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When Did Productivity Become Personal?

My latest article for The New Yorker, published on Tuesday, is titled “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.” It’s not, however, really about David Allen’s productivity system, which longtime readers (and listeners)  know I really admire. It’s instead about a deeper question that I hadn’t heard discussed much before: Why do we leave office workers to figure out on their own how to get things done?

With the notable exception of agile software development teams, companies in this sector largely leave decisions about how work is assigned, reviewed, and organized up to individuals. We promulgate clear objectives and construct motivating corporate cultures, but when it comes to actually executing these tasks, we just hook everyone up to an email address or Slack channel and tell them to rock and roll. This has led to a culture of overload and fragmented attention that makes everyone involved miserable.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the piece, but here are two big picture conclusions:

  • First, our current commitment to autonomy in knowledge work is more arbitrary than we realize. It largely comes from a single, influential management theorist who shaped the evolution of this emerging sector in the mid-twentieth century.
  • Second, if companies got more involved with the workflows organizing how things actually got done, they could likely increase both their profitability and their employees’ satisfaction.

If you combine this article with my preceding two efforts for The New Yorker, which focused on the topics of remote work and email, respectively, you’ll encounter, in increasing high fidelity, hints of my rapidly-maturing critique of knowledge work, and my optimism for its future.

21 thoughts on “When Did Productivity Become Personal?”

  1. Hi Cal! Love the premise – but worried about the overall potential to introduce perfunctoriness in the worker by this method. Our current commitment to autonomy is actually something you yourself presented as a key to a job that a worker would feel proud of in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. Curious to know how much structure is too much structure, and if there are to be regulations on that?

    • The argument I make is that we’re right to demand autonomy in how we actually work, but there needs to be more structure in the workflows that dictate how work is assigned, reviewed, and supported. Software development is a good example. No one tells a programmer how to write their code, but their team likely uses a task board to organize who is working on what so as to prevent overload or wasted efforts, etc.

  2. Hi Cal, thank you for this article. I’m working as a data scientist and the culture of instant messaging has been damaging my ability to focus. I think time-blocking is a way to counter that phenomenon but it is also quite challenging because usually your colleagues expect that you’ll answer their messages within the minute or so. And when you don’t answer they think you’re simply not working.

    • Victor,

      The trick to solving this problem: sign off the messaging apps. I specifically began to come to work an hour and a half earlier in order to have an hour and a half of daily Deep Work block. I unchecked the setting in my instant messaging application to NOT launch automatically when I log onto my machine. After I am done with my Deep Work block, THEN I log on and spend the rest of the day dealing with messages as they come in. I figure I’m giving them 7+ hours a day. I can justify a measly 1.5.

  3. More correct title for your New Yorker article would be “The Rise and Fall of Productivity Pr0n”. You don’t quote David Allen at all in your article or have him have his say on this matter so the title is woefully misleading.

    • Cal literally says “this isn’t really about David Allen” in the first paragraph here, and goes on to note his personal appreciation for the GTD method. “Getting Things Done” was a phrase in English long before anyone wrote a book by that name.

  4. Love the task board idea, Cal. Sounds a lot like a visual adaptation of the music score concept Drucker recommended. Namely, that leaders should “conduct” their organizations like an orchestra. The brass have their music, the strings have theirs, but everybody is on the same page playing in perfect harmony. So in this sense Drucker was already considering the effects of knowledge worker autonomy and how organizations could cut the noise and help them create beautiful music together.

  5. > Why do we leave office workers to figure out on their own how to get things done?

    I don’t know, but I’m so glad we do. I would be so irritated to be micromanaged in this way.

    • I’m the same–much of my work is of the “I’m not sure how you’re going to do this, but get it done” variety, and methods that work for software engineering simply don’t work for my field.

      The issue is you can succeed in one of two ways: You can have fantastic systems, or you can have fantastic people. Cal Newport focuses on the former; some companies focus on the latter. Neither way is wrong, they just are best for different types of work. If your work is well-defined, fantastic systems work best. If your work is nebulous, systems won’t really work; you need good people.

  6. I am in Sales.

    I have noticed over the years – that companies want data in their system of choice – so they can track and pull reports. But the system they choose – sucks and the sales person cobbles together their own system yet the documentation portion must be done and this dups the workload. Sales Force as an example tried to fix some of this I think – but it is so bloated as is others.

    My point is that I agree with you point – Companies hand the “system” to their employees and say use it. But they share no workflows. No best practices.

  7. Great article – I’ve used GTD personally for some time, which is why the article caught my eye. I currently do project work for a small non-technical team working in the Scrum framework. I’m not surprised you landed there at the end of the article, because I’ve been on this exact trajectory.

    For a non-technical team that works in a very strategically focused part of the organization, working in this way has proven to be extremely difficult. If you really want to solve this, you’ve got to solve these issues:

    – What degree of granularity of task is appropriate for transparency?
    – How do you handle recurring tasks with a high degree of variability in terms of required effort to complete?
    – Agile teams rarely pivot focus mid-sprint but a project team’s world can change hourly. In this case agile frameworks don’t seem to respond well.
    – Cross functional teams often have a diverse skill set with varying levels of individual specialization, but agile methodologies tend to rely on all members of the team being able to attack any task on the backlog. This is a big stumbling block because some goals can’t move forward without the contribution of specific individuals, so value add becomes a less important factor than capacity, and you are right back where you started with relying on personal productivity to get things done, waiting on those individuals’ capacity to become available.

    • I agree completely with your comments Michael, especially the first (task granularity) and last (individual expert) bullet points. The third item that software folks have a complete blind side to is procurement lead time, I understand why of course. I would love to see all these items addressed in a meaningful way, for once.

  8. Hi Cal,

    The mean principle of capitalism is to generate capital through labor exploration. Productivity issues are systemic, not individuals. Any personal productivity initiative is good, but it can’t resolve all the labor and work of knowledge problems. So, no productivity methodology or system will fix that.

    You’ve just used the GTD methodology as an example to share your point of view, but there’s nothing about the methodology itself. In fact, all the supposed “solutions” for productivity are explored by GTD – since how to get fewer actions and projects, how to be spontaneous and creative, until higher perspectives approach. GTD is a methodology, not just a system or a mix of lists.

    If someone is frustrated about any project, the responsibility is not on the “projects list”. The whole text is about the lists or “the productivity prOn” and forgot about the whole system we are living in.

  9. Hi Cal, I enjoyed reading this article and the call for collaborative organization and discussion around productivity. I’m curious as a faculty member in an academic department, have you seen either first hand or elsewhere efforts to meet this call taken on by an academic department?

  10. Dr. Newport – when will you be creating algorithms for health care? I think a lot of need is there for it, but unfortunately, not much change has happened since the initial roll out of the first EMR systems. Healthcare needs a boost! Tell your colleagues if they need research ideas.

  11. Thanks for writing this – it’s timely, informative, and accurately captures a current workplace challenge. Two concepts central to effectively executing on your insights include team culture and alignment. Determining the relevant level of analysis is important here. To externalize work, a group of ppl need to have a shared perspective on how they will do that work and that requires conversational and agreements on tools, method, priorities, etc., And then THAT outcome typically needs to be aligned to a similarly critical need for agreement at a higher level of management. Which is a kind of abstraction. And overall, some alignment (and awareness) that the work being externalized is an operationalization of a strategy.

    All of this is easy if ppl come to the project with intention to improve or refine quality. A group of people need to come together to decide these things and also, be committed to solving the ‘tragedy of the commons’ beyond just noticing it as a description of the current state. In short, you need to care about the work and you need to care about your co-workers’ experience. That’s not a productivity problem. It is a problem though, and also a readiness condition for gaining any return on productivity increase.

  12. Hi Cal,

    GREAT work on tech and social media issues. It is good to have somebody around – who not just repeat what the Silicon alley boys preach!



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