Cal Newport on Productivity Systems

From Cal Newport’s podcast episode 53: Covey’s Quads, “Perfect” Productivity Systems, and Reducing Laziness, on the futility of perfecting productivity systems. This bit starts at 31:41.

So in the context of knowledge work is the idea of a perfect productivity system. We can trace this back to David Allen. So at the turn of the 21st century, when David Allen was promoting Getting Things Done, he was actually pitching a pretty audacious idea. I remember when this book came out I was a productivity nerd in my late teen years and early 20s because I had run a start-up during that period, so I really remember David Allen’s book, and what was audacious about his claim was not just that he was going to help you organize your work better, not just that he was going to help you like maybe Stephen Covey would, say, focus on your priorities and not waste too much time on the things that weren’t important. He was proposing a totalizing productivity system in which you are freed in the day-to-day from having to think or be stressed or overwhelmed by work. The system would tell you what to do next. You would crank the widget and repeat. “Mind like water” was a key phrase. “Stress-free productivity” was another key phrase. It was supposed to be an all-encompassing, totalizing, perfect productivity system that just would tell you when it came time to work what to do next. You would look up after a week or a month had passed and the right stuff is getting done. He was pushing back on the stress that was beginning to arise as the 90s turned into the 2000s. There’s a stress beginning to arise because of overwhelm. Now email had a lot to do with this but we were getting more and more work on our plate, more requests or messages to answer…people were feeling overwhelmed by work in a way that they didn’t before, and Alan said I can get rid of that stress. You’re basically going to offload your efforts into the system, the system will just tell you what to do moment to moment, you can just be there, the zen-like presence, just cranking widgets.

That was a very seductive idea and it was perfectly timed for the beginning of this age of overload. Where did that come from? Well, basically what Allen was doing consciously or not as he was taking the big innovation in industrial productivity that had occurred in the early 20th century, and he was bringing it over to the 21st century. So the big idea of early 20th century industrial productivity was this notion of deskilling the worker. This term deskilling, I believe it came from the left-wing labor Economist Harry Braverman, and it was meant pejoratively…But basically the idea was the worker—we do not want the worker to have to think on their feet and apply skills to problems to figure out how we going to build this thing or get get around this issue—that we should consolidate all of that creative thinking at a small number of elite managers and then we can just promulgate down to the workers in the factory just do this step and do this step efficiently—that it would be way more efficient and way more financially lucrative, if you consolidate the creative, skilled thinking and then spread that out to deskilled workers. Of course for the labor Economist, this is considered to be very bad for the worker. It made work for the actual deskilled worker into something that was not just much more drudgery, but it also got rid of a lot of your actual economic leverage, it made you more exploitable, etc. David Allen’s system was basically saying well, let’s do that, but all within the head of a single individual. So we can have a productivity system in which we consolidate all the decisions about how work should get done, what work should get done. And then most of your day your brain will operate like the deskilled factory worker—just executing, executing the things the system told you. You will simulate in your own brain the Frederick Winslow Taylor with the stopwatch saying, “Okay crank widgets, crank widgets, go faster faster faster.”

It’s very ironic because, again, this ship, this deskilling ship, was seen as very negative for workers when we were looking back mid-century at this change that happened in the early 20th century. But by the time we got to the beginning of the 21st century, we were thinking, well if we can do this within our own heads, at least we would get some relief because there’s a lot of stress to try to figure out what should I do next, what do I work on, how do I deal with this mess? And if we could just compartmentalize that into the small part of our brain working with the productivity system that makes the decisions about what work needs to be done and how and then most of our time we could just have the low stress, mind like water, exploited factory worker mindset of just cranking widgets.

This was a hugely innovative idea. It’s a big reason why Getting Things Done was so popular. Now, here’s where technology comes into the picture—pretty soon after this idea began to spread—we get the productivity pr0n movement. This is what I document in that recent New Yorker article [1] I wrote on this topic, but this is where you get people like Merlin Mann who were basically augmenting Allen’s vision and saying yes, but the way this is really going to work—we’re going to simulate the elite managers making all the decisions about how work should actually get done—is we’ve got to throw technology in there. Because if we can use a really advanced software and scripts…we could basically automate a lot of this thinking and decision-making and information moving that has to happen so that, you know, again, the amount of mental resources we have to expend on dealing with the overload, figuring out what to do, we can reduce that even further if we throw technology into the picture. That was the dream that the productivity pr0n really pushed was David Alan’s sort of schizophrenic internal split between mind like water widget crackers and the elite managers trying to make sense of all our work—if you combine that with high technology then you can really minimize the time having to deal with the stressful stuff and really just get down to, like, I have Omnifocus and I hit this context button and magic happens beneath the scenes and I get a list of like this is what you should do, and I just do the top thing. Really seductive idea. Didn’t work. That’s the problem…it didn’t really work. Knowledge work is so complex and interpersonal and haphazard that we did not succeed in this effort to be able to completely disassociate the executing portion of our self from the planning portion of our self. I think the sheer volume of email and then later instant messaging that entered the scene also made these systems sort of impossible. They couldn’t handle 150 messages and people just got lost in their inbox. Like, I have to be in here doing stuff on the fly all day, I don’t even have time to try to put these into a system and arrange them by context. There’s not even time to do that. So the dream of a perfect productivity system that could just tell you what to do and then you would just do it, a seductive dream, it did not work. It just did not work.

So where are we today? What do we get out of productivity systems? We get guard rails and structure to help make the combat against this whirlwind easier. But it does not free us from willpower. It does not free us from ambiguous, confusing decisions. It does not free us from having to actually just do hard things that are hard to do and that we don’t want to do them. It doesn’t free us from having to confront on a regular basis a sort of sheer insurmountable volume of work just being pushed our way. What we get out of productivity today is just help dealing with this, structure for it, guardrails for it. We do not have systems that are going to tell us do this and don’t worry about it, but we do have systems of say, well, at least I have things captured so I’m not wasting energy keeping these in my head. We have systems that say, I have more to do than I can ever get done but at least I can time-block my time today to make the most out of what I have. We have systems that say let me check in at the quarterly and weekly level to make sure that I am making progress on the right things. Let me clearly document my work. Let me move things around, let me reconfigure so I can see all my work, who I’m waiting to hear from, the different contexts, let me consolidate my information with the tasks so I don’t have to waste time or burn off energy and friction trying to find information. All of that is really helpful and it can make this tractable but it doesn’t free you from, in the end, to just face complex things and do hard work…

The way I see productivity and productivity systems today is that that dream we had, where we can get the perfect system that just kind of does the work for you and you just have to execute—it’s a really interesting, historically speaking, dream. It didn’t really pan out. So we have to change our mindset. We’re not seeking a perfect system. We’re seeking a system that can be our ally and doing the really hard thing which is trying to keep up and succeed in a world of high paced, modern knowledge work.

  1. The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done

In the early two-thousands, Merlin Mann…was working as a freelance project manager for software companies. He had held similar roles for years, so he knew the ins and outs of the job; he was surprised, therefore, to find that he was overwhelmed—not by the intellectual aspects of his work but by the many small administrative tasks, such as scheduling conference calls, that bubbled up from a turbulent stream of e-mail messages. “I was in this batting cage, deluged with information,” he told me recently. “I went to college. I was smart. Why was I having such a hard time?”

Not long afterward, Mann posted a self-reflective essay on 43 Folders, in which he revealed a growing dissatisfaction with the world of personal productivity. Productivity pr0n, he suggested, was becoming a bewildering, complexifying end in itself—list-making as a “cargo cult,” system-tweaking as an addiction. “On more than a few days, I wondered what, precisely, I was trying to accomplish,” he wrote. Part of the problem was the recursive quality of his work. Refining his productivity system so that he could blog more efficiently about productivity made him feel as if he were being “tossed around by a menacing Rube Goldberg device” of his own design; at times, he said, “I thought I might be losing my mind.” He also wondered whether, on a substantive level, the approach that he’d been following was really capable of addressing his frustrations.

Even after the loss of one of its leaders, the productivity pr0n movement continued to thrive because the overload culture that had inspired it continued to worsen. G.T.D. was joined by numerous other attempts to tame excessive work obligations, from the bullet-journal method, to the explosion in smartphone-based productivity apps, to my own contribution to the movement, a call to emphasize “deep” work over “shallow.” But none of these responses solved the underlying problem.

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

As 2021 begins, I realize that as 2020 wore on I once again found myself in a batting cage and I’m trying to think about ways to better manage that pitching machine.

I have increasingly seen my role as one of constant, hopefully high-quality prioritization. But I, and those I collaborate with, still consistently say “yes” to far too many things. There are just too many great opportunities in the world, and far too many things to do based on those opportunities we’ve already taken on. Maintenance is incredibly boring to most people.

At the same time, the amount of maintenance my personal existence takes to sustain any kind reasonable energy level and mental capacity is constantly increasing. It feels like I could spend the entire day just accomplishing the physical, mental, and spiritual habits I’m trying to keep in order to keep myself fit in those areas.

None of that accounts for my relationships, which are arguably more important than anything else.

This slower holiday season has allowed for some rest and recuperation, some focus on those habits, but still no real time for deep thinking or the kind of planning that might relieve future anxiety that I’m indeed working on the right things. It took five days to write this post, mostly because I wanted to read that New Yorker article before I published, and it took days before I had both the quiet space and the energy to read it.

I still have a lot of productivity pr0n in my YouTube “watch later” playlist. 🤨