Newport Bests Napoleon's Method

Thursday, July 22, 2021

A while back, I noted a link at Hacker News to a blog post titled "Do Nothing." I'll allow its terseness to stand in for a more verbose explanation of this workflow method, which one commenter identified as the Napoleon Technique (more on that here):

Image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko, via Unsplash, license.
I spent my early career as a sysadmin in a company of about 300 people. These interactions were frequent. Being [a] young upstart I would jump on them straight away.

Often I would spend hours solving the problem, prioritising it above what I was previously doing, only to find it wasn't important to begin with.

The reason people make these requests is that it removes a burden from the requestor. They have some stress, and they need someone to offload that stress on. This has nothing to do with the actual problem and everything to do with the person's peace of mind. [bold added]
The post opened with examples of such problems -- which the other person was able to solve on his own relatively quickly.

The function of these minor asks for the requestors as stress relief reminded me of comments Cal Newport often makes regarding what he calls the hyperactive hive mind, in which people will make minor requests of others through such channels as Slack or email: The source of the stress relief is primarily through capture: The problem is somewhere in writing and won't get lost as the person asking moves on to what he really needs to do at the moment.

Newport's solution isn't identical to the Napoleon method or to earlier advice to ignore email for long periods. (Indeed, a quick search of his site for Napoleon yielded only one hit -- for Napoleon Hill.)

Newport's advice is to get this stuff out of email/chat:
You can't ... avoid this work, but you can find better alternatives to simply passing messages back and forth in an ad hoc manner throughout the day.
Specific strategies he suggests to deal with a flood of non-urgent requests are (1) using scheduling apps to arrange meetings, (2) moving obligations into role-specific, non-email repositories, and (3) holding office hours.

It is on a podcast in which Newport answers a question about office hours that he sounds the most like the post about doing nothing. The very fact that many people will have to wait to discuss a small matter will cause them to think more deeply about what they want to discuss. Two common things happen as a result: What would have been, say, a long email chain gets compressed into a short interaction -- or the person who would have emailed about a trivial matter finds or figures out the solution in the process of thinking a little bit more about the issue. In the second case, a small problem disappears, and in any case, the person following Newport's recommendations is spared lots of time and context-shifting.

Not to short-sell Napoleon: He did make exceptions to his rule for holding his mail for three weeks before reviewing it. But Newport's method would seem to have fewer things delayed unnecessarily and with a far better response time!

As someone who has struggled with procrastination all his life, I have occasionally seen my tardiness humorously "pay off" with the demise of one obligation or another. In some cases, it is clear that the procrastination was as if I'd employed Napoleon's Method. It's good to know that one can do this intentionally and systematically, and experience the good fortune of problems disappearing or not existing at all on not just a regular basis, but routinely.

-- CAV

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