The Problem GTD Couldn't Solve

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Writing at the New Yorker, Cal Newport, a computer science professor and the author of Deep Work, very well presents and places in historical context the productivity systems popularized about a decade ago by David Allen and Merlin Mann. This is very helpful, because he offers both a critique of the related Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero methodologies, and outlines a possible solution to the difficulty his critique uncovers.

Here is the crux of where these techniques fall down:

Image by Luis Villasmil, via Unsplash, license.
The knowledge sector's insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called "tragedy of the commons" scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker's life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There's little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she'll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people's work, creating frustration.

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. A highly optimized implementation of G.T.D. might have helped Mann organize the hundreds of tasks that arrived haphazardly in his in-box daily, but it could do nothing to reduce the quantity of these requests. [bold added]
Newport acknowledges that the knowledge worker will have to cede some autonomy to solve the problem, but the solution is not as awful as that might sound.

That's because it's the part of one's autonomy that isn't really that great. Put another way, it's a correction of the division of labor within the organization, in which work assignment stops falling through the cracks and interfering with the deeper, more creative aspects of knowledge work:
[E]ven if we accept that people don't want to be micromanaged, it doesn't follow that every single aspect of knowledge work must be left to the individual. If I'm a computer programmer, I might not want my project manager telling me how to solve a coding problem, but I would welcome clear-cut rules that limit the ability of other divisions to rope me into endless meetings or demand responses to never-ending urgent messages. [bold added]
And, a bit later:
Most of us are not our own bosses, and therefore lack the ability to drastically overhaul the structure of our work obligations, but in Mann's current setup there's a glimpse of what might help. Imagine if, through some combination of new management thinking and technology, we could introduce processes that minimize the time required to talk about work or fight off random tasks flung our way by equally harried co-workers, and instead let us organize our days around a small number of discrete objectives. A way, that is, to preserve Drucker's essential autonomy while sidestepping the uncontrollable overload that this autonomy can accidentally trigger. This vision is appealing, but it cannot be realized by individual actions alone. It will require management intervention. [bold added]
Newport acknowledges that there has been little will to change things until recently, in part because technological solutions have helped mask the problem. But he contends that the drastic changes to work life many have had to endure during the pandemic have made a need for improvement become much clearer.

Some of his very worthwhile thoughts follow and, if I recall correctly from listening to his podcasts, he expounds on these and related ideas in his soon-to-be-released book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.

-- CAV

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