Cal Newport, the author of the brilliant book – Deep Work, has written extensively about the problems of the current workplace, especially in the context of the knowledge worker and the umpteen distractions she faces from technology (email, instant message, social media) to perform ‘Deep Work’. In this piece for the New Yorker, Newport draws upon research in the field of anthropology – how the human work life evolved over time to relate to the current issues at the workplace. Specifically, he looks at research on certain tribes in Africa who continue to remain hunter-gatherers and attempts to come up with solutions for the current protests from technology workers against returning to the workplace. He refers to the recent protests by Apple workers to the CEO Tim Cook’s call to spend more time at their desks in the company’s offices. He reckons the protests are not so much to retain their remote work/WFH lifestyles but an aversion to the modern workplace we have created – often with meaningless meetings and endless email traffic leaving little scope for deep thought that can count as meaningful work.
“Knowledge workers were already exhausted by their jobs before the pandemic arrived: too much e-mail, too many meetings, too much to do—all being relentlessly delivered through ubiquitous glowing screens. We used to believe that these depredations were somehow fundamental to office work in the twenty-first century, but the pandemic called this assumption into question.”
Newport identified three differences from the hunter-gatherer communities and the modern workplace that might be of importance:
First, unlike our ancestors, we lack focus:
“…hunter-gatherer communities like the Hadza often relied on what he called an “immediate-return” economy….“People obtain a direct and immediate return from their labour. They go out hunting or gathering and eat the food obtained the same day or casually over the days that follow.”
….If we now jump forward to our current moment, and consider the daily lot of our protesting Apple employees, we discover a rhythm of activity far different from our immediate-return past. In modern office life, our efforts rarely generate an immediate reward. When we answer an e-mail or attend a meeting, we’re typically advancing, in fits and starts, long-term projects that may be weeks or months away from completion. The modern knowledge worker also tends to juggle many different objectives at the same time, moving rapidly back and forth between them throughout the day.
A mind adapted over hundreds of thousands of years for the pursuit of singular goals, tackled one at a time, often with clear feedback about each activity’s success or failure, might struggle when faced instead with an in-box overflowing with messages connected to dozens of unrelated projects. We spent most of our history in the immediate-return economy of the hunter-gatherer. We shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves exhausted by the ambiguously rewarded hyper-parallelism that defines so much of contemporary knowledge work.”
Second, varying intensity levels of work:
“…. while the farmers engaged in “monotonous, continuous work,” the pace of the foragers’ schedules was more varied, with breaks interspersed throughout their daily efforts. “Hunting trips required a long hike through the forest, so you’d be out all day, but you’d have breaks,” Dyble told me. “With something like fishing, there are spikes, ups and downs . . . only a small per cent of their time is spent actually fishing.
..Once again, when we compare the work experience of hunter-gathers with that of our contemporary Apple employees we find a wedge of insight. Modern knowledge workers adopt the factory model, in which you work for set hours each day at a continually high level of intensity, without significant breaks. The Agta forager, by contrast, would think nothing of stopping for a long midday nap if the sun were hot and the game proved hard to track. When was the last time an Apple employee found herself with two or three unscheduled hours on her calendar during the afternoon to just kick back? To make matters worse for our current moment, laptops and smartphones have pushed work beyond these long days to also colonize the evenings and weekends once dedicated to rest. In the hunter-gatherer context, work intensity fluctuated based on the circumstances of the moment. Today, we’ve replaced this rhythm with a more exhausting culture of always being on.”
Third, application of skills and learning:
“Young children are given toy hunting weapons to familiarize them with their tools. Next, between the ages of five and seven, they join hunting trips to observe the adults’ techniques. (In general, Lucassen notes, observation is prioritized over teaching.) By the age of twelve or thirteen, children can hunt on their own with their peers and are introduced to more complex strategies. Finally, by late adolescence, they’re ready to learn the details of pursuing larger game. An entire childhood is dedicated to perfecting this useful ability.
To be sure, knowledge work does often require high levels of education and skill, but in recent years we’ve increasingly drowned the application of such talents in a deluge of distraction. We can blame this, in part, on the rise of low-friction digital communication tools like e-mail and chat. Office collaboration now takes place largely through a frenzy of back-and-forth, ad-hoc messaging, punctuated by meetings.The satisfactions of skilled labor are unavoidably diluted when you can only dedicate partial attention to your efforts. Our ancestors were adapted to do hard things well. The modern office, by contrast, encourages a fragmented mediocrity.”
Newport concludes with solutions on how we can address each of these issues practically.
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