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HomeStudy HacksThe Quiet Workflow Revolution - Cal Newport

The Quiet Workflow Revolution – Cal Newport

Starting a few years ago, ads for a web-based software start-up called began to show up everywhere online. A subsequent S.E.C. filing revealed that the company spent close to a hundred and thirty million dollars on advertising in 2020 alone, which worked out to over eighty percent of their annual revenue. By the end of this blitz they had generated more than seven hundred million views of their YouTube-based spots — an audience larger than the preceding four Super Bowls combined.

As I report in my most recent article for The New Yorker, had good reason to make this aggressive investment:

“ claims to help knowledge workers collaborate better: ‘Boost your team’s alignment, efficiency, and productivity by customizing any workflow to fit your needs.’ This objective might sound dry in our current moment of flashy social apps and eerie artificial intelligence, but helping organizations manage their workflows has proved to be surprisingly lucrative. Trello, one of the early success stories from this category, was launched in 2011 as a side project by an independent software developer. In 2017, it was purchased by Atlassian for four hundred and twenty-five million in cash and stock. Another workflow-management service, named Wrike, subsequently sold for $2.25 billion. For its part, went on to leverage the user growth generated by its advertising push to support a successful I.P.O. that valued the company at over seven billion dollars.”

This sudden shift in the business productivity market away from tools that help you better execute your work (like word processors and email clients), and toward tools that help you better organize your work, is important.

As I’ve long argued, one of the major problems in knowledge work is the haphazard way in which we organize our efforts, allowing the chaotic decisions of individuals to somehow aggregate into an ad hoc equilibrium. We give everyone an email inbox and a Zoom account, outline “clear” objectives, and then just tell them to “rock n’ roll.” The result is frenetic overload, exhausted brains, and, ultimately, burn out.

We can’t fix what we dislike about these jobs until we first get more specific about how they actually operate. And this will require clearly specified workflows. As I conclude in my New Yorker piece, if flashy new software services like help push toward this realization, then we should welcome their ascendency.

“It’s in rethinking how we organize our work, not just in how fast we can accomplish it, where the real improvements are to be found,” I write. “Perhaps we’re finally ready to learn this reality.”


In other news:

  • On the most recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, I shift my attention from the short-term to the long-term, investigating what habits you can put in place now to ensure you’re satisfied 5 to 10 years in the future. I also answer listener questions and discuss a new mathematical theory that explains how social media traps us in its misery-inducing web. (Watch | Listen)


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