The Hyperactive Hive Mind

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Icon Oct 3, 2021

I recently finished reading ‘A World Without Email’ by Cal Newport. My key takeaway is that the biggest challenge to effective modern work practices is the presence of the Hyperactive Hive Mind (HHM), which Cal defines as:

“A workflow centred around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication toosl like email and instand messenger services.”

Email is the not the problem, but a workflow that relies on sending and responding to pings and dings is. So much of the modern work day is taken up by responding to messages that arrive un-requested and un-expected. How can we possibly expect to do deep, thoughtful, planned, strategic work when we are being pulled back and forth into sending messages and having (video) conversations about topics we didn’t expect to be thinking about today. Nobody planned the modern way of working – we just gradually fell into the current patterns based on the evolution of the technology.

A few specific ideas and reflections:

  • Operating in the HMM makes us miserable. It does not make us feel good to constantly need to manage incoming messages
  • Asynchronous communication is not good for efficiency – sending, waiting, reading, replying, waiting etc. Synchronous communication can be far more effective, but requires planning
  • Our current workflows are not based on optimal productivity and effectiveness. We need to take the time to design workflows and not just default to whatever the tools we use expect of us
  • Context switches are costly. Focus on doing fewer things, but doing them well.
  • A test of good processes is if significant, effective amounts of work can be accomplished WITHOUT any kind of unstructured and unscheduled communications. What are my common work processes, and can they occur end-to-end without disrupting someone else?
  • I should defer any non-urgent conversations to scheduled 1:1 times. Remember that asking someone a quick question is always costly – it distracts them from the task they are doing. Minimise the amount of distractions you generate for your team.
  • Focus on building systems of working that generate the best overall average cost i.e. focus on systems that work best most of the time, rather than tailor for edge cases
  • Work on the things that will make work easier. Remember pareto principle – 20% of effort generates 80% of the outcomes
  • Working in pairs, particularly in programming, creates 2x efficiency overall
  • Technology is not additive, it is ecological i.e. different technologies change the way we work
  • There is nothing more valuable than a team of people producing maximal value