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Did Early Humans Use To-Do Lists?

Early in my latest article for The New Yorker I take a closer look at the recent protests waged by Apple employees in response to CEO Tim Cook’s announcement that they had to return to their desks in Cupertino. On the surface, the employees were concerned about losing what they like about remote work. In an open letter addressed to Cook, they cited worries about time lost to commuting as well the difficulty of achieving “deep thought” in a crowded office.

As I write in my article, however, protests of this type might actually be a proxy for a deeper unease:

“Knowledge workers were already exhausted by their jobs before the pandemic arrived: too much e-mail, too many meetings, too much to do—all being relentlessly delivered through ubiquitous glowing screens. We used to believe that these depredations were somehow fundamental to office work in the twenty-first century, but the pandemic called this assumption into question. If an activity as entrenched as coming to an office every day could be overturned essentially overnight, what other aspects of our professional lives could be reimagined?”

If burnt-out employees lose their bid for permanent telecommuting, “the last highly visible, virus-prompted workplace experiment,” the window to push for more serious transformation — the types of changes that can save knowledge work from its current drowning into a sea of distracted busyness — might slam shut.

But as I conclude: “The tragedy of this moment…is how this reform movement lacks good ideas about what else to demand.” We learned through experience that working from home is not enough on its own to cure most of what makes office jobs unnecessarily exhausting, and few believe that four-day work weeks or, dare I say it, quiet quitting are somehow sufficient either. We need bolder notions.

This then brings me to the central provocation of my article: What if a good way to chart the future of work is to look to its deep past?

I go on to investigate what the anthropology literature teaches us about what “work” meant for most of our species’ 300,000 year history. My conjecture is that in identifying places where our current activities most differ from how we toiled in our Paleolithic past, we might identify specific sources of discomfort with our current ways of working. How does, in other words, the modern necessity of juggling full email inboxes or managing crowded to-do lists conflict with a brain adapted over hundreds of thousands of years for hunting and gathering in small, close-knit tribes? And once we find these points of friction, what can we do to reduce them?

All of this, of course, is messy and imprecise, but it’s also really fun to think and write about. You’ll have to read the full article to learn all the details of what I uncover during my deep dive into the deep history of work, but the short version of my conclusions should sound familiar to fans of a slower productivity mindset: do fewer things, working at a varied pace, focusing on quality.

Such a deliberate approach might sound unachievable in our moment of hyper-connected busyness, but it might just be, for lack of a better word, much more natural than how we approach ours jobs today.

6 thoughts on “Did Early Humans Use To-Do Lists?”

  1. Gosh you are a genius. I absolutely love how you write and what you write. It consistently challenges our thinking about how do things in order to create a productive, and in my opinion as such, well-meaning life. Thank you for all you do!

  2. One counter point : Knowledge work more and more requires learning even if you are a pro and not in your twenties, if you want to keep up with the changing field. And the new knowledge is usually not codified in books or written down, it is with a few people who know. So if you want to get exposure fast, you have to be in the flow, work in a team, apprentice yourself to those who know, which involves much shallow/entry-level work at-least in the beginning. So what about the people who don’t want to keep specializing in a narrow old knowledge but want to keep learning new areas, even while trying to go deep in the area they are attacking?

  3. I really enjoyed your New Yorker article! I also added your rec’d books in the post into my TBR (to be read) folder: “Work”, “The Story of Work” and “The Dawn of Everything”. What else is a good read to dive into hunter-gatherer societies and their work habits?
    Thanks Cal!

  4. I’m always highly dubious of arguments of this nature, for several reasons.

    First, behavior doesn’t fossilize. Traces of behavior sometimes do, but most of the time behavior is entirely lost. If the to-do lists were vocal it would be impossible to identify. And putting information in songs is a common human activity–look at something like the ABC song–in part because it makes remembering the information easier. It’s entirely plausible that early humans used songs or other vocal means to create lists of things they needed to do at certain times, such as the order in which to do certain tasks. (I am aware of the breadth of fossil evidence for early hominins–I worked with a guy who studied North American human coprolites, for example–but I’ve studied taphonomy and am aware of the limitations of historical sciences.)

    Second, the definition of “work” is incredibly loose and prone to being adjusted in order to arrive at the “right” conclusion. Take Medieval peasants. “Work” could justifiably be limited to the time they spend in the fields. However, this would give a VERY inaccurate view of their life. Most waking hours were spent doing something practical–women, for example, were pretty much always spinning when they weren’t cooking or weaving. Does that count as work? Not to the Medieval mind; it was just life. But it contributed tremendously to the household and was one of the main drivers of the economy .When your definition of “work” ignores the second-largest economic activity, there’s a problem! It’s impossible to know what the daily life of primitive human groups was, but it’s almost certain (given the bones we’ve found) that they didn’t spend a lot of time lazing around. Does that constitute work? Depends on what point you’re trying to make most often.

    There’s also an argument to be made that early hominins also had a lifestyle we really wouldn’t enjoy. 50% infant mortality wasn’t uncommon in the pre-industrial era, and it was almost certainly higher back then, for example. Starvation and violent injuries and deaths (again, evidenced from the bones) were also common.

    This argument isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s very weak, the evidence is always going to be shaky, and the premise is dubious at best.


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