1 hr 53 min

#106 – Cal Newport on an industrial revolution for office work 80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

    • Education

If you wanted to start a university department from scratch, and attract as many superstar researchers as possible, what’s the most attractive perk you could offer?

How about just not needing an email address.

According to today's guest, Cal Newport — computer science professor and best-selling author of A World Without Email — it should seem obscene and absurd for a world-renowned vaccine researcher with decades of experience to spend a third of their time fielding requests from HR, building management, finance, and so on. Yet with offices organised the way they are today, nothing could be more natural.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

But this isn’t just a problem at the elite level — this affects almost all of us. A typical U.S. office worker checks their email 80 times a day, once every six minutes on average. Data analysis by RescueTime found that a third of users checked email or Slack every three minutes or more, averaged over a full work day.

Each time that happens our focus is broken, killing our momentum on the knowledge work we're supposedly paid to do.

When we lament how much email and chat have reduced our focus and filled our days with anxiety and frenetic activity, we most naturally blame 'weakness of will'. If only we had the discipline to check Slack and email once a day, all would be well — or so the story goes.

Cal believes that line of thinking fundamentally misunderstands how we got to a place where knowledge workers can rarely find more than five consecutive minutes to spend doing just one thing.

Since the Industrial Revolution, a combination of technology and better organization have allowed the manufacturing industry to produce a hundred-fold as much with the same number of people.

Cal says that by comparison, it's not clear that specialised knowledge workers like scientists, authors, or senior managers are *any* more productive than they were 50 years ago. If the knowledge sector could achieve even a tiny fraction of what manufacturing has, and find a way to coordinate its work that raised productivity by just 1%, that would generate on the order of $100 billion globally each year.

Since the 1990s, when everyone got an email address and most lost their assistants, that lack of direction has led to what Cal calls the 'hyperactive hive mind': everyone sends emails and chats to everyone else, all through the day, whenever they need something.

Cal points out that this is so normal we don't even think of it as a way of organising work, but it is: it's what happens when management does nothing to enable teams to decide on a better way of organising themselves.

A few industries have made progress taming the 'hyperactive hive mind'. But on Cal's telling, this barely scratches the surface of the improvements that are possible within knowledge work. And reigning in the hyperactive hive mind won't just help people do higher quality work, it will free them from the 24/7 anxiety that there's someone somewhere they haven't gotten back to.

In this interview Cal and Rob also cover:

• Is this really one of the world's most pressing problems?
• The historical origins of the 'hyperactive hive mind'
• The harm caused by attention switching
• Who's working to solve the problem and how
• Cal's top productivity advice for high school students, university students, and early career workers
• And much more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

If you wanted to start a university department from scratch, and attract as many superstar researchers as possible, what’s the most attractive perk you could offer?

How about just not needing an email address.

According to today's guest, Cal Newport — computer science professor and best-selling author of A World Without Email — it should seem obscene and absurd for a world-renowned vaccine researcher with decades of experience to spend a third of their time fielding requests from HR, building management, finance, and so on. Yet with offices organised the way they are today, nothing could be more natural.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

But this isn’t just a problem at the elite level — this affects almost all of us. A typical U.S. office worker checks their email 80 times a day, once every six minutes on average. Data analysis by RescueTime found that a third of users checked email or Slack every three minutes or more, averaged over a full work day.

Each time that happens our focus is broken, killing our momentum on the knowledge work we're supposedly paid to do.

When we lament how much email and chat have reduced our focus and filled our days with anxiety and frenetic activity, we most naturally blame 'weakness of will'. If only we had the discipline to check Slack and email once a day, all would be well — or so the story goes.

Cal believes that line of thinking fundamentally misunderstands how we got to a place where knowledge workers can rarely find more than five consecutive minutes to spend doing just one thing.

Since the Industrial Revolution, a combination of technology and better organization have allowed the manufacturing industry to produce a hundred-fold as much with the same number of people.

Cal says that by comparison, it's not clear that specialised knowledge workers like scientists, authors, or senior managers are *any* more productive than they were 50 years ago. If the knowledge sector could achieve even a tiny fraction of what manufacturing has, and find a way to coordinate its work that raised productivity by just 1%, that would generate on the order of $100 billion globally each year.

Since the 1990s, when everyone got an email address and most lost their assistants, that lack of direction has led to what Cal calls the 'hyperactive hive mind': everyone sends emails and chats to everyone else, all through the day, whenever they need something.

Cal points out that this is so normal we don't even think of it as a way of organising work, but it is: it's what happens when management does nothing to enable teams to decide on a better way of organising themselves.

A few industries have made progress taming the 'hyperactive hive mind'. But on Cal's telling, this barely scratches the surface of the improvements that are possible within knowledge work. And reigning in the hyperactive hive mind won't just help people do higher quality work, it will free them from the 24/7 anxiety that there's someone somewhere they haven't gotten back to.

In this interview Cal and Rob also cover:

• Is this really one of the world's most pressing problems?
• The historical origins of the 'hyperactive hive mind'
• The harm caused by attention switching
• Who's working to solve the problem and how
• Cal's top productivity advice for high school students, university students, and early career workers
• And much more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

1 hr 53 min

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