November 23rd, 2021 · 9 comments
In early 1973, George Lucas was living modestly with his wife, the film editor Marcia Lou Griffin, in a one-bedroom apartment in Mill Valley, a small town in Marin County, just north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge. Lucas’s situation drastically changed that summer when Universal released his second feature film, American Graffiti.
The movie was a major hit, earning over $60 million in its first year alone, before eventually going on to rake in $250 million in the decades that followed. Given that Graffiti was made on a shoestring budget of only $775,000, it still ranks as one of the most profitable movies of all time. Lucas, of course, enjoyed immense personal benefit from this success. His fledgling production company, LucasFilm, received $4 million from the movie in 1973, an amount worth over $16 million in today’s dollars.
I recently read about this particular beat in Lucas’s long narrative in Chris Taylor’s exhaustively-researched 2014 book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. As Taylor details, Lucas resisted the urge to follow the path of his friend Francis Ford Coppola, who had made a fortune the previous year with the runaway success of The Godfather, and then promptly spent the money on a “massive” Pacific Heights mansion and a private jet lease. He and Griffin instead bought a rambling Victorian house on Medway road in the Marin County village of San Anselmo.
What caught my attention most, however, is what Lucas did next.
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November 13th, 2021 · 22 comments
A few years ago, my family faced a housing dilemma. We lived at the time in our first house, a small cape cod near the top of an elongated cul-de-sac, situated on a bluff above Sligo Creek, a half mile outside downtown Silver Spring. We had two kids who comfortably shared an upstairs bedroom. But then my wife and I decided they needed a new brother, and we soon realized that we might not actually have anywhere to put him.
So we started thinking through options to gain more space. At one point, I landed on what I deemed to be an ingenious plan. We would give up my home office and instead build, in the corner of our small backyard, a custom writing shed. Inspired by the cabin Michael Pollan built in the woods outside his home in Kent, Connecticut, I began to daydream about making that short walk from our back door to a wood-paneled oasis; heated in the winter by a marine pellet stove, and cooled by tilt-open windows in the pleasant DC spring.
For various reasons, including the potential illegality of cramming an outbuilding of this size into our cramped yard, we ended up instead buying a new house ten minutes down the road. But the daydream of my impractical writing shed lingered.
Which is all a long way of establishing the importance of what happened earlier today. I was watching an old episode of a promotional show called Disney Insider with our youngest son (now three), when we were suddenly confronted with a great example of a writer who actually acted on my impulse. The segment in question focused on Eoin Colfer, the Irish author of the massively successful Artemis Fowl book series.
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November 4th, 2021 · 11 comments
When I give interviews about the potential harms of social media, I often tell a story from early in my career as a professor. In this tale, I was walking across the campus of a well-known university, on my way to give a talk to a student group about stress and academic success. I was escorted by a professor involved with the school’s student mental health clinic.
As we chatted, she casually mentioned an interesting development they’d noticed at the clinic. A few years earlier, seemingly all at once, the number of students they served significantly increased. Even more curious, the students all seemed to be suffering from the same cluster of previously-rare anxiety-related issues.
I asked her what she thought explained this change.
She responded without hesitation: “smartphones.”
As she then elaborated, the first classes to arrive on campus already immersed in the phone-enabled world of social media and ubiquitous connectivity were suddenly and more notably anxious than those who had come before.
I’ve been involved in many public discussions and debates on the promises and perils of network technologies in the years that have elapsed since that fateful conversation. I even ended up writing a bestselling book on the topic. Throughout this whole period, however, that story I first heard as a young professor stuck with me.
Which is why I was fascinated when, earlier today, a colleague of mine at Georgetown pointed me toward a new paper, co-authored by a trio of researchers from Stanford, MIT, and the Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance, that argues that the experience described to me so many years earlier might have actually been quite common.
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October 11th, 2021 · 16 comments
I recently received an interesting email from a Lutheran pastor named Amy. She had read some of my recent essays on slow productivity (e.g., 1 2 3), and heard me talk about this embryonic concept on my podcast, so she decided to send me her own story about slowing down.
“A few years ago, I realized I was on the verge of burnout with my job,” she began. To compensate for this alarming state of affairs, Amy took the following steps…
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September 25th, 2021 · 15 comments
In a recent essay for the New Yorker, I take a closer look at the growing popular dissatisfaction with the concept of “productivity,” a trend I underscore, in part, by citing some of the comments from readers of this newsletter.
In my piece, I focus on the precise economic definition of this term, which measures the output produced from a fixed amount of input. I argue that many knowledge workers resent the fact that the responsibility for maximizing this notion of productivity has been put solely on their shoulders. In the context of office work, I claim, the decision to make productivity personal has been largely negative.
There is, however, another definition of this term that I didn’t discuss in my New Yorker piece, but which is also worth investigating: its colloquial interpretation as a tendency toward activity and measurable accomplishment.
I increasingly encounter a strain of critique that dismisses this interpretation as an example of false class consciousness, arguing that we strive toward arbitrary fitness goals, or feel compelled to carefully document a dinner on Instagram, or race to finish reading the latest hot novel, because we’ve internalized a culture of production designed to ultimately help the capitalists exploit our labor. Or something like that.
Here I think reality is way more interesting and complex. Consider, for example, a paper published earlier this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, written by Marissa Sharif, Cassie Mogliner and Hal Hershfiled, and titled: “Having Too Little or Too Much Time is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-Being.”
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September 7th, 2021 · 37 comments
In my recent New Yorker essay on overload, I noted that many knowledge workers end up toiling roughly 20% more than they have time to comfortably handle. This is, in some sense, the worst possible configuration, as it creates a background hum of stress, but is just sustainable enough that you can keep it up for years.
My explanation for the universality of this 20% rule is that it arises as a natural result of leaving knowledge workers to self-regulate their workload. It’s difficult for even the most organized and intentional among us to manage a constant influx of requests, and messages, and project proposals, and, God help us, Zoom meeting invites — so we default to a simple heuristic: start saying “no” when we feel stressed, as this provides psychological cover to retreat in an otherwise ambiguous terrain of never-ending potential labor.
The problem with this strategy, of course, is that we don’t start pulling back until after we have too much going on: leading to the 20% overload that’s so consistently observed.
The question left unexamined in my essay is what it would look like if you rejected this rule. What if, for example, you aimed to work 20% less than you had time to reasonably handle? If you have a relatively autonomous, entrepreneurial type job, this would mean saying “no” to more things. It would also mean, on the daily scale, being more willing to end early, or take an afternoon off to go do something unrelated, or extend lunch to read a frivolous book.
Here’s what I want to know: how much would this hurt you professionally? As I move deeper into my exploration of slow productivity, I’m starting to develop a sinking suspicion that the answer might be “not that much.”
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September 1st, 2021 · 18 comments
I first came across Parkinson’s Law in Tim Ferriss’s 2007 book, The 4 Hour Workweek. Ferriss summarized it as follows:
“Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials.”
Ferriss suggests that you should therefore schedule work with “very short and clear deadlines,” arguing that this will greatly reduce the time required to make progress on important tasks.
This advice is sound. After reading Ferriss’s book, I began to work backwards from a constrained schedule — forcing my professional efforts to fit within these tight confines. As predicted by Parkinson’s Law, these restrictions don’t seem to decrease the quantity of projects on which I make progress. If anything, I seem to get more done than many who work more hours.
This is all prelude to me noting that I have fond feelings for Parkinson’s Law. Which is why I was so surprised when recently, as part of the research for my latest New Yorker essay, I revisited the original 1955 Economist article that introduced the concept and found a whole other layer of meaning that I had previously missed.
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August 17th, 2021 · 19 comments
Earlier this summer, the Labor Department released a report that included a shocking statistic: close to 4 million people had quit or resigned in April. These numbers remained high in the spring months that followed. The business press began calling this workplace exodus the “Great Resignation.”
In my latest essay for the New Yorker, published earlier this week, I took a closer look at this trend. There are many different factors powering the Great Resignation, and it impacts many different demographics. Amidst this complexity there was one thread in particular that I pulled: highly-educated knowledge workers leaving their jobs not because the pandemic presented obstacles, but because it instead nudged them to rethink the role of work in their lives.
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