In his new book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky has a big idea: use all that brainpower we waste vegetating in front of the TV to do useful work. But when speaking of a “cognitive surplus” leads us to act as if cognition is a commodity, we set ourselves up for a fall.
The Secret Economy of Cognition
Consider this all-too-common scenario: a team of talented software developers is working hard on a project, but the deadline is close and it looks like they might be late. To make up for lost time, they start staying late and coming in on weekends. However, as the deadline approaches and the team effort ramps up, progress slows. The number of errors in the system multiplies. Team members become snippy in meetings and instead of meeting the deadline, the team is even farther behind than they would have been with the original level of effort. What went wrong?
The design of our modern workday originates from the industrial age, when work was boring, mindless, and repetitive. In the old days it was reasonable to assume than an able-bodied worker, once trained, could spend eight or more hours on the production line, stamping out widgets. And more time on the line meant proportionally more widgets produced. In the factory, this simple model of hard work made sense.
If you’ve ever worked hard on a presentation or studied for a test, you know that intellectual effort is mentally exhausting. After a while attention drifts, mistakes creep in, and eyelids droop. Tom DeMarko, author of Slack [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], reported that software developers only have about three good hours of programming time in them each day. Beyond this point, productivity drops and errors increase. In a mentally fatigued state, programmers are likely to do “negative work” by introducing errors that will require additional time to fix in the future.
Here lies the fundamental mistake: difficult, creative work is not at all like mindless repetitive, physical labor. Our minds “wear out” long before our bodies. But it is employment suicide to reveal this fact to a boss, so employers and employees alike perpetuate the myth that they work productively at cognitively intensive jobs for 40 or more hours each week. Now the long, pointless meetings, the two-hour lunches, and the frequent socialization around the water cooler start to take on new meaning: they are the filler activities office workers need to stretch three hours of actual productivity into eight or more hours of office time. Asking someone doing demanding intellectual work to stay late not only invites more filler activities but also risks increasing errors which have the potential to bog down the entire project. When it comes to highly cognitive tasks, more effort can often produce fewer results.
Highly Productive Slacking
So if working harder can mean working dumber, how can we work smarter? By understanding the true measure of our cognitive resources, we can use what we have to greatest effect. The first order of business is to separate cognitive exhaustion from laziness. Procrastinating or avoiding a task is one thing. Slogging ahead with little or no gain is another. They may produce the same (lack of) results, but they point to two different causes. The first might suggest lack of motivation, or lack of skills or abilities on the given task (among many other causes). The second points to pure exhaustion. In neither case will more hours on task improve performance. Breaking free of the illusion that cognitive work is the equivalent of physical work can end a cycle of self-blame for under-performance and spur a search for the underlying cause of the problem.
Once the real limits of creative, cognitive work are established, those “filler” activities can be redeemed…and refined. Coffee breaks become not slacking, but recovery time. Exercise is another way to give your gray matter a boost. And you don’t need to run off to the gym to benefit. Taking a short walk around the corporate campus can work out the kinks in body and mind. Malcom Gladwell wrote in his popular book Outliers [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] that musicians cannot muster more than two or three good hours of practice time each day — unless they nap. Some executives are now taking short naps in the early afternoon, not as a privilege of rank, but as a productivity booster.
Careful scheduling also leads to better use of our cognitive capital. Most jobs include tasks of different difficulties. Hitting the hard problems when you’ve got the most mental oomph may require discipline at first but the payoffs can be considerable. Similarly, easy and repetitive tasks can be relegated to your daily “dead zone.” For many, those are the hours around two or three in the afternoon. Spreading the toughest tasks throughout the week instead of letting them gang up on you on one particular day also makes good sense for the cognitively-savvy worker.
However, the ultimate weapon in the slacker’s arsenal is called the “incubation effect.” It may please your boss to know that once your mind starts to work on a problem, it never entirely stops, even when you’re not consciously “thinking about it.” If you’ve ever been stumped on a hard problem on one day only to have the answer dawn on you the next morning in the shower, then you’ve experienced incubation effect. While incubation effect is an automatic and seemingly effortless process, there are things you can do to prime the pump. First, spend extra time describing and working on the problem explicitly. Imprint the problem on your mind. Second, do something else, something entirely different. Or do nothing at all. A favorite teacher of mine once said that people do not get bored enough to be creative. See if being bored creates room for the answer to pop into your head. Third, be ready to capture that idea. Incubated solutions, like dreams, can fade out fast. Keeping pen and paper nearby throughout your home and office minimizes the chance of a good idea escaping after all that “hard work” you did to incubate it!