My latest article for The New Yorker, published on Tuesday, is titled “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.” It’s not, however, really about David Allen’s productivity system, which longtime readers (and listeners) know I really admire. It’s instead about a deeper question that I hadn’t heard discussed much before: Why do we leave office workers to figure out on their own how to get things done?
With the notable exception of agile software development teams, companies in this sector largely leave decisions about how work is assigned, reviewed, and organized up to individuals. We promulgate clear objectives and construct motivating corporate cultures, but when it comes to actually executing these tasks, we just hook everyone up to an email address or Slack channel and tell them to rock and roll. This has led to a culture of overload and fragmented attention that makes everyone involved miserable.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the piece, but here are two big picture conclusions:
- First, our current commitment to autonomy in knowledge work is more arbitrary than we realize. It largely comes from a single, influential management theorist who shaped the evolution of this emerging sector in the mid-twentieth century.
- Second, if companies got more involved with the workflows organizing how things actually got done, they could likely increase both their profitability and their employees’ satisfaction.
If you combine this article with my preceding two efforts for The New Yorker, which focused on the topics of remote work and email, respectively, you’ll encounter, in increasing high fidelity, hints of my rapidly-maturing critique of knowledge work, and my optimism for its future.