It’s not someone acting in bad faith, where if they would just stop being such a jerk, I’d get less emails. This is the only way we have to do collaboration in our organizations. A lot of emails have to get sent. I have to answer them. And so the only solution is to say, “Forget the individuals. We have to change the workflow.”

Cal Newport

If you wanted to start a university department from scratch, and attract as many superstar researchers as possible, what’s the most attractive perk you could offer?

How about just not needing an email address?

According to today’s guest, Cal Newport — computer science professor and best-selling author of A World Without Email — it should seem obscene and absurd for a world-renowned vaccine researcher with decades of experience to spend a third of their time fielding requests from HR, building management, finance, and on and on. Yet with offices organised the way they are today, nothing could feel more natural.

But this isn’t just a problem at the elite level — it affects almost all of us. A typical U.S. office worker checks their email 80 times a day, or once every six minutes. Data analysis by RescueTime found that a third of users checked email or Slack every three minutes or more, averaged over a full work day.

Each time that happens our focus is broken, killing our momentum on the knowledge work we’re supposedly paid to do.

When we lament how much email and chat have reduced our focus, increased our anxiety and made our days a buzz of frenetic activity, we most naturally blame ‘weakness of will’. If only we had the discipline to check Slack and email once a day, all would be well — or so the story goes.

Cal believes that line of thinking fundamentally misunderstands how we got to a place where knowledge workers can rarely find more than five consecutive minutes to spend doing just one thing.

Since the Industrial Revolution, a combination of technology and better organization have allowed the manufacturing industry to produce a hundred-fold as much with the same number of people.

Cal says that by comparison, it’s not clear that specialised knowledge workers like scientists, authors, or senior managers are any more productive than they were 50 years ago. If the knowledge sector could achieve even a tiny fraction of what manufacturing has, and find a way to coordinate its work that raised productivity by just 1%, that would generate on the order of $100 billion globally each year.

On Cal’s account, those opportunities are staring us in the face. Modern factories operated by top firms are structured with painstaking care and two centuries of accumulated experience to ensure staff can get the greatest amount possible done.

By contrast, most knowledge work today operates with no deliberate structure at all. Instead of carefully constructed processes to get the most out of each person, we just hand out tasks and leave people to organise themselves organically in whatever way feels easiest to them.

Since the 1990s, when everyone got an email address and most lost their assistants, that lack of direction has led to what Cal calls the ‘hyperactive hive mind’: everyone sends emails and chats to everyone else, all throughout the day, whenever they need anything.

Rather than strategic thinkers, managers work as human switchboards, answering and forwarding dozens of emails on any and every topic to keep the system from seizing up.

Finding a time for four people to meet might mean an eight-email thread. Annoying enough! But each of those four has to keep checking in to make sure the thread is progressing, and answer any new questions that come up. So in aggregate those four might interrupt their train of thought and check their email 20, 30 or even 40 times in the process of coordinating a single meeting.

Cal points out that this is so normal we don’t even think of it as a way of organising work, but it is: it’s what happens when management does nothing to enable teams to decide on a better way of coordinating themselves. And if any individual tries to opt out and focus on one thing for an entire day, they’re throwing a wrench in the ‘hyperactive hive mind’, which explains why calls for individual discipline have done so little to fix the problem.

A few industries have made progress taming the ‘hyperactive hive mind’. Cal points to tech support ticketing systems, which throttle correspondence and keep engineers focused on one problem at a time until they can’t get any further, at which point that problem is parked and they’re given a single new problem to work on next.

He also points to ‘extreme programming’, a system in which two software engineers sit side-by-side in front of one computer and together write code to solve a specific problem for their entire work day. As they work, those software engineers have no email account and no phone number. All incoming and outgoing communication with the rest of the world is run through a dedicated liaison officer so they can maintain 100% focus. Usually after six hours of real actual work they need to go home and rest.

But on Cal’s telling, in this interview and in A World Without Email, this barely scratches the surface of the improvements that are possible within knowledge work. And reigning in the hyperactive hive mind won’t just help people do higher quality work, it will free them from the 24/7 anxiety that there’s someone somewhere they haven’t gotten back to.

In this interview Cal and Rob cover that, as well as:

  • Is the hyperactive hive-mind really one of the world’s most pressing problems?
  • The historical origins of the ‘hyperactive hive-mind’
  • The harm caused by attention switching
  • Who’s working to solve the problem and how
  • Why it took more than a century to come up with the ‘assembly line’ method for factory organisation
  • Cal’s top productivity advice for high school students, university students, and early-career employees
  • And much more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

Highlights

The hyperactive hive mind

Cal Newport: Let’s think about three hunter gatherers working on something together. We’re hunting a Mastodon. How would we coordinate? It would be the hyperactive hive mind, right? In the sense that it would be on-demand, unscheduled back-and-forth. Ad hoc communication.

Cal Newport: “Hey, you go over there, watch out for that.” “Ooh, wait, I hear something over here.” It’s the natural way we communicate in small groups. So what email enabled was scaling up this natural way of communication to very large groups. Of course, it doesn’t work.

Cal Newport: So why it doesn’t work is there are too many of these back-and-forth conversations, and too many people that we’re trying to have conversations with, so it doesn’t scale. If there’s three of us and we’re, let’s say, spread across the world, but working on one thing together and we’re all on Slack, just figuring things out on the fly, it actually makes a lot of sense. That’s a very natural way for a small group to coordinate on one thing.

Cal Newport: But if there’s 30 of us in the office and there’s two dozen different asynchronous back-and-forth conversations going on, that’s when things spiral out of control. Because each of these conversations that’s going on requires that we keep checking these channels, because, hypothetically let’s say, five or six messages have to be exchanged for us to reach a decision that has to be made before our client call today at 3:00pm. So, five or six emails have to be exchanged. I have to turn each of these emails around pretty quickly if we’re going to get through this whole exchange before the client calls. So maybe I’m getting 10 inbox checks per email, because I’m waiting for it. So now just this one conversation has generated 50 to 60 extra inbox checks.

Cal Newport: Now imagine we have a couple dozen of these going on at the same time. So it just doesn’t scale. But I think it is important to recognize that this mode of collaborating is how humans have always collaborated. We’ve just never before been in a situation where there’s 600 of us in an organization and there’s 60 different things we’re working on.

The cost to us

Cal Newport: So the right way to capture the harm is what it does to our brain, right? So, if you are going to have a hyperactive hive mind in your office, this means you’re going to have all of these different back-and-forth conversations happening with unscheduled messages, most of them need to be moved forward relatively quickly. So, the proximate impact of this is very frequent checking of inboxes, be it email or Slack. Some of the data I cite, for example, was showing once every five to six minutes was about average for how often people were checking their inboxes.

Cal Newport: That proximate behavior has a really deep, negative impact, mainly the way it interacts with our brain’s attention centers. The human brain can’t very quickly shift context back and forth like a computer processor. It’s a messy process, because we have to inhibit certain neural networks and we have to amplify other neural networks. It can take a while.

Cal Newport: So, I finish a conversation with you, and I want to now change my attention over to writing an article. It’s going to take 10 or 15 minutes until I’ve really calmed down all of the semantically related neural networks of our conversation, and really amplified the semantic networks relative to my article, and only at that point will I really be rocking and rolling and making some real progress.

Cal Newport: If we’re checking inboxes, be it Slack, be it Teams, be it email, if we’re checking these every five minutes, every time we check, we initiate one of these slow, messy cognitive context shifts, but we don’t let it complete because look, we’re just waiting to see three or four messages that we need to get back to real quick. So we initiate it, and before it completes, we then try to wrench our attention back to the thing we were doing before, and so now we have colliding contexts.

Cal Newport: And before all the networks that got fired up by looking at that inbox can finally finish being inhibited, we look back at the inbox again, and now we’re firing up and it’s probably slightly different networks, because now there’s a new email in there from a client, and now the networks related to that client are firing up and then we go back to the work and then we go back there. It’s a cognitive catastrophe.

Cal Newport: So, our brain simply can’t do it. If you’re checking an inbox that frequently, your brain is in this persistent state of significantly reduced cognitive capacity. It’s also fatiguing. That’s why by 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon it’s like, “I just give up. I’m just going to do Slack for the rest of the day.” It’s because our brain has been exhausted from all this context shifting.

Cal Newport: It also makes us anxious. This anxiety is differentially applied, so dependent on various personality traits, this could be more or less pronounced, but it doesn’t make us feel good. There’s a lot of data for that. So it really is a disaster for both our cognitive capacity, our energy, and our emotional health. All of these things, all of these things are deeply negatively affected if we create a day around constant back-and-forth context shifts.

The cost to the world

Cal Newport: I think it’s massive. So, one number that I think is provocative is, if you look at the industrial sector as an analog, right, and a number I like to cite is a number that Peter Drucker cited towards the end of his life in 1999. He said, look, if you look at the industrial sector in the 20th century, there was 50x growth. Our productivity grew 50x in the 20th century. Why? Because, the early 20th century is when we got really serious about process engineering. Like hey, wait a second. If we use an assembly line, we can build cars better. We really started to get serious about building things as a process we could get better and better at. And as he underscored, he’s like, 50x growth is almost inconceivably large. Essentially all of the wealth on which the modern developed world was built on in the 20th century came from that 50x growth in the industrial sector. Writing in 1999, when he was reflecting back on this, he said in knowledge work, and in particular knowledge work productivity, right now, we are where the industrial sector was in 1900.

Cal Newport: We haven’t even begun that explosive growth that’s possible once we get really serious about well, what’s the best way to actually do this work? And so I point to that number because it’s astronomically large. It means we’re talking not just billions, but perhaps trillions of dollars of global GDP is sitting on the table because this nascent digital era knowledge economy sector, which is very new in commercial historical context, we haven’t even got serious yet about what’s the best way to work. We’re still doing the easiest, most natural things. And so, I think it is a world-changing amount of growth and wealth on the table waiting to be extracted, once we start to get serious about these issues.

Solutions

Cal Newport: There’s a lot of money right now being invested in what you could roughly call ‘knowledge work productivity tools.’ However, I don’t know if this is necessarily where the solution is going to come from. There’s a tool-based mindset, especially coming out of Silicon Valley right now, that says a better way of work will come from a better tool. We want to be the people who have invented that tool. And I actually think, though better tools help, it’s the tail wagging the dog a little bit. And what I point to here is, again, if we look at the assembly line in the automotive industry, a lot of new tools had to be invented to make the assembly line work. In particular the main thing actually holding back the assembly line was tighter precision on the part manufacturing, because you didn’t have time to hand file or fit parts for the assembly line to work.

Cal Newport: That was actually at the core of it, and that required new machining. And then they also just invented some really cool tools, like Ford had this thing that would descend in on an engine block and bore 12 different bore holes you had to make, and it would do all 12 at the same time. But the assembly line did not come because someone came along and said, look, I invented a 12-hole boring machine for the engine. And because of that, we could build cars more effectively. No, they figured out the assembly line and then said, what do we need to actually make this work? And I think that’s probably what needs to happen. Digital tools can help this a lot. But I think most of the digital tools we need for a non-hyperactive hive mind workplace in most industries or whatever, they all exist.

Cal Newport: It’s not the tool that’s the problem. You can do this with shared folders and Slack and shared spreadsheets and whatever. The tools are all out there. That’s not the issue, it’s the workflow. So, I think this is what we’re sort of missing right now is that focus. Now, maybe we’ll change. I just did an event with a bunch of Fortune 500 CEOs where I talked about this and we sent them all signed copies of the book. So, maybe we’ll change everyone’s mind on this pretty soon. But there is a lot of money on tools. I’ve talked to a lot of CEOs of companies that are focusing on these tools and I don’t think tools are going to solve it. I think tools are going to be used by the solution.

Cal Newport: There’s academic research that’s kind of interesting. I think Gloria Mark’s group, her informatics group at UC Irvine, I think is a real leader in this. They do workplace ethnography. She’s been on this beat for 20 years now where they actually go in and look at how we work and quantify it and make things clear. I think that’s interesting work at pointing out the problem. Linda Stone at Microsoft has done this good work on ‘partial continuous attention.’ Sophie Leroy is doing good work on ‘attention residue,’ where she’s trying to take all this attention switching stuff we know and say, well, what if we do it specifically in the context of work, and let’s see specifically what it does to work output. There’s interesting research happening, but what I’m adding that’s new, and I’m sort of surprised at the degree to which this has not been the core yet, but I’m hoping it becomes more of the core of the conversation, is really trying to capture the cognitive cost of all these context shifts. Where if, when you’re trying to do car manufacturing, the metric you care about is man-hours per car production.

Cal Newport: And I’m really saying the metric you’re trying to improve, because you mentioned before, how do we measure output and knowledge work? And I think we should measure the leading indicator of how many context shifts were required to actually get this thing done. And having something to measure and improve I think can unlock a lot of innovation. That’s what I’m trying to bring to it that’s new, no one really was there. I think those were the issues, people were thinking about maybe we don’t have access to the right information, or the tools don’t do a good enough job. Everyone is convinced in Silicon Valley that what we need is AI that better categorizes your emails for you. That’s not the problem. The problem is it takes 100 back-and-forth emails to get this done.

Cal Newport: So, I don’t care if it’s categorized right or not. I have to wait for and respond to 100 emails to get this product done is the issue. And so I think that is the idea that I’m hoping it’s going to unlock a lot more. This is our model team, man-hour metric. How much context shifting was required to get this thing done? And once we know what we’re optimizing, man, there’s a lot of smart people, a lot of smart tools and a lot of wonderful technology that if we deploy to this problem, I think we can do really well.

The importance of advocacy

Cal Newport: I think it’s critical. I mean, sometimes just vocabulary makes a big difference. I mean, I often think in my books, especially more recently, it’s less that I’m trying to change people’s minds. What I’m trying to do is just give people vocabulary for what they already believe. This is something I’ve come across multiple times in my work. Sometimes your biggest impact is just giving people the names for things they’re already feeling, right? I mean the biggest impact of Deep Work was actually just giving it a name. So people see “Oh, it’s a different activity than this other stuff. Oh, I see. Oh, that opens up everything.” And then I really think, work is not just work. Busyness becomes kind of irrelevant. Everything changes once you have the term. Same thing here, I think the hyperactive hive mind is a way to collaborate.

Cal Newport: And even if you don’t agree with my alternatives, just understanding it, like, “Oh, it is a way to collaborate. It has these properties, these properties are probably pretty bad. We could think of alternatives.” That opens up a lot of stuff. So I think there’s huge room here for advocacy. I think a lot of the advocacy has been… Part of the issue is it’s been kind of imprecise. So, here’s the issue with how we’ve tried to deal with some of the negative impacts of this hyperactive hive mind approach to work. We have come at it, I think, predominantly through the perspective of individuals. We’ve come at it primarily through the perspective of the reason why you’re spending too much time in your inbox is because you have a bad relationship with your inbox. You need to fix your relationship with your inbox. You’re checking it too much. You need to batch it. Maybe you need to write better subject lines, or we see it as other people wronging us.

Cal Newport: Well, it’s the other people on my team, they write bad messages, or they send emails they don’t really need to send, right? Emails that don’t really need a response. I hear that all the time. I used to hear all the time from C-suite people, like, “Oh, our norms are wrong.” If we could just adjust our norms around email, we would hit this productivity nirvana. So it was all about individuals, either you are having a failing in how you deal with email or other people are screwing you, right? Because we’d like to think about…. We’re a social species, we like to think about it that way. This is why when email overload first became a thing with the advent of BlackBerry, we called them CrackBerry and tried to understand this through the lens of personal addiction, et cetera.

Cal Newport: This perspective has not been helpful. There’s been a lot of advocacy around this perspective, but it’s not helpful because if the underlying issue is the hyperactive hive mind, then you have to keep checking these things all the time because you have three dozen back-and-forth asynchronous conversations going on that you have to tend to. If you just don’t tend them, things go to a halt. So I’m not addicted to it. I don’t have bad habits. I’m forced to have to interact with this all the time, because that is the only way work is happening in our organization. It’s not someone acting in bad faith, where if they would just stop being such a jerk, I’d get less emails. This is the only way we have to do collaboration in our organizations. A lot of emails have to get sent. I have to answer them. And so the only solution is to say: “forget the individuals. We have to change the workflow. There has to be another way to collaborate. We’re going to have to think this through and be explicit about it. Oh, this is how we do this type of work.”

Cal Newport: So I think advocacy is critically important, but in particular, advocacy about the right problem. So we’ve had 15 years of advocacy about people needing to be smarter and people needing to stop being jerks. It’s not the issue. So we need advocacy about our implicit agreement about how we collaborate. This hyperactive hive mind is not compatible with the human brain. We need to replace this. And again, it’s not about people having bad habits and it’s not about people acting bad. It’s the workflow that’s bad.

How to Be a High School Superstar

Cal Newport: This is one of my favorite books, though it is my least well-known. Really quick backstory on that book: It was originally conceived with the title The Zen Valedictorian, and it was going to be about all levels of schooling, from high school through graduate school. And it came out of a lot of writing I was doing at the time about how do you actually build an academic life as a student that’s really meaningful and interesting and not stressful? And because I was writing a lot about that and I was giving talks about it back at the time — I was a grad student at MIT at the time — I’d go around and give talks at these sort of elite U.S. schools, you know, Princeton or go up to Middlebury. And so I had this big vision and then they narrowed it down, like, “Well, just talk about high school students so that we can… College admission stress is a big deal; let’s just narrow it down.” But it had a much more grandiose original aspiration.

Cal Newport: And the whole premise of that book is I went out and found a collection of American high school students who got into very good colleges without being stressed, without high school being something for them that was like this grind of accomplishment and achievement, and the whole point of the book was to understand how they do it.

Cal Newport: And so, the core idea there is that becoming interesting is incredibly valuable. And how do you become interesting? Well, you actually have to free up a lot of time. So I get into under-scheduling, don’t take super hard course loads, have very good study habits so your schoolwork doesn’t eat up all your time, don’t do 50 activities. You have to expose yourself to lots of things and read things and go to talks and watch movies. And when you find something that’s interesting, get into how you evolve that into something that’s impressive. And there’s this whole notion of the failed simulation effect I wrote about, where your goal is not to do something that is unambiguously, competitively hard, your goal is to do something that the person who hears about it has a hard time understanding how you did it at your age.

Cal Newport: And that actually gives a huge burst of impressiveness, even though the actual effort and skill required could be really low. And I really took that apart. So it’s a crazy book. I wrote it like a Malcolm Gladwell book. It’s an admissions book written like a Malcolm Gladwell book. It’s an admissions book where I’m talking about countersignaling theory and trying to deconstruct the elements of the psych-neurological reaction that is impressiveness.

Cal Newport: So “be interesting” is kind of the core of that. If you’re interesting and you’re doing something that people are like, “Wow, how did you do that at that age?” that goes much farther than, “Look at how much I did”, or “Look at how far I got in a well-defined competitive structure.” “I was the first chair in the state orchestra, not the county orchestra.” That is a much harder road to go down, because it gets narrower in a way that you’re probably not going to make it to the end.

How to Win at College

Cal Newport: The underlying motivation for those books is my transformation when I started taking that piece of my academic life more seriously, and my grades just went completely pegged up at the top of the GPA scales, and my study time just plummeted compared to the people around me. So I had this personal transformation experience at university where I realized, “Oh my God, if you just give this a little bit of thought, it’s so much easier than if you just come at it randomly.”

Cal Newport: It’s a mixture of scheduling and technique. So, you get a little bit more careful about what work has to get done and when I’m going to do it, right? So this sort of all-nighter nonsense is just amateur hour, like, you shouldn’t be doing that.

Cal Newport: I recommend, for example, having something called a ‘student work day,’ where you find, identify all of the regular work that’s going to happen in your semester, like, “Okay, this math class has a problem set that’s due every week. This English class has about 200 pages of reading. I have to do it every week.” Right? You figure out the stuff you know you have to do every week, and then you figure out when and where am I going to do it? “Alright. Tuesday mornings are when I work on my problem set. I go to this library. I bring this stuff. This is when I get it done. Okay. I do my readings. I do three different sessions in the afternoon.”

Cal Newport: These days it’s on your calendar. You make a plan for the work that has to get done. What’s the right time to actually do it? What’s a good time to do it? And then technique matters. So one of the biggest things you can do to cut down study time is get away from passive recall. So if you just reread your notes or look at highlighted textbooks, it’s an incredibly slow and inefficient way to actually cement knowledge. Most of the really high-performing students I interviewed did active recall. So you try to recreate the information from scratch without looking at any notes. So it’s just your mind trying to remember it.

Cal Newport: It’s cognitively much more demanding, but it takes about a factor of five less time to actually master things. So then technique really matters. Another idea from my second book, which should sound familiar to readers of my most recent books, is I had this formula in my straight-A student book. It was: ‘work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus’. So the best way to really cut down the amount of time required to get some sort of preparation done is to do that work with real intense focus. So, okay. I’m going to go to this library without my phone. No context shifts. Hey, guess what? It takes you a third as many hours to master the biology stuff you need for the test. So get more professional about when do I schedule my work, get more professional about what I do in those scheduled times. You do those two things together, and it’s going to be like you’re playing a different game. It’s just the time it requires, the performance, the consistency, the stress levels, everything improves.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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