April 19th, 2016 · 22 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.
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April 15th, 2016 · 25 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.)
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April 8th, 2016 · 12 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 · 44 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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