I believe that knowledge work today is where automobile manufacturing was in 1913. The way we currently work is simple and convenient. Because everyone can talk to everyone at any time through email and instant messages, we just let work flow along as an unstructured conversation made up of missives flying back and forth through the electronic ether. This scales up the way we’ve always naturally collaborated in small groups.
What Lasse Rheingans is attempting, by contrast, is much less simple and convenient. If I can’t simply reach you with a quick email at any time, my work is going to require more forethought; some things might even get missed, some clients occasionally made upset. But it’s worth remembering that the assembly line was also much more complicated and much less convenient than the craft method it replaced.
To believe, in other words, that our current approach to knowledge work – which is brand-new on any reasonable scale of business history – is the best way to create valuable information using the human mind is both arrogant and ahistoric. It’s the equivalent of striding into an early – 20 th-century automobile factory, where each car still required a half day’s worth of labor to produce, and boldly proclaiming, “I think we’ve figured this one out!”
If I’m right and we’re still early in this new phase of digital knowledge work, then more productive – and hopefully much more meaningful and much less draining – approaches to executing this work remain on the horizon. No one knows exactly what this future of knowledge work will look like, but I suspect, along with Mr. Rheingans, that among other transformations it will reject the idea that always-on electronic chatter is a good way to efficiently extract value from human minds.
This is why I am heartened to see stories like that of Mr. Rheingans’s short workday and, as was reported this week,Microsoft Japan’s experimentswith a four-day week during the summer (which increased its productivity by 40 percent, according to the company). It’s not yet clear that these innovations are exactly the right way to run technology companies, or whether they can scale to other business contexts. But what is right in this case is the exploratory mind-set that led to these experiments in the first place. If like many digital knowledge workers, you’re exhausted by endless work and flooded inboxes, the good news is that better and more sustainable ways of producing valuable output with your brain might be coming – if we can find enough visionaries willing to try out “ radical *** new ideas about how best to get things done.
Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown and the author of the recent book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. ”
The Times is committed to publishinga diversity of lettersto the editor . We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are someTips. And here’s our email:email@example.com.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on(Facebook),Twitter (@NYTopinion)andInstagram.