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On the Source of Our Drive to Get Things Done

September 25th, 2021 · 9 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 · 31 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 · 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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On the Pandemic and Career Downsizing

August 17th, 2021 · 17 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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A $5.5 Billion Reminder that Email is Not Work

August 12th, 2021 · 19 comments

Last winter, a risk analyst at Credit Suisse noticed that one of their clients, a hedge fund named Archegos, was light on collateral. As is common in this world of high finance, Credit Suisse had loaned Archegos money to buy stock. The value of Archegos’s position had come down and the bank’s models were saying that the bank either needed more collateral from the fund, or needed to push Archegos out of their position by calling in the loan.

So far, pretty normal stuff.

As detailed in a report on the incident, compiled by the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LP, and released last month, the issue was what happened next.

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On Pace and Productivity

July 21st, 2021 · 30 comments

One of the books I’m reading on vacation at the moment is John Gribbin’s magisterial tome, The Scientists. I’m only up to page 190 (which is to say, only up to Isaac Newton), but even early on I’ve become intrigued by a repeated observation: though the scientists profiled in Gribbin’s book are highly “productive” by any intuitive definition of this term, the daily pace of their work was incredibly slow by any modern standards of professional effectiveness.

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On the Myth of Big Ideas

July 16th, 2021 · 6 comments

I recently came across an article in the New Yorker archives that I greatly enjoyed. It was written by a Dartmouth mathematics professor named Dan Rockmore, and is titled: “The Myth and Magic of Generating New Ideas.” The essay tackles a topic that’s both central to my professional academic life, and wildly misunderstood: what it takes to solve a proof.

To capture the reality of this act, Rockmore tells a story from when he was a young professor. He was working with his colleagues to try to find a more efficient method for solving a large class of wave equations. “We spent every day drawing on blackboards and chasing one wrong idea after another,” he writes. Frustrated, he left the session to go for a run on a tree-lined path. Then it happened.

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On Twitter Addiction and its Discontents

July 6th, 2021 · 38 comments

Earlier this week, Caitlin Flanagan published a provocative essay in the Atlantic titled: “You Really Need to Quit Twitter.” In this instance, the label of “provocative” seems obligatory, even though an objective read of the piece reveals mainly common sense. Which serves to underline the whole point Flanagan is attempting to make.

The article reports on the author’s 28-day break from Twitter after her relationship with the service had become increasingly fraught.

“My family’s attitude toward my habit has been…concerned, grossed out, or disappointed,” Flanagan writes. “My employer had given up and adopted a sort of ‘It’s your funeral’ approach.” She could no longer escape what had become obvious:

“I know I’m an addict because Twitter hacked itself so deep into my circuitry that it interrupted the very formation of my thoughts.”

So Flanagan asked her son to change her password. She signed a contract saying no matter how much she begged, he shouldn’t let her back into her account before the month had passed. She called it “Twitter rehab.”

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