Last November, Cal Newport had an article in the New Yorker in which he describes the issue of information and communication overload we’re seeing in the knowledge workspace and provides some thoughts on where they’re coming from and what we could do about them. I’ve heard this article getting mentioned in quite a few of the podcasts I’ve been listening to, so I wanted to also share my 2c on it:
His main premise is that personal productivity is not the solution here but we instead need to focus more on making collaboration better in order to lower the load on individuals. As the main culprit for the current state he seems to have found Peter Drucker’s recommendation that knowledge workers should receive a high degree of autonomy when it comes to how they solve given problems.
As a way to fix this issue he closes the article with this:
To move forward, we must step away from Drucker’s commitment to total autonomy—allowing for freedom in how we execute tasks without also allowing for chaos in how these tasks are assigned. We must, in other words, acknowledge the futility of trying to tame our frenzied work lives all on our own, and instead ask, collectively, whether there’s a better way to get things done.
Cal Newport IMO take a couple of weird turns in his article, though, which is what I want to go into next:
First of all I want to say that I absolutely agree that the current “way of the knowledge worker” is causing most like far more communication and inputs than would be necessary. Not having too much friction when it comes to contacting someone else has had that as a downside.
Then, though, he argues that personal productivity tools should solve these issues and since they don’t do that it’s a shortcoming on their end:
In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects.
I don’t agree. Yes, tools like GTD and Inbox Zero help dealing with information and responsibility overload and that’s exactly their job. They are designed for individuals and on that level they can only act as mitigation since the problem is not caused on that level.
Group productivity and personal productivity
Do these systems undermine any kind of group effort? I don’t think so. I’ve worked for many years with GTD while at the same collaborating effectively and efficiently (at least I think so) with my team mates using various collaboration approaches like SCRUM and Kanban.
For me, GTD and Bullet Journaling are great tools offering a very fine granularity, something that is just not practical on any kind of shared group task system. As far as I known there simply exists no single system that would allow everyone on the team to organise in a way best suited to them in a centralised fashion. It is much “easier” if you draw the line on a collaboration level, putting a high-level view of what needs to get done on a shared board while allowing everyone to manage everything below as they see fit.
Does this somehow hinder team productivity? In my opinion and experience, no.
Merlin Mann and productivity pr0n
In a blog post Cal Newport wrote on his personal site right at the same time as that article was published he stated this:
It’s not, however, really about David Allen’s productivity system, which longtime readers (and listeners) know I really admire. It’s instead about a deeper question that I hadn’t heard discussed much before: Why do we leave office workers to figure out on their own how to get things done?
OK, so the title was just mostly a clickbait. Fine, but then he spent hundreds of words telling the reader about some aspects of GTD, how Merlin Mann got into the whole GTD thing, and how he eventually stopped publishing posts on his 43folders blog.
These parts of the article made it look like the author wanted to have a bit of a Nelson HAHA moment pointing all all those people who enjoy messing around with their productivity systems. He somehow mixes productivity pr0n (oh, my water bottle now tells me when I need some water!) with GTD which just feels strange and out of place.
Yes, you can definitely overdo it on the personal productivity front, but that’s something you can do everywhere. This has nothing to do with GTD … ok, but that was clickbait anyway, so let’s ignore it.
On a personal level, without a personal task system I as a person would have gone mad many years ago and without a collaborative task system I as a member of a team would have gone mad many years ago. I think both have their places and in my experience a PPS doesn’t negatively influence team productivity. Just my 2c.
You can find tons of other reactions to this article online but I just want to link to this one by Khe Hy as it goes into some more details of GTD here.