzzles economists: productivity has stopped growing.
This statement requires some unpacking.
In economics, productivity, roughly defined, measures the ratio of output to inputs. The more valuable output you can produce for the same input costs, the better your productivity.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics expends a lot of effort to carefully measure this metric over many different industries in our country as it tends to be a strong indicator of practical things that people care about, like wage increases.
Back to the Samuelson column…
- From 1995 to 2005, labor productivity increased by an average of 2.5% a year. As Samuelson pointed out, this translates to wage increases of roughly 25% over that period. This is good.
- From 2010 to 2015, however, the average increase has only been 0.3% a year. If this persists through 2020, it will translate to a “puny” 3% wage increase over the decade. This is not good.
The puzzle, as mentioned above, is understanding why productivity is slowing.
There are no shortage of hypotheses. Samuelson reviews several in his column, including Robert Gordon’s claim that serious innovation is fading (c.f., Gordon’s big deal new book), and Samuelson’s own theory concerning the inefficiency of duplicating sales efforts online and in physical stores.
An Intriguing Angle
I’m not an economist, so it’s with trepidation that I throw one more potential contributing factor into the mix: email.
Hear me out.
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