June 3rd, 2020 · 16 comments
I was recently browsing the archives of the MIT Sloan Management Review (as one does), when I came across a fascinating article from the Fall 2018 issue titled “Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work.”
The piece starts with a blunt observation: “If you work in an organization, you know what it’s like to have too much to do and not enough resources to do it.”
This is not accidental:
“…many leaders continue to believe that their organizations thrive when overloaded, often both creating pressure and rewarding those who deliver under duress. It’s a popular but pathological approach to management.”
The knowledge sector, it turns out, wasn’t the first to deal with a misguided commitment to overload.
“U.S. manufacturers suffered mightily under this approach for decades,” the article’s authors write, “until many found a better way.”
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May 26th, 2020 · 11 comments
Earlier today, I published my latest article for the New Yorker. It’s titled: Can Remote Work Be Fixed?
In this semi-epic long-form essay, I dive into the history of the remote work movement, documenting why, after decades of excitement, it ended up falling short of its potential.
I then tackle the big question on a lot of peoples’ mind at the moment: Now that all knowledge workers are forced to work remotely, will we manage to fix these issues? Now that it’s urgent, in other words, can we make remote work actually work?
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May 22nd, 2020 · 124 comments
Chris Anderson opens his 2012 book, Makers, with a story about his maternal grandfather, Fred Hauser. Anderson recalls a childhood experience spending a summer with his grandfather at his bungalow in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“He announced that we would be making a four-stroke gasoline engine and that he had ordered a kit we could build together,” Anderson writes. Familiar with constructing models, Anderson assumed that the box containing the kit would be filled with numerous numbered parts and assembly instructions. “Instead, there were three big blocks of metal and a crudely cast engine casting. And a large blue-print, a single sheet folded many times.”
As Anderson recalls, his grandfather deployed the standard hobby machinist equipment kept in his garage — “a drill press, a band saw, a jig saw, grinders, and, most important, a full-size metal lathe” — to slowly extract and polish from the blocks the many pieces that ultimately fit together into a functioning engine. “We had conjured a precision machine from a lump of metal. We were a mini-factory, and we could make anything.”
There’s great fulfillment in applying skill to slowly create something useful that didn’t previously exist — a reaction that’s likely embedded in our genes as a lost nudge toward survival-enhancing paleolithic productivity. Matt Crawford perhaps summarizes this reality best in Shop Class as Soulcraft, when he writes: “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.”
And then we consider our current moment.
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May 20th, 2020 · 40 comments
A reader recently pointed me toward an interesting essay. It was written by a blogger and podcaster named Mika. “I’ve thought about how to start this post FOR MONTHS,” she begins, before building to her reveal:
“When I hear my instincts from my heart, I have learned that it serves me well to listen.
So one day, when I felt a thud in my heart that said “Let social media go” – I paid attention. And then it came again, and again, and again. “Let it go.” I started to question it and ask why I was feeling this. So towards the end of last year, I started questioning the role of social media in my life, comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of it. I’ve even taken breaks before so I thought about those times, too. Then it pretty much dawned on me as the following words were impressed upon me in a real, gut-punching kind of way:
We were not made for this.
I have tears in my eyes just now typing that.”
It’s not that Mika hated social media; she notes that it allowed her to interact with “truly awesome, good-hearted people,” and has helped her “achieve professional goals.” The problem is that it always demanded more:
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May 14th, 2020 · 32 comments
After ten years of waging war against the Trojans, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, set out on the wine-dark sea to begin his journey home. Storms thwarted an easy return voyage, and Odysseus found himself facing many additional years of tragedy and adventure, reaching a mythical nadir when he’s forced to descend into the underworld itself.
Broken down and exposed, Odysseus resists collapse. He instead pulls himself out of Hades, and persevering through additional trials, finally makes it home to his island kingdom, only to find both his family and throne threatened by a conniving horde of suiters. He fights them off.
But he’s not done. Following a prophecy delivered to him by the ghost of Theban Teiresias in the underworld (depicted above), Odysseus makes a humbling journey inland. He carries an oar — a symbol of the maritime world where he reined — farther and farther from the sea, until he arrives at a place where it’s mistaken for a farming implement by locals who have “never heard of crimson-painted ships, or the well-shaped oars that serve as wings.”
It is here, stripped of any of the recognitions on which he’d built his previous life, that he plants the oar in the ground and performs sacrifices to Poseidon, before returning home to live out his life in peace.
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May 8th, 2020 · 24 comments
Last month, I published a peer-reviewed essay in the Communications of the ACM, one of the major trade journals in computer science. It’s titled, “When Technology Goes Awry.” At the time of its publication, in mid-April, there were a few other things going on in the world that were distracting me, so I didn’t mention it then. I want to circle back now and briefly highlight the piece’s big ideas, as they’re relevant to many of our discussions here.
This article provides a more academic foundation to some of the themes I explore in Digital Minimalism. In it, I point out that during the 20th century the formal study of the philosophy of technology split into two roughly competing camps: technological determinism and technological instrumentalism.
As I elaborate:
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May 7th, 2020 · 28 comments
In my last post, I profiled a novelist who took advantage of the lockdown to slow down; giving herself more than enough time and space to inhabit her manuscript revisions. This shift allowed her to tap a “mysterious” source of creativity and finish her work ahead of schedule.
In response, a reader sent me some notes on how he had similarly leveraged the disruption induced by the lockdown to experiment with a deeper, more deliberate lifestyle, despite the fact that he has a typical email-bound knowledge work job and two young kids at home.
Here’s his schedule:
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May 7th, 2020 · 14 comments
I recently received an email from a writer in New York City who sold her debut novel right before the coronavirus lockdown. She had until mid-April to finish her first round of revisions. In an effort to make the process more “fun and fluid and intuitive,” and feature less of the stressful long hours she had experienced working on the first draft, she deployed the following routine:
Around 10pm, I put my phone on a shelf in my living room.
After waking up naturally the next morning, I would eat breakfast and then go to my desk and work on my revision.
At first, it was for around 1 hour. Later, I worked until lunchtime. I always stopped while I still wanted to keep going, so that I would be excited to return to it again the next day.
I only looked at my phone and emails after lunch.
I mostly stopped using social media.
I really cared about resting.
She was convinced that this minimalist approach — a process personification of my exhortation to “do less, do better” — would prove inferior to a more familiar, frenetic work style. She began planning out in her head how she would ask for an extension.
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