Did Early Humans Use To-Do Lists?


Early in my latest article for The New Yorker I take a closer look at the recent protests waged by Apple employees in response to CEO Tim Cook’s announcement that they had to return to their desks in Cupertino. On the surface, the employees were concerned about losing what they like about remote work. In an open letter addressed to Cook, they cited worries about time lost to commuting as well the difficulty of achieving “deep thought” in a crowded office.

As I write in my article, however, protests of this type might actually be a proxy for a deeper unease:

“Knowledge workers were already exhausted by their jobs before the pandemic arrived: too much e-mail, too many meetings, too much to do—all being relentlessly delivered through ubiquitous glowing screens. We used to believe that these depredations were somehow fundamental to office work in the twenty-first century, but the pandemic called this assumption into question. If an activity as entrenched as coming to an office every day could be overturned essentially overnight, what other aspects of our professional lives could be reimagined?”

If burnt-out employees lose their bid for permanent telecommuting, “the last highly visible, virus-prompted workplace experiment,” the window to push for more serious transformation — the types of changes that can save knowledge work from its current drowning into a sea of distracted busyness — might slam shut.

But as I conclude: “The tragedy of this moment…is how this reform movement lacks good ideas about what else to demand.” We learned through experience that working from home is not enough on its own to cure most of what makes office jobs unnecessarily exhausting, and few believe that four-day work weeks or, dare I say it, quiet quitting are somehow sufficient either. We need bolder notions.

This then brings me to the central provocation of my article: What if a good way to chart the future of work is to look to its deep past?

I go on to investigate what the anthropology literature teaches us about what “work” meant for most of our species’ 300,000 year history. My conjecture is that in identifying places where our current activities most differ from how we toiled in our Paleolithic past, we might identify specific sources of discomfort with our current ways of working. How does, in other words, the modern necessity of juggling full email inboxes or managing crowded to-do lists conflict with a brain adapted over hundreds of thousands of years for hunting and gathering in small, close-knit tribes? And once we find these points of friction, what can we do to reduce them?

All of this, of course, is messy and imprecise, but it’s also really fun to think and write about. You’ll have to read the full article to learn all the details of what I uncover during my deep dive into the deep history of work, but the short version of my conclusions should sound familiar to fans of a slower productivity mindset: do fewer things, working at a varied pace, focusing on quality.

Such a deliberate approach might sound unachievable in our moment of hyper-connected busyness, but it might just be, for lack of a better word, much more natural than how we approach ours jobs today.

The post Did Early Humans Use To-Do Lists? first appeared on Cal Newport.

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