April 8th, 2016 · 11 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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April 1st, 2016 · 35 comments
A Rite of Spring
The return of spring marks the return of one of my favorite deep work strategies: the concentration circuit.
This strategy helps you make progress on a cognitively demanding task by having you work in a rotating series of locations that are: (1) not your normal office; (2) novel and/or aesthetically arresting.
As I’ve written before, concentration circuits are like deep work jet fuel:
- they get you away from your normal energy-draining office routines,
- they give your mind the sustained freedom from context switches needed to dive deep into a single problem, and
- they leverage visual and environmental novelty to help shake loose new insights.
At the same time, they provide a reminder that elite-level knowledge work is about creating things with your brain — not just shuffling messages and writing PowerPoints — and that this activity, when isolated and supported, is massively rewarding.
Most important: they’re also a lot of fun.
A Recent Circuit
Anyway, two weeks ago I found myself down near the Capitol to tape an appearance on the Federalist Radio Hour. At the time, I was working on a tricky result.
I decided I would take advantage of the early spring weather to build an epic, Washington D.C.-themed concentration circuit.
Here are some of the locations I visited that morning…
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March 29th, 2016 · 37 comments
The Ford Transformation
The craftsmen hand-building cars at the Ford Motor Company’s Piquette Avenue assembly plant in the first decade of the 20th century were, among other things, impressively productive at their tasks.
Two or three workers would gather around each partially-assembled car, taking parts, checking their fit, adjusting them on a metal lathe as needed, then checking the fit again, and so on. To watch them work would be to watch experts practiced in their movements and efficient in their tool use.
But as we now know, this productivity was irrelevant, as their approach to the work as a whole was sub-optimal.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, Henry Ford perfected his assembly line model and combined it with a commitment to producing interchangeable parts.
This new workflow was less natural, required significant capital investment, and introduced many new logistical headaches: but it also unleashed a level of value production that the old method of car construction could never match — no matter how skilled or efficient its practitioners.
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March 22nd, 2016 · 28 comments
A Modest Proposal
Last month, I wrote an intentionally provocative article for the Harvard Business Review’s website. It was titled, “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.”
The article starts by conceding that email, as a technology, is not intrinsically bad. The weed that’s currently strangling knowledge work is instead the workflow enabled and prodded by the presence of this tool.
As I expanded:
Accompanying the rise of this technology was a new, unstructured workflow in which all tasks — be it a small request from HR or collaboration on a key strategy — are now handled in the same manner: you dive in and start sending quick messages which arrive in a single undifferentiated inbox at their recipients. These tasks unfold in an ad hoc manner with informal messages sent back and forth on demand as needed to push things forward.
This workflow, I argued, leads inevitably to a state where constant email checking, during work hours and beyond, become necessary to keep the wheels of progress turning. And this state, in turn, is transforming knowledge workers into exhausted human network routers who are producing at a fraction of their cognitive capacity.
Given the tangled relationship between email and our current approach to work, however, it’s also clear that [a transformation to a better workflow] is almost certainly going to require a radical first step: to eliminate email.
What’s interesting to me about this discussion is less the details of my argument, but instead readers’ reactions.
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March 11th, 2016 · 22 comments
Seneca on the Myth of Free
In Letter 42 of his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Seneca touches on the hidden costs of seemingly “free” pursuits. In doing so, he offers to his correspondent — Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily — a warning that resonates strongly today:
Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.
These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.
(– From Letter 42, Paragraph 7 of the Richard Gummere translation)
Over a billion people currently use Facebook — many at the cost of anxiety, lost honor, personal freedom, and certainly time. If asked why, however, many would reply, “why not?”
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February 16th, 2016 · 32 comments
In the war to reclaim your attention, some battles have clearer fronts than others. It has become clear to me that these differences matter.
Social media, for example, is digital nicotine. It’s engineered to hook you so you can be sliced and diced into advertising fodder. It’s not worth losing your cognitive autonomy over — unless your job depends on it, you should probably quit.
But the real issues seem to arise not from the obvious whimsies, but instead from the commitments that are less obviously harmful, and in fact, in the right dose, might actually be vital.
Consider, for example…
- an invitation to speak at a compelling conference,
- a request to hop on a call with an interesting person,
- a long email asking a question you know something about,
- an offer to collaborate on a project that fits your interests, or
- a new service that might make parts of your working life better.
To place a blanket ban on such activities would induce a monasticism that would likely stall your career, or, at the very least, make it unbearably monotonous.
(Even my deep work idol, Neal Stephenson — who has no public email address, and only ventures into public for book launches — ended up involved in a sword fighting video game and consults for an augmented reality pioneer.)
And yet, in my own experience, I find that the occasions when I most despair about the tattered state of my schedule are almost always the result of the accumulation of a dozen yeses that each made perfect sense in isolation.
So how do you balance these competing concerns?
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January 27th, 2016 · 23 comments
Charles Franklin Thwing is a largely forgotten but impressive figure from the early twentieth century. He graduated Harvard in the 1870s, entered seminary, became a pastor in Massachusetts, then an academic, eventually ending up president of Western Reserve University.
He came to my attention because of a book he wrote in 1912 titled, Letters from a Father to his Son Entering College. In this insightful volume is the following wisdom:
“To save time, take time in large pieces. Do not cut time up into bits…The mind is like a locomotive. It requires time for getting under headway. Under headway it makes its own steam. Progress gives force as force makes progress. Do not slow down as long as you run well and without undue waste. Take advantage of momentum. Prolonged thinking leads to profound thinking.”
Thwing, it seems, was a disciple of deep work a century before the term was coined. Good ideas, I suppose, are timeless.
Hat Tip to Morry, who turns 80 next month, and who brought this book to my attention. Morry, inspired by Thwing, has followed this advice for decades by deploying 4 hour stretches of deep work to get important things done.