Knowledge work burnout

As usual, a thoughtful essay from Cal Newport:

A never-ending stream of new messages and calendars clogged with meetings force us to constantly switch our attention from one target to another, creating a debilitating feeling of mental fatigue and overload, and leaving little mental space for sustained effort on important objectives. Seven out of ten people surveyed by Microsoft complain that they don’t have enough uninterrupted focus time during the workday.” This deluge also blurs the line between work and home. When your in-box grows at a rate that’s faster than you could ever hope to keep up with, it’s difficult to shut down and recharge. Work becomes inescapable.

The bottom line is that the abrupt rise in digital interaction following the arrival of the pandemic made knowledge work more tedious and exhausting, helping to fuel the waves of disruption that have followed. If we accept this interpretation of events, however, we must also accept the necessity of continuing to seek change. So long as these new and excessive levels of digital communication persist, more haphazard upheavals will inevitably follow. We need to get serious about reducing digital communication—not just small tweaks to corporate norms but significant reductions, driven by major policy changes.

Having just finished a day of responding to Slack messages and poorly planned meetings, it’s striking how unsatisfied I feel and how drained the day made me. On the one hand, I keep mocking tech jobs as not real work, but day after day of Slack has a way of zapping a person of all energy.

There are many ways to make things better. One possible first step would be for business owners to set new ground rules. For instance, they could declare that, from now on, e-mail should be used only for broadcasting information, and for sending questions that can be answered by a single reply. One implication of this system would be that any substantive back-and-forth discussion would need to happen live; to prevent an explosion of new meetings, managers could simultaneously introduce office hours, in which every employee adopts a set period each day during which they’d be available to chat in person, online, or over the phone, with no appointment needed. Discussions that seem likely to take fifteen minutes or less should be conducted during office hours, minimizing the number of intrusive meetings and freeing everyone from endless back-and-forth e-mail threads.

Radical, but this would bring so much sanity to my work day. Unfortunately, the catch is this has to be part of a broader culture change. In some positions, no matter how much work you produce at the end of the day, it’s the little green dot and responsiveness to completely non-urgent questions that matter.