The Big Idea: In another instant classic, Cal Newport articulately and compellingly denounces how modern knowledge work currently operates and offers practical, easy to implement solutions for improving your day to day life at your job.
The issue is that we tend to think of email as additive; that the office of 2021 is like the office of 1991 plus faster messaging. Wrong. Email isn’t additive; it’s ecological. The office of 2021 is not the office of 1991 plus some extra capabilities; it’s instead a different office altogether—one in which work unfolds as a never-ending, ad hoc, unstructured flow of messages, a workflow I named the hyperactive hive mind.
Recommendation: What’s higher than 10/10? I’ve already implemented two big ideas from this book at our startup
A World Without Email Book Notes
A manager can’t tell a copywriter how to come up with a brilliant ad, but she can have something to say about how these commissions are assigned, or about what other obligations are allowed onto the copywriter’s plate, or about how client requests are handled.
It used to take more than twelve and a half labor hours to produce a Model T. After the assembly line, this time dropped to ninety – three minutes. Ford went on to sell 16.5 million units of the iconic vehicle
At its height, his mammoth Highland Park factory would roll a new Model T through its doors once every forty seconds.
In the fall of 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported on a German entrepreneur named Lasse Rheagan’s, who had adopted a novel practice at his sixteen – person technology start – up: a five – hour workday. Rheagan’s wasn’t just reducing the time his employees spent in the office, but the total time they spent working each day. They arrive at around eight each morning and leave at around one in the afternoon. During the day, social media is banned, meetings highly restricted, and email checks constrained. When they’re done with work, they’re actually done until the next morning — no late – night sessions at the keyboard, no surreptitious smartphone messaging during their kids’ sporting events — as professional efforts are restricted to time spent in the physical office. Rehinging’s bet was that once you eliminated both distractions and endless conversations about work, five hours per day would be sufficient for people to get done the main things that mattered for the company.
It’s now widely accepted that continued industrial growth requires continual experimentation and reinvention of the processes that produce the stuff we sell.
At the moment, most organizations remain stuck in the productivity quicksand of the hyperactive hive mind workflow, content to focus on tweaks meant to compensate for its worst excesses. It’s this mindset that leads to “solutions” like improving expectations around email response times or writing better subject lines. It leads us to embrace text autocomplete in Gmail, so we can write messages faster, or the search feature in Slack, so we can more quickly find what we’re looking for amid the scrum of back – and – forth chatter.
The Attention Capital Principle The productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify workflows that better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information.
In the knowledge sector, by contrast, the primary capital resources are the human brains you employ to add value to information — what I call attention capital. But the same dynamics hold different strategies for deploying this capital will generate different returns.
Taking a page out of Henry Ford’s playbook, Devesh began experimenting with radical new approaches to organizing his firm’s work. His core insight was that when his employees relied on the hive mind, their days were structured by incoming messages, which dictated what they worked on and kept them jumping back and forth between many different projects simultaneously, limiting the quality of attention they devoted to any one objective. Devesh decided to reverse this dynamic. He wanted his employees to decide what to work on and then, once they made that decision, limit their attention to this choice until they were ready to move on to something else.
This type of radical workflow makeover is easy to describe but often tricky to successfully implement. There are many obstacles, from figuring out where to focus your experimental energies, to shifting how you think about issues like inconvenience or extra overhead, to getting everyone on your team on the same page.
Knowledge work is better understood as the combination of two components: work execution and workflow. The first component, work execution, describes the act of actually executing the underlying value – producing activities of knowledge work — the programmer coding, the publicist writing the press release. It’s how you generate value from attention capital.
Once we understand that these components describe two different things, we find a way to escape the autonomy trap. When Drucker emphasized autonomy, he was thinking about work execution, as these activities are often too complicated to be decomposed into rote procedures. Workflows, on the other hand, should not be left to individuals to figure out on their own, as the most effective systems are unlikely to arise naturally. They need instead to be explicitly identified as part of an organization’s operating procedures.
To deliver the great promise of the attention capital principle, we must stand on Drucker’s shoulders and push these theories toward their next evolution in complexity. Differentiating workflows and work execution is crucial if we’re going to continue to improve knowledge sector productivity. To get the full value of attention capital, we must start taking seriously the way we structure work. This doesn’t stifle the autonomy of knowledge workers, but instead sets them up to make even more out of their skill and creativity.
Drawing on these observations, I suggest the following design principle for developing approaches to work that provide better returns from your personal or organizational attention capital: seek workflows that (1) minimize mid – task context switches and (2) minimize the sense of communication overload. These two properties are the knowledge work equivalent of Henry Ford’s obsession with speed.
Regardless of the source of these interruptions, when it comes to producing value with your brain, the more you’re able to complete one thing at a time, sticking with a task until done before moving on to the next, the more efficiently and effectively you’ll work.
All things being equal, workflows that minimize this never – ending stream of urgent communication are superior to those that instead amplify it. When you’re at home at night, or relaxing over the weekend, or on vacation, you shouldn’t feel like each moment away from work is a moment in which you’re accumulating deeper communication debt.
you must still monitor the key bottom line metric: the quantity and quality of valuable output you’re producing. For a knowledge work organization, this means tracking the impact of new workflows on revenue, while for an individual knowledge worker, this might describe the rate at which you’re hitting milestones or completing projects.
Imagine you want to make a major change to your own or your organization’s workflow. How can you avoid the inconveniences associated with this experimentation? You can’t. You must instead adjust your mindset so that you no longer fear these annoyances.
In modern knowledge work, we’ve largely lost interest in moving boldly ahead, embracing the resulting hardships as the cost of doing business better than before. We still talk about “innovation,” but this term now applies almost exclusively to the products and services we offer, not the means by which we produce them.
A natural consequence of leaving the details of how knowledge workers work up to the individual is an entrenchment in workflows that prioritize convenience in the moment above all else.
In business, good is not the same as easy, and fulfilling is not the same as convenient.
There are three steps necessary to keep these experiments collaborative. The first is education. It’s important that your team understand the difference between workflows and work execution, and why the hyperactive hive mind is just one workflow among many — and probably not a very good one. For many knowledge workers, email is synonymous with work, so it’s crucial to break up this misunderstanding before you discuss breaking up their comfortable reliance on the hive mind for getting things done.
The second step is to obtain buy – in on new workflow processes from those who will actually have to execute them. To accomplish this goal, these ideas should emerge from discussion. There should be general agreement that trying the new workflow is a worthwhile experiment, and following Carpenter’s lead, its details should be captured with crystal clear specificity so there’s no doubt about what exactly is being implemented.
The third step is to further follow Carpenter’s lead by putting in place easy methods for improving the new workflow processes when issues arise. There’s perhaps no better way to keep the locus of control internal than to empower your team to change what’s not working.
The classic example is to use phone calls as the catchall fallback: your colleagues can call your cell phone if something pops up that’s too urgent for the official workflow to reliably handle in time.
Over the years of observing many different attempts by individuals to push back against or change their dependence on the hyperactive hive mind, and having attempted more than a few such changes myself, I’ve come to believe that these experiments are best executed quietly. Don’t share the details of your new approach to work, unless someone specifically asks you out of genuine interest.
Similarly, if you get in the habit of asking for forgiveness — as is often suggested — people around you will get in the habit of thinking your work strategies must be broken, because why else would they keep causing you to apologize?
A better strategy for shifting others’ expectations about your work is to consistently deliver what you promise instead of consistently explaining how you’re working. Become known as someone who never drops the ball, not someone who thinks a lot about their own productivity.
The professor and business writer Adam Grant uses the phrase “idiosyncrasy credits” to describe this reality. 25 The better you are at what you do, he explains, the more freedom you earn to be idiosyncratic in how you deliver — no explanation required.
My board has the following columns: ☐ waiting to deal with ☐ waiting to deal with (time sensitive) ☐ to discuss at next graduate committee meeting ☐ to discuss at next meeting with department chair ☐ waiting to hear back from someone ☐ working on this week
Work is not just about getting things done; it’s a collection of messy human personalities trying to figure out how to successfully collaborate.
In his 1983 cult business classic, High Output Management, for example, former Intel CEO Andy Grove dedicates the first two chapters to explaining the power of production process thinking. He notes that without this structure, you’re left with only one option for increasing productivity: figuring out how to get people to “work faster.” Once you see the whole process, however, a much more powerful option emerges: “We can change the nature of the work performed.” Optimize processes, he urged, not people. 3
We largely ignore processes, investing our energy instead in figuring out how to make people faster. We obsess over hiring and promoting stars. We seek leadership consultants to help us motivate people to work longer and harder. We embrace innovations like the smartphone that allow more hours of the day to be punctuated with work. We put dry cleaners on our corporate campuses and we – fi on our corporate buses, all in the service of finding faster ways to shovel more proverbial slag.
The core claim of this chapter is that production process thinking applies equally well to knowledge work as it does to industrial manufacturing. Just because you produce things with your brain instead of your hands doesn’t change the fundamental reality that these efforts must still be coordinated. The importance of organizing decisions about who is working on what and finding systematic ways to check in on this work as it evolves, applies as much to generating computer code or client proposals as it does to casting brass.
In knowledge work, any type of valuable result that you or your organization regularly produces can be understood as the output of a production process. If you’re a marketing firm that runs publicity campaigns for your clients, your firm has a publicity campaign production process. If you work on an HR team that resolves salary issues, your team has a salary issue resolution process. If you’re a professor teaching a class that requires you to assign and grade problem sets, you have a problem set process.
For sure, a major explanation for this process aversion is the insistence on knowledge worker autonomy that we explored earlier. Production processes, by definition, require rules about how work is coordinated. Rules reduce autonomy — creating friction with the belief that knowledge workers “must manage themselves,” as Peter Drucker commanded
This dislike of processes, however, goes beyond a general bias toward autonomy. There’s a belief, implicitly held by many knowledge workers, that the lack of processes in this sector is not just an unavoidable side effect of self – management, but actually a smart way to work. A lack of processes, it’s commonly understood, represents nimbleness and flexibility — a foundation for the type of outside – the – box thinking we’re constantly told is critical. This vision is fundamentally Rousseau Ian, a reference to the eighteenth – century Enlightenment philosopher Jean – Jacques Rousseau, who believed that human nature, before the introduction of political influence, was fundamentally virtuous. It claims that when left alone to work in whatever way seems natural, knowledge workers will adapt seamlessly to the complex conditions they confront, producing original solutions and game – changing innovations. In this worldview, codified work processes are artificial: they corrupt the Edenic creative, leading to bureaucracy and stagnation — a Dilbert comic brought to life.
Much as is observed in actual natural settings, in the informal process workplace, dominance hierarchies emerge. If you’re brash and disagreeable, or are a favorite of the boss, you can, like the strongest lion in the pride, avoid work you don’t like by staring down those who try to pass it off to you, ignoring their messages, or claiming overload. On the other hand, if you’re more reasonable and agreeable, you’ll end up overloaded with more work than makes sense for one person to handle. These setups are both demoralizing and a staggeringly inefficient deployment of attention capital.
Also, as in natural settings, in workplaces without well – defined processes, energy minimization becomes prioritized. This is fundamental human nature: if there’s no structure surrounding how hard efforts are coordinated, we default to our instinct to not expend any more energy than is necessary.
The Process Principle Introducing smart production processes to knowledge work can dramatically increase performance and make the work much less draining.
Motivated by his intuitive dislike of interruption and harried busyness, Johnson had his team methodically break down their work into processes that could be clearly stated and (appropriately enough) optimized to maximize the time spent doing useful work and minimize the time spent moving back and forth between work and inboxes. “Our team is absolutely committed to single – tasking,” Johnson told me. “You do one thing at a time.”
Here’s what amazed me about this production process: it coordinates a fair – sized group of specialists, spread out around the world, to accomplish the complicated feat of releasing highly produced multimedia content on a demanding daily schedule — all without requiring even a single unscheduled email or instant message. Not one of the skilled knowledge workers involved in this process ever needs to load up an inbox or glance at a messenger channel. Almost 100 percent of their time is dedicated to actually doing the work they’re trained to perform, and when they’re done working, they’re done working — there’s nothing to check, nothing urgent requiring a reply.
I asked Johnson to walk me through a typical day of one of the higher – level managers in his company — someone who has to oversee various onetime projects, as well as produce original strategy on a regular basis. As Johnson explained, the manager in question has a schedule that begins every day with three hours of uninterrupted deep work before he receives “even a single input.” This is time set aside for the manager to think intensely about his projects — making informed decisions on how to go forward, where to focus next, what to improve, and what to ignore.
Similar to how Devesh’s marketing firm used Trello in the case study reviewed in the last chapter, these virtual cards arranged on virtual boards are the hub around which work on projects unfolds. Instead of having all communication for all workflow through a general – purpose inbox or channel, you now choose to work on a specific project by navigating to its page and checking in on the tasks to which you’re assigned. This is exactly what our Optimize manager does after his deep work block concludes: he checks in on the projects one by one, joining the card – centric conversations when needed and more generally seeing where things currently stand.
Like all Optimize employees, his day ends between 4: 00 and 5: 00 p.m. Johnson is insistent on enforcing a “digital sunset” for his company: he wants his employees to end their workday at a reasonable hour to spend time with family and recharge. Because there are no email inboxes to check, our manager, as with all Optimize employees, will actually be free from work until the next morning.
Here are a few other odds and ends I learned about Optimizer’s processes. Though they forbid internal email, they do use email to communicate with external partners. Their interaction with these inboxes, however, is highly structured. Johnson says those responsible for these external – facing email addresses have “discrete blocks” in which they check for messages, typically once a day. To handle customer service, optimize deploys a tool called Intercom that streamlines the process of responding to the most common requests and prevents pileups of ambiguous emails from customers. Optimize also hosts a company – wide meeting every Monday (using teleconferencing software) to synchronize efforts.
Every employee of Optimize is expected to spend at least the first ninety minutes of every day in a deep work block, free from inputs (some people, like the manager profiled above, spend much more). One of the keys uses of this morning block is to think about processes and how to improve them.
These examples of effective production processes share the following properties: It’s easy to review who is working on what and how it’s going. Work can unfold without significant amounts of unscheduled communication. There’s a known procedure for updating work assignments as the process progresses.
A good production process, in other words, should minimize both ambiguity about what’s going on and the amount of unscheduled communication required to accomplish this work. Notice, nothing about these properties restricts the knowledge worker’s autonomy in figuring out how they get their work done; the focus remains on coordinating this work.
Also notice that these properties are unlikely to lead to stifling bureaucracy, as the processes they produce are optimized to reduce the overhead — in terms of both context shifts and time — surrounding the actual act of producing valuable things.
A big part of how he pulls off this feat is immediately visible when you walk into his office. Dominating one of the walls is a three – by – eight – foot chalkboard. It’s divided into five columns: plan, ready, blocked, work, and done. The work column is further divided into two sub – columns: in development and testing.
As Alex explained to me when I asked him how he avoids the hyperactive hive mind workflow, the chalkboard in his office is not the only tool used by his team. Each notecard taped to the big board corresponds to a project. When a project makes it to the work column, the group of employees assigned to the project will create their own board dedicated to the tasks required to accomplish the project.
Once a project is underway, those working on it will hold their own regular meetings to update the project’s board — discussing the cards and rearranging them among the columns.
Alex typically holds these discussion meetings every morning. If his development teams are fully engaged in projects — “rock and rolling” — he’ll temporarily scale back these big picture meetings to once per week until there’s more planning to be done.
The general idea of posting tasks on boards to organize work is not new. Hospital ERs, for example, have long relied on tracking boards: whiteboards, divided into a grid, that list every patient being treated, including their room, the doctor or nurse assigned, and their triage level. For the harried staff, the tracking board provides, at a glance, a good overview of the current state of the emergency room.
The manifesto opens optimistically: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software.” It then lays out twelve principles, each explained in plain language. “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software,” reads one principle. “Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential,” reads another.
To understand agile, you must understand what it replaces. Software development used to rely on lumbering, complicated project plans that would quixotically attempt to figure out in advance all the work required to produce a major piece of software. The idea was that, given one of these plans, often lovingly rendered in striated, multicolored Gantt charts, you could know exactly how many programmers to assign at each stage and provide your customers with accurate release schedules. This approach made sense in theory, but for anything but the simplest projects, these plans almost never proved accurate. Producing software is not like producing cars: it’s hard to accurately estimate how long different steps will take or what problems might arise.
Agile by itself is not an organizational system; it instead defines a general approach that is realized by multiple different specific systems. Two of the more popular systems at the moment are Scrum and Kanban, which, if you have any involvement with software, are terms you’ve at the very least heard mentioned. Generally speaking, Scrum breaks work down into sprints, where a team dedicates itself completely to delivering a particular update before moving on to the next. Kanban, by contrast, emphasizes a more continuous flow of tasks through a fixed set of phases, with a general goal of minimizing the current works in progress at any one phase, preventing bottlenecks.
A key idea driving agile project management is that humans are naturally pretty good at planning. You don’t need complicated project management strategies to figure out what to work on next; it’s usually sufficient to just have a group of informed engineers get together and discuss what makes sense. The key caveat in this belief, however, is that we’re able to effectively apply our planning instinct only if we have a good grasp of all the relevant information — what tasks are already being worked on, what needs to be done, where there are bottlenecks, and so on.
Task Board Practice # 1: Cards Should Be Clear and Informative At the core of the task board method is stacking cards in columns. These cards typically correspond to specific work tasks. It’s important that these tasks are clearly described: there shouldn’t be ambiguity about what efforts each card represents. Also critical to successfully deploying this approach is having a clear method to assign cards to individuals. Digital systems such as Flow provide assignment as a native feature, allowing you to see small thumbnail headshots of the people associated with a task card. But even in systems that don’t offer assignment functionality, it’s easy to add this information to the card’s title.
This was something that struck me when I was studying the Trello boards used by Devesh. One of the cards I encountered on his boards, for example, corresponded to the task of writing up an analytics report for a client. Attached to the card were the relevant files containing the data for the report and some notes on how to format it. For the person working on this task, there’s now no need to sift through cluttered inboxes or chat archives to find these materials. When it comes time to work on the report, everything that’s needed is all in one place.
Task Board Practice # 2: When in Doubt, start with Kanban’s Default Columns Once you leave the comfort of the entrenched guidelines surrounding the use of task boards in software development, it’s not necessarily obvious how to set them up for your specific knowledge work context. When in doubt, start with the default setup from the Kanban methodology, which includes just three columns: to do, doing, and done. You can then elaborate this foundation as needed.
Another useful expansion of the Kanban defaults is to include a column for storing background notes and research generally relevant to a project. This hack technically breaks the convention that every card corresponds to a task, but when using digital boards, it can be a useful way of keeping information close to where it might be needed. At Devesh’s marketing company, for example, a column of this type was used to capture notes from client phone calls
Task Board Practice # 3: Hold Regular Review Meetings As argued earlier, a key property for any knowledge work production process is an effective system for deciding who is working on what. In the context of task boards, these decisions are reflected by the cards on the board and to whom they’re assigned. But how should these decisions be made? A foundational idea in agile methodology is that short meetings held on a regular schedule are by far the best way to review and update task boards.
These regular review meetings work well in part because they’re collaborative: everyone feels like they were part of deciding what tasks they’re tackling. They also work well because they’re unambiguous: everyone is present for the conversation that decides current work assignments. Finally, as argued in part 1 of this book, real – time communication is typically a much more effective means of coordinating individuals than drawn – out back – and – forth messaging.
Task Board Practice # 4: Use Card Conversations to Replace Hive Mind Chatter One of the more powerful features of digital board systems is the discussion function built into each virtual card. In Trello and Flow, for example, in addition to attaching files and information to cards, you’ll find tools for message board – style conversation stored directly on each card.
Jim Benson thinks a lot about improving knowledge work. His consulting firm, Modus Cooperant, specializes in building custom processes that improve collaboration at knowledge work organizations. Likely influenced by his former career as a software entrepreneur well versed in agile methodologies, Benson’s processes often make use of task boards. The photos featured on the Modus Cooperant website are filled with brightly colored Post – it notes arranged in complex columns.
The Personal Kanban solution to this problem is to organize this mess of expectations with a personal task board. Benson suggests using three columns. The first is labeled options, and it’s where you arrange all your obligations into neat stacks of Post – it notes: one note per task. “Now we’ve taken that horrible mass of work and turned it into a very cognitively pleasing rectangle.” The second column is labeled doing. This is where you move the Post – its corresponding to the tasks that you’re actually working on right now. The key to this column — and a big part of the secret sauce of Kanban systems in general — is that you should maintain a strict limit on how many tasks you’re allowed to be doing at any given time. In Kanban – speak, this is called the works in progress (WIP) limit. In the video, Benson sets this limit to three. As he explains, if you instead try to make progress on dozens of different tasks all at the same time, you end up with a “messy life.” He convincingly argues that it’s better to do a small number of things at any one time: give them your full concentration, and only when you finish one should you replace it with something new.
Which brings us to the done column. This is where you move the tasks you complete. In theory, you could just discard a Post – it once you completed its task, but as Benson implies the psychological boost of physically moving the Post – it from doing to done is a powerful motivator.
Individual Task Board Practice # 1: Use More Than One Board Many proponents of the Personal Kanban approach deploy a single board to make sense of all the tasks in their professional life. I recommend something slightly different: maintain a separate board for every major role in your professional life. At the moment, I play three largely distinct roles as a professor at my university: researcher, teacher, and DGS.
Individual Task Board Practice # 2: Schedule Regular Solo Review Meetings When we discussed task boards for knowledge work teams, I argued that regular review meetings were the best way to update these boards. The same holds for your personal board. If you want to get the most out of this tool, you need set times each week to review and update your personal board. During these solo review meetings, go over all the cards on the board, moving them between columns and updating their statuses as needed.
Individual Task Board Practice # 3: Add a “To Discuss” Column In my work as DGS, there are several colleagues with whom I frequently need to discuss issues related to this role: my department chair, the graduate program manager, and the two other professors who make up the graduate committee I lead. For each of these three categories of colleagues, I added a column to my DGS task board labeled to discuss at next meeting.
Individual Task Board Practice # 4: Add a “Waiting to Hear Back” Column In collaborative knowledge work, it’s often necessary for progress on a task to be halted while you wait for feedback, or for an answer to a question, or for a key piece of information from someone else.
Not all processes, however, can be made automatic. For this strategy to apply, the process in question must produce some output in a highly repeatable fashion, where the same steps are implemented, in the same order, by the same people, each time. The types of processes optimized with task boards, by contrast, are more diverse and dynamic, requiring collaborative decision making to figure out what tasks to tackle next and who should be responsible for them.
Once you’ve identified a process that does seem like a good candidate for automation, the following guidelines will help you succeed with the transformation: Partitioning: Split the process into a series of well – defined phases that follow one after the other. For each phase, clearly specify what work must be accomplished and who is responsible. Signaling: Put in place a signaling or notification system that tracks the current phase of each output being generated by the process, allowing those involved to know when it’s their turn to take over the work. Channeling: Institute clear channels for delivering the relevant resources and information from one phase to the next (such as files in shared directories). The daily lesson production process at Optimize clearly follows these guidelines. It’s divided into well – defined phases, uses a shared spreadsheet to signal each lesson’s current status, and makes use of shared directories to transfer files. Automatic processes, however, don’t necessarily have to rely on software systems.
This advantage is true of most automatic processes: eliminating unnecessary coordination does not just reduce frustration, but also increases resources to invest in the activities that really matter.
A good approach to figuring out whether this effort is warranted is to apply the 30x rule. As explained by the management consultant Rory Vaden, in its original form, this rule states: “You should spend 30x the amount of time training someone to do a task than it would take you to do the task yourself one time.”
The key was to reduce cognitive energy wasted on planning or decision making, allowing the student to focus simply on execution.
There’s no reason why this approach cannot also apply to non – academic knowledge work responsibilities. If there’s a particular outcome or result that you’re individually responsible for producing again and again, there’s probably nothing to lose by trying to come up with a more structured process that specifies when and how you tackle this work. As in my student example, start with the question of timing: add set times on your calendar, which you can treat like meetings attended only by you, for the specific steps you know have to get done. Then put in place some rules about how you execute these steps, searching for optimizations or hacks that can make each step a little easier to dispatch.
Crucial to this optimization is to minimize the back – and – forth communication associated with your processes. Consider, for example, a consultant who is responsible for producing a weekly report for a client that describes the hours her team spent on the project. Assume she needs to gather these hours from her colleagues on the team. Further assume that she needs to give her boss a chance to look at the report before sending it out. Once
In this chapter, I’ll adapt this principle to workplace communication, arguing that by spending more time in advance setting up the rules by which we coordinate in the office (what I’ll call protocols), we can reduce the effort required to accomplish this coordination in the moment — allowing work to unfold much more efficiently
A more formal rule, by contrast, might be to hold a meeting every Friday morning to go through that week’s requests as a group and decide right then which ones to pursue and who will take the lead.
As reported in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, dramatically titled “Stop the Meeting Madness,” the average executive now spends twenty – three hours a week in meetings. 7 The sheer volume of the scheduling required to set up those meetings becomes a major driver of hyperactive inbox checking, and therefore induces a major cognitive cost.
Work Reduction Strategy # 1: Outsource What You Don’t Do Well
cot’s story highlights an effective strategy for becoming more specialized in your work: attempt to outsource the time-consuming things that you don’t do well.
The productivity writer Laura Vander am argues that we should in general be more aggressive in identifying work that can be delegated. “For instance, it doesn’t make sense for licensed, experienced teachers to be grading most worksheets,” she writes. “Automating this (via technology) or else hiring graders to report back the results would free up teachers to dream up better lessons and share best practices.”9 Once you start looking for opportunities to off-load nonessential tasks, you’ll be surprised by how many you find.
Work Reduction Strategy #2: Trade Accountability for Autonomy
As Amanda elaborated, there are two categories of work possible at her firm. The first category she calls “reactive, easy, brain-dead work.” As she explains: “This is where you show up, check your email, do what the emails tell you to all day, and then go home.” The second category she calls “intentional, difficult, focused, creative work,” which is when you “spend time thinking about what’s the most important, long-term, impactful thing for you to do for your big projects.”
One of the key ideas from our extreme programming case study was the importance of working on one objective at a time, without interruption, until it’s complete.
The goal of the design sprint is to help companies efficiently answer critical questions by requiring executives to dedicate five consecutive days of (nearly) uninterrupted concentration to the problem at hand. In 2016, having deployed these sprints with over one hundred of their portfolio companies, Knapp and fellow GV partners John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz introduced the design sprint methodology to a larger audience with their book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.
Design sprints are meant to help you figure out where your team or organization should focus its efforts. In a traditional workplace, these decisions typically unfold over months of meetings and debates, augmented with numerous email threads, ultimately leading to costly investments in new products or strategies that all too often fall short. A design sprint attempts to compress this work, from the initial debates all the way to receiving market feedback on the resulting decisions, into one highly efficient workweek. On the first day, you figure out the problem you’re trying to solve. On the second day, you sketch out competing solutions. On the third day, you make the tough decision about which solution you want to explore, transforming it into a hypothesis that can be tested. On the fourth day, you throw together a rough prototype that allows you to test the hypothesis, and on the fifth and final day, you put real clients in front of the prototype and learn from their feedback.
Curious about the degree to which this single-minded focus is actually achieved, I got in touch with Jake Knapp and asked him a question I felt got to the core of this issue: “Are people still checking email during design sprints?” He explained that the hard rule during sprint sessions is “no laptops, no phones, no tablets, nothing.” The only exception is the use of computers on the fourth day, if needed, to construct a prototype. When Knapp coaches a team through a sprint, he tells them to set out-of-office autoresponders, so they won’t be stressed out by their lack of connectivity.
Participants are allowed to use devices before and after the sprint sessions, which last from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. They may also check devices during breaks, but they must do so outside the room where the sessions occur.
For any sprint process to succeed requires buy-in from everyone involved. When you’re in a sprint, you must trust that you really can step away from your inbox and chat channels and do this without generating frustration or annoyance. If you’re self-employed, you must clearly explain to your clients that your work is fundamentally bimodal, and during the sprint modes, you cannot be reached. If you work for a larger organization, enthusiasm for sprints must emanate from the top. But once this regular specialization is embraced, its benefits will soon become apparent. As Jake Knapp explained to me, one of the best things about helping teams run sprints is the enthusiasm it generates from the participants. Chronic overload makes us miserable.
Moving beyond academia, another budgeting strategy I’ve seen used with great success is the idea of deep-to-shallow work ratios, which I first proposed in my book Deep Work. The idea is to agree in advance with your supervisor how many hours each week should be spent on the core skilled activities for which you were hired, and how much on other types of shallower support or administrative work. The goal is to seek the balance that maximizes your value to your organization. You then measure and categorize your work hours and report back how close you came to achieving your optimal ratio.
This strategy is especially popular among entrepreneurs who have great autonomy in their work. One company founder I know deploys a simple rule for his staff and clients: no meetings before noon. This allows him to get important work done without interruption every single day.
The task boards discussed in the process principal chapter also provide a powerful tool for implementing workload budgets. Using a task board to organize work offers two benefits in this context: it makes it easy to determine how much work each person is currently doing, and it has a structured system for how these work assignments are updated, usually in the form of a status meeting attended by everyone.
Most modern knowledge work organizations treat individuals as general-purpose computers that execute a turbulent mixture of value-producing and administrative tasks—often unequally distributed, and not at all optimized for any particular big picture objective.
Supercharging Idea #1: Structure Support
In order to build a sustainable specialized organization, support roles need these types of structured processes. Hiring new support staff and then simply pointing them to an inbox and saying “Be useful” is a recipe for misery and high turnover.
In addition, it’s important to remember that transactional work typically trumps concurrent efforts. If it’s possible, set up a process that allows a support staffer to work on one thing at a time until done, and to deal with issues in person (not through back-and-forth messaging). In the moment, it might seem like the ability to just fire off messages would be a real time-saver, but when everyone is doing the same thing, everyone ends up buried in an inbox, struggling to make reasonable progress on anything.
Supercharging Idea #2: Build Smart Interfaces Between Support and Specialists
Supercharging Idea #3: As a Last Resort, Simulate Your Own Support Staff
One way to accomplish this goal is to partition your time into two separate categories: specialist and support. For example, perhaps 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. are support hours. During all other hours, you act as if you work in a specialized organization: focus only on skilled work that directly produces value.
Another advanced tactic is to assign entire days to these roles. Perhaps Tuesday and Thursday are support days, and Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are specialist days. Not every job allows such a dramatic split in your behavior, but if yours does, there’s great clarity in such a clean division. I’ve even met practitioners of this rule who use different locations—coming into the office for support days, for example, and working from home when in their specialist role.
Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. . .. A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe.
Drawing from Postman, we can gain clarity. The issue is that we tend to think of email as additive; that the office of 2021 is like the office of 1991 plus faster messaging. wrong. Email isn’t additive; it’s ecological. The office of 2021 is not the office of 1991 plus some extra capabilities; it’s instead a different office altogether—one in which work unfolds as a never-ending, ad hoc, unstructured flow of messages, a workflow I named the hyperactive hive mind.
As one prominent billionaire Silicon Valley CEO told me when we recently discussed our mutual obsession with this issue: “Knowledge worker productivity is the moonshot of the twenty-first century.”
Digital-era knowledge work is, on any reasonable historical scale, a recent phenomenon. It’s absurdly ahistorical and shortsighted to assume that the easy workflows we threw together in the immediate aftermath of these tech breakthroughs are somehow the best ways to organize this complicated new type of work.