Working Through the Digital Hyperactive Hive Industrial Complex
THIS podcast by Ezra Klein with Cal Newport got my mind going in a number of different directions... How do we manage our deep thinking time? How do we tame the firehose of information being shot our way? How do we relearn a love of our inbox (this may be a stretch)? How do we maintain focus within our sphere of expertise? The podcast is 55 well-spent minutes.
The thrust of the discussion is around the idea that email (and now Slack, Twitter & IM/texting), over the last 20 years has created a digital hyperactive hive industrial complex that has substituted previously difficult logistical tasks and communication (getting everyone together for a meeting or call; making sure everyone is on the same page; increasing the ‘hours in the day’ by making logistical work easier) with over communication and meetings which takes time away from ‘deep work’.
There is a nuanced position to this thinking however throughout the podcast it was more of an either-or discussion which, in turn, got me thinking.
There is an example Cal describes where with the arrival of email and calendaring programs, a company decided to get rid of their assistant support staff and shift those “easy” tasks of communication and calendaring onto the executives’ plate so they could decrease their operations overhead. What happened was that an executive who was dealing with 5 work priorities now had to deal with 10-15 which led to them needing to hire more executive talent at a higher compensation rate than their support staff to get the same amount of work done. In the end, their overhead rose more than 15%. The objective/experiment failed. It was a “cut off your nose to spite your face” outcome.
From the point of view of someone who actually lived through this transition as an assistant, I would argue the better idea would have been to re-imagine their assistant support structure to match the new communication tools -namely email- presented. What I saw with the arrival of email is that the bandwidth that an assistant can provide increased to where they could actually assist more executives compared to pre-email -combined with contacts & calendaring- days through leveraging that technology.
What’s the answer?
Can we go back to the days before email? Of course not.
Cal argues that we need to go below email and create processes to deal with repetitive tasks, questions, and work so that people can then focus on their ‘deep work’. This is all in the name of “reducing pressure on the inbox”.
I get it and see where he is coming from however, I feel like as with most things in life, this isn’t a black or white issue but rather a shade of grey. To find the right shade of grey, I believe that we need more differentiation between what kind of work we’re speaking about.
It all comes down to communication actually slowing us down by being just a firehose of information that never stops.
- Voice Mails
- Conference calls
- Newsletters (industry-specific)
- Conferences (industry-specific)
- Advisory boards / Board of Directors
- Social Media
All of this communication creates stress on a company leader -and their direct reports- to keep up. It also creates that same kind of pressure on the creators and implementors in those same companies.
Ask one of those people what they fear after getting out of a 2-hour brainstorming session?
Their email inbox.
Yes, they’re afraid of their inbox.
I don’t see how we can go back to a pre-email time but we need to rather go through. By differentiating the role you hire someone for, you could allow for very specific filters on what emails they get, what meetings they’re invited to, and where their priorities should be focused.
As for C-suite executives -our specialty-, we find that the top-performing don’t feel guilty trying to keep up with all of this communication and instead partner with someone -usually their assistant- to be their eyes and ears on the ground used to filter up to them the meetings, emails, industry news, voice mails, conferences, etc. that they should be made aware of while everything else can be delegated elsewhere within the organization via previously determine priorities and processes or drift away altogether.
The guilt of not ‘keeping up’ needs to be rethought and then filtered in a way that maximizes the executive’s ‘deep thinking’ / ‘brain time’ / ‘growing the business’ time spent.
At the opposite end of this spectrum, if you’re hiring a copywriter, designer, business analyst, staff accountant, quality assurance specialist, or any other specified role, determine what is essential for the success of that position and then limit the email lists they’re on, limit the meetings they attend and express to them what their exact objective for the company is so that they can let go of any guilt associated with trying to keep up with anything that doesn’t contribute to that objective.
In short, for some, their whole role should be about filtering communication and being a traffic cop while others should be about focused work in their sphere of expertise.
If you need a few tips on getting your email box organized, read our blog post, 4 Steps to Getting Your Inbox Under Control Once and For All.