Distracted by Default

Distracted by Default

The productivity of manual laborers increased 50-fold during the 20th century. One hundred twenty years ago, looking at a mechanic or factory worker, it was hard to imagine that such a dramatic increase was possible. And yet, it happened. And it facilitated massive improvements in the quality of life of billions of people.

Peter Drucker coined the term "Knowledge Worker" in 1959, to describe people doing non-routine work that relies on creativity and problem-solving. In 1999, Drucker wrote that "the most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century" is to similarly "increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers." The increase in manual productivity resulted from bold experiments with new workflows, and the pursuit of similar increases in knowledge productivity requires similarly bold experiments.

Experiments with new ways of working are still modest and rare. Cal Newport describes a bunch of them in A World Without Email. Compared to 120 years ago, we now spend more time thinking at work and thinking about work. Yet just like our ancestors and their factories, we cannot imagine that our own productivity could increase 50-fold.

In many ways, our current work environments don't even prioritize productivity. Last week, I wrote about how offices are designed to prioritize "management" rather than "making." Offices are a management tool designed to enable supervision, interaction, and feedback. But they are not so great at allowing the type of focused work that workers are expected to perform.

But there's an even deeper problem with our current way of working. We treat focused work as the exception, as something we "block time" for and notify our colleagues about— as if it was a special occasion. Most of the time, people assume they can demand our attention by talking to us, calling, emailing, or messaging us.

Many jobs require the exact opposite approach. Focus should be the default, and special time should be allocated for communication with managers and colleagues. The environment in which we work should reflect these priorities. If we're to achieve a 50-fold increase in productivity, these are the kind of radical changes that we need to experiment with.