Cal Newport on productivity

Long but very interesting article here from Cal Newport, published in The New Yorker and also on his blog. Lots of resonances.


I read Newport’s New. Yorker article the other day. His thesis is that systems such as GTD encourage knowledge workers to view their labor as autonomous from other workers. The result:

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

The autonomous worker is rewarded for personal success – often at the expense of others on the team:

When I don’t know how much is currently on your plate, it’s easy for me to add one more thing. When I cannot see what my team is up to, I can allow accidental inequities to arise, in which the willing end up overloaded and the unwilling remain happily unbothered.

Newport’s answer?

What if you began each morning with a status meeting in which your team confronts its task board? A plan could then be made about which handful of things each person would tackle that day. Instead of individuals feeling besieged and resentful—about the additional tasks that similarly overwhelmed colleagues are flinging their way—they could execute a collaborative plan designed to benefit everyone.

I think it’s an interesting concept – certainly not something new under the sun – and somewhat Pollyanna-ish. Corporate reward systems and work place technology generally do not make his solution feasible, IMO.


I do not find Newport’s recommendations actionable – but not because he is an academic. If only recommendations from people with this-or-that experience were valid then the world is a diminished place. I’ve worked for many executives who “ran a company” who were ignorant, destructive, small minded people, knowing nothing about how “real people” lived and worked.


Thank you for sharing, @Coulmac!

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I’d be very interested in your reasoning why you find his recommendations not actionable. Would you mind elaborating a little on it?