Study Hacks Blog Posts from September, 2021 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

On the Source of Our Drive to Get Things Done

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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What Would Happen If We Slowed Down?

September 7th, 2021 · 39 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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Revisiting Parkinson’s Law

September 1st, 2021 · 19 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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