How moving from Cal Newport’s idea of the hyperactive hive mind to workflows and systems will increase productivity.
You log onto your computer at 9am and are immediately bombarded with emails, Slack messages, and meetings. Every time you try to write a piece of code or focus on a project, someone messages you asking for something. Before you know it, the day is over and you never completed the code you intended to write or the project you needed to wrap up. Now you are working into the night just to get your tasks finished.
Does this sound all too familiar? If you are a knowledge worker then this is probably what your life looks like now. It’s an endless cycle of being pulled back and forth only to not finish the work you really needed to do. This work culture is what Cal Newport coins the hyperactive hive mind.
Hyperactive hive mind refers to the work environment where everyone is just a message away. There is constant contact through email and applications like Slack, making everyone super easy to reach. It’s the dependence on one another responding instantly in order to get your own work done. The “let’s just figure it out as it comes” mentality.
Why is this a problem?
Our brains are not meant to constantly shift focus from one subject to another. A study by Sophie Leroy shows that switching between tasks is the least effective way to complete a task. Our brain must focus on one thing at a time and completely disengage in order to fully focus on its next task.
In multiple experiments it was found that multi-tasking increases overall time to solve problems. It may seem effective on the surface but really it takes your brain added time to catch up when a task is switched. David Meyer found it could waste up to 40% of a person’s productivity time when doing this.
In this environment we don’t have the opportunity for “deep work”, or work that is extremely focused and free of distractions. We think we can quickly answer a message but really it hinders our productivity. However, without responding to these messages in a time sensitive manner, we hold our coworkers back from finishing their work. It’s an endless cycle that can’t be broken unless real changes are made.
How can we fix this?
According to Newport, tech companies are actually handling this hyperactive hive mind the best out of all industries. They have practices like agile and kanban in place to try to address the issues of constant messaging.
Agile is the process of software development where teams meet to discuss requirements and potential solutions BEFORE the coding begins. Kanban is a method of balancing the work needed to get done based on the capacity of the team.
These two methods help to put a system in place for getting work done. Of course these processes still have their flaws but they are a step in the right direction. Newport says it is key to establish workflows and separate them from the execution of the tasks.
In tech, there is the actual writing of the code and there is the planning of how it needs to be built, what technologies to use, and the collaboration of the team on who is doing what.By separating these two we can learn our objectives and gather everything we need BEFORE we start our actual tasks. This will prevent the back and forth messaging and allow us to truly focus on one task at a time.
Newport says we need to step back from the idea that individuals do work and think about how we can better collaborate and increase transparency about what is getting done. More time upfront is better than the time lost when constantly context shifting.
What does the future of work look like?
Luckily, the pandemic has actually began speeding up the process to moving to a better system of working. We are realizing now more than ever that the endless abyss of messages must end. We are being forced to really figure out the best way of communicating now that we are no longer face-to-face.
It may seem Slack is making life easier and more productive, but it is actually just making the hyperactive hive mind more convenient and accessible. It isn’t improving our styles of communication and work.
In 1913 Henry Ford was the first to move to a continuous motion assembly line when creating the Model T. While at first this created a huge bottleneck, the time spent nailing down the new system ended up decreasing his time of production from 12 hours to 33 minutes (“Ford’s assembly line starts rolling”).
The process of moving from a work culture dependent on messaging and email would be similar. At first it will hinder productivity but long-term it will end up saving us lots of time and allow us to be more focused in our work.
Image being able to get done all of your work before 5pm and not constantly reacting to incoming messages. You might actually have time to work on that side project that could really accelerate your company’s growth or even just walk your dog in the evening and play with your kids.
Let’s move away from what is easy and convenient and develop a system that works with the human brain rather than working against it.