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On Primal Productivity


A Primal Movement

The primal/paleo philosophy argues that we’d all be better off behaving more like cavemen.

In slightly more detail, this school of thought notes that humankind evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to thrive with a paleolithic lifestyle. The neolithic revolution, which started with agricultural, and quickly (in evolutionary timescales) spawned today’s modern civilizations, is much too recent for our species to have caught up.

By this argument, we should look to paleolithic behavior to shape our basic activities such as eating, exercising, and socializing. To eat bread, or sit all day, or center our social life on a small electronic screen, is to fight our genetic heritage.

Or something like that.

This philosophy attracts both righteous adherents and smug critics. And they both have a point.

I maintain, however, that this type of thinking is important. Not necessarily because it’s able to credibly identify “optimum” behaviors, but because it poses clear thought experiments that are worthy of discussion.

An Interesting Thought Experiment

It’s with this spirit of exploration in mind that I pose the following prompt: what would the primal/paleo movement have to say about productivity?

I’m no paleoanthropologist, but pulling from a common sense understanding of this era, I would point toward the following three dictums as a reasonable approximation of what it might mean to work like a caveman:

  • Rule #1: Work on one thing intensely with plenty of rest surrounding this effort.
  • Rule #2: Develop an expert skill/craft from which your status and value to the tribe is primarily derived.
  • Rule #3: Work closely with a small team oriented toward the same goal, with outside communication nonexistent or rare.

Of course, this is all somewhat pie in the sky, but what strikes me about this thought experiment is how far modern knowledge work has drifted from how we likely spent hundreds of thousands of years approaching our daily labor.

For those interested in the concept of workflow engineering, questions like the above are important. It’s not that we can figure out exactly how paleolithic man functioned, nor would we want to follow that script precisely in the modern era.

But this thought experiment forces us to confront, and ultimately justify, the mismatch between how we’ve been wired over the eons to function and the recently emerged and somewhat arbitrary work patterns of the digital age.


If you’re interested in reading detailed summaries of the top books on these primal paleo ideas (such as this and this and this), consider trying out Study Hack’s sponsor Blinkist — my new secret weapon for quickly figuring out which books are worth my time and attention.

(Photo by Steve Schroeder)

29 thoughts on “On Primal Productivity”

  1. You’re describing division of labor. Which pretty much depends on a modern economic system. Non-agricultural hunter-gatherers are by necessity jacks of all trades. I think this methodology can be very effective in a world where specialized work is rewarded with money that can be exchanged for goods and services. But that’s pretty much the opposite of a “paleo” approach.

    • Came here to post the exact same comment. “Develop an expert skill/craft” looks like division of labor to me and this is definitely not from the paleolithic era.

      • I disagree….

        Tribal living does not require that you follow the second half of the cliché “Jack of all trades and MASTER OF NONE.”

        At a basic level, men hunt and women gather plants. This does not mean that men cannot gather pants and women cannot catch small animals. It simply means that labour is divided according to maximum benefit and exercise.

        Everyone can treat minor wounds, but a healer is valued for more serious injuries and diseases.
        Everyone can sing, but the best singers and musicians are valued for public entertainment.
        Everyone can make a decision, but the wisest, most competent and courageous are valued for leadership.
        Everyone can do basic repairs, but those skilled at crafts get additional respect…

        …… and none of this means that the “specialists” do not do any generalist work.

        Do you not understand the difference?

  2. I remember as a child, being confused by the question: “what do you wanna be when you grow up?” I would reply, “i dont wanna be anything when i grow up. I just wanna be me”. I didnt understand it then, but after decades of thinking deeply about it and with the help of thinkers like Descartes, Fromm, Illich and many others, i realized that i happen to be living in a very unusual era for mankind. Industrial civilization forces all of us to think about how we can be cogs in the great big machine.”what is your purpose in life?” Is a question for a robot to answer, not for a sentient being. But most people, when they ask that question, think about it in terms of: “how can i be of better use to the machine of industrial civilization?” Its a warped mentality but one we are forced to have. Unless you hit the lottery and can be free to be yourself. I feel work was indistinguishible from play in prehistoric times. Work was not about drudgery.forcing one’s brain to think about things it was never meant to think about for hours everyday is unnatural.
    I was reading an article about how miserable doctors are. In order to escape it, many of them adopt the strategy of pursuing some kind of niche or specialization, in order to amass money quicker and be able to retire. I think its a smart strategy, and to be able to implement it effectively, one must be able to “think deeply” in their field of study, in order to excel at it. Its a means to an end.

    • The reason why we need to find a ‘purpose in life’ is because we live in a society. This means everyone can’t simply do what they please. We need to think about others and how we affect others (makes me think of J.S.Mill). When we are in the education system, we are taught (supposedly) that we need to find something that we enjoy and that we are good at. We need to self-perfect ourselves by finding something we enjoy, but this something also has to help society (self-sacrifice).

      If you spend your life doing on something which is self-perfecting, you will feel useless to society and it will be hard to find your ‘purpose’. The reason why it is so important to find this purpose is so that we understand our role in society, to show ourselves that we are important and that we are helping our community move forward. We don’t want to feel like just another soldier, we want to be an individual who is bringing something important to our world.

      I hope you understood what I’m trying to say haha, but nonetheless I find it very interesting what you said.

  3. Oh come on! The early humans were doing only 1 thing – surviving. Looking for food, escaping danger, procreating. This whole glorification of the “paleo” life style is a bit strange. What was the average life span? What was the infant mortality rate? Cal, one thing I am pretty certain of: no one worried about productivity 🙂 I do agree that the current first-world lifestyle is unhealthy and the addiction to gadgets + constant over-stimulation is detrimental to the ability to focus. However, living in a cave, going hungry, or being attacked by other tribes would be even more detrimental to (my) ability to focus.

    @ Ted: the only way not to be a “cog” in a “machine of industrial civiliziation” is to be completely outside of the industrial civilization. There are still a few places where you can escape to and be completely free. (Disclosure: there is always a price; the way to complete freedom is complete loneliness.)

    • Thanks Natasha. Actually there are numerous studies that hunter gatherers “worked” a few hours a day with the rest of their time spent in leisure. There are a few isolated tribes today that have been studied and the same observations have been made. Contrary to the belief that their lives were “nasty, brutish and short”. With private property and laws, it is tough to go all primitive, and after spending my entire life living in civilization, it would be very hard to “rewild” myself. But a hybrid lifestyle, with one foot in civilization and the other foot out of it, could be possible.

  4. Leon Festinger talks about this in “The Human Legacy.” He argues that specialization and division of labor _seem_ to have been very rare in ancient tribes. Even observing a modern tribe, he describes watching two men making stone tools. This is a process that can be very dangerous and painful, especially if you’re bad at it. Sharp stone flakes go flying everywhere, and people get cut up pretty badly. He describes the better toolmaker spending maybe a half hour (I don’t remember the exact time) and doing a great job. Meanwhile, the other guy takes like 5 hours, makes a terrible tool, and is sitting there all battered and bleeding from stone shrapnel. And it never occurs to them to have the first guy make both tools, while the second guy, say, cleans a fish or picks some berries. This fascinates me, because it seems so contrary to our instinct to specialize, but it seems like that instinct is not innate or universal. Maybe we also have to contend with the idea that the non-specialists were better off, socially, since a lot of our social ills seem to spring from inequality. Here I mean inequality of talent and ability, of the “Hernnstein Nightmare Scenario” kind, rather than simple economic inequality. (Link to the Hernnstein thing: )

  5. Guys. Good points about specialization, but even in paleo cultures, we suspect there were equivalents of what we see in aboriginal cultures that have been studied, e.g., leaders, shaman, etc. Also, just to sit down and make a flint-head arrow is the very definition of focused (and way back when, maybe even deep) work. Finally, there certainly would have been tribe members recognized for being the most strong, the fastest runner, the best spear thrower, the most clever, etc. Then such people could be expected to have honed those skills further. Finally, loads of art was produced by paleo, neo, and aboriginal people — amazing stuff requiring lots of time. I can’t imagine everyone was equally skilled in that.

    So, overall, I think there is something worth discussing at least in the “thought experiment” Cal mentions (although I am still searching for the experiment in it — think it is just a “thought”).

  6. So… we should all join rock bands and not give a damn? I think this helps explain why so many people are attracted to the allure of a small start-up or an artistic group. In both situations, it seems like people are so focused on creating #2 and #3 for themselves that they overlook #1. (Oddly enough, I wrote about this EXACT concept in my journal and received Cal’s newsletter a few hours later)

  7. I think it was a good post though not really helpful. I expected the post was about how to be more efficient and productive(being healthy and strong yet working the best you can without hampering your body’s activities like rest). Maybe you could put up another post with that content.

  8. ‘We’ are a very recent species and very different from the hominin species we split off from. Actually, concentration, skill forming and specialization have been our species core business from the very beginning. Paleo antropologist Curtis Marean (Arizona State University) has documented beyond doubt that Homo sapiens started dividing labor around 180.000 years ago. In Mosselbaai (South Africa) groups of early fully modern humans systematically set free certain individuals to exclusively craft hunting tools and, especially, weapons. We became warfare specialists right after we acquired our complex brain in the brain specific nutrient rich marine environment of the Rift Valley. This required an elite group to work long, uniterrupted stretches on single, complex tasks, such as forging.

    Ergo: frequent episodes of deep work are very paleo, just as paleo as not eating grass seeds, dense, acellular carbohydrates, dairy and concentraed sources of linoleic acid.

  9. Hello All!

    This comment is not necessarily relevant to this article, but I wanted to gain some insight from fellow Cal fans. I truly appreciate his book “How to Win at College”, and I am looking for a similar book about law school. I have only found books about how to outline/write papers, and I am really looking for more tips and tricks about how to navigate through school; specifically insight about clerkships, law review, and other extracurricular activities that will help me stand out when it comes time to apply for internships and jobs.

    I apologize if I am posting this inquiry in the wrong spot. Any information would be much appreciated.

    Thank you

  10. With so many collectors in the world (and Pokémon Go players), there’s clearly still a lot of hunter-gatherer in us. However, there’s also a lot of other adaptions within us since humans didn’t stop evolving a day before we decided to start cultivating crops in one place. We also have the peppered moth to show us how quickly and recently genes can alter.

    Thought experiments can be fun, but like the (possibly apocryphal) story of Samuel Johnson and friends sitting in a pub believing that human reason alone could figure out if a horse’s hooves all left the ground when at a full run, we often get it wrong.

    It wasn’t until Muybridge’s real-life photographic experiments showed us that, yes, a horse’s hooves do all leave the ground but not when many people thought they did. (The hooves leave the ground when curled underneath the horse; apparently many 19th century painters painted horses with their hooves all off the ground when their legs were outstretched.)

    Primal is a good place to start. It is smart to take as many of our pre-set parameters into consideration when developing new ideas (but to also be open to the idea that often what we think of as pre-set is merely long-standing cultural inculcation).

    It’s also important to pay attention to how individuals work and design adaptions into any idea for it to work for a large group of people. With genes, epigenetics, and early childhood neural development, primal is clearly only one part of a much larger whole that makes us ‘us.’

    I’m not sure how much truth can be empirically proved about what is primal / hunter-gather, (other than after a great many more years spent learning about our genetic code), but what can be proved is whether an idea based on primal attributes works or not. Proof of what works, not belief, is what is needed.

  11. This kind of argumentation often strikes me as odd.

    Why is it necessary to construct a hypothetical “paleo deep work scenario” to argue that deep work is necessary and useful?

    I have severe doubts regarding those arguments. Given that the paleos didn’t write and all we know comes from bones, stone tools and some drawings on cave walls, I believe it’s quite a stretch to make such statements without sacrificing your intellectual honesty.

    I think the argument for Deep Work can only lose through arguments that border on bullshit.

    It reminds me of some guy claiming that the Roman Empire fell, because the government started feeding the people bread instead of giving them wheat so they can bake their own bread, thus taking away their self-empowerment and initiative.

    While this may even be true or not true, it ignores e.g. the severe social conflicts during the times of Tiberius Gracchus. It was common practice that rich land owners simply took over the deserted farms of men who were fighting in the Roman Army, and enslaved their families.

    When they returned, no one (i.e. a strong rule of law) was there to enforce their rightful property claims.

    Whether this is connected to the question why there were so many poor people in Rome who had to be fed, and that 90% of the land was owned by a dozen families, and whether that fact diminished the will of Roman soldiers to defend their serfdom against invading Germanic tribes from the North, I don’t know.

    I just find it not helpful to connect very useful concepts with arguments that are very weak.

  12. I think it was a decent post however not so much accommodating. I expected the post was about how to be more proficient and productive(being sound and solid yet working as well as can be expected without hampering your body’s exercises like rest). Possibly you could set up another post with that substance.


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