Tim Harford – known as the Undercover Economist – questioned recently in the Financial Times whether the economic clock has started to run backwards.
Economic growth was based on specialisation and the division of labour which had three advantages:
- Workers perfected specific drills
- They avoided the delay and distraction of switching from one task to another and
- They would use specialised equipment
However much modern knowledge work is not specialised at all which might explain why we all seem to be working so hard while worrying about getting little done!
Office work is becoming more generalist as everyone now does their own typing, presentations, diary management, task lists and so on through access to user-friendly software. This is the law of diminishing specialisation.
Cal Newport in his new book “A World Without Email” argues that knowledge work is long overdue a radical rethink on the lines of manufacturing concerns a century ago who overhauled their processes and productivity soared.
Newport argues that managers and administrators should protect specialists from distraction. Adam Smith’s 1776 book “The Wealth of Nations” noted “men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object, than when it is dissipated”
Harford posits that the variety in work that comes from a hyperactive reliance on email is not the kind that allows us to flourish.
He proposes “slow-motion multitasking” with a variety of projects in process, allowing them to cross-fertilise each other. But do one thing at a time.