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Psychic Entropy, Deep Work, and the Post-Knowledge Economy

Being a knowledge worker is so 2016. At a recent event, a speaker described our economy as being on the threshold of the ‘post knowledge era‘ – a period in which companies will achieve competitive advantage not by accruing the most data, but by honing the ability to focus on the most salient information, and coax relevant insights and analysis from it. While AI will increasingly be used for routine, repeatable tasks which can be governed by rules, our human intelligence is still unmatched at using context and intuition to reach non-linear insights, and in a world awash in information our attention (rather than knowledge) will become the scarce resource.

What will this mean for people in our organizations? We’re already smartphone-enslaved content-zombies, incapable of being alone with our thoughts for the duration of a short grocery checkout line wait. And now we’re supposed to get smarter about scanning, filtering and wringing insights from all this (gestures wildly at everything everywhere)??

I keep reading experts who say that we humans are in uncharted territory, awash in stimuli, drowning in input, lousy with alerts and notifications and distractions. According to research, many of us check our phones shortly after regaining consciousness each morning, launching ourselves once more into the sea of data, we drift through our days buffeted by information, tiny computers clutched in our clammy hands, and find ourselves washed ashore 14 hours later, spit out by the waves of input, and bewildered about where the time went. Did we take photos? Text our loved ones? There was definitely e-mail in there somewhere, right? Many of us sleep fitfully, our brains not outfitted with a ‘sleep’ function the way our phones are.

Psychic Entropy

The best term that I’ve heard to describe the reality of our modern day mental state is psychic entropy. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihály, who coined the term ‘flow’, saw psychic entropy is its opposite:

“a state in which we cannot use attention effectively to deal with external tasks, because we need it to restore an inner subjective order.”

Not an ideal state of mind to allow us to deftly apply our human intelligence to reach abstract or inventive conclusions.

A Totally Non-Scientific List of Factors That Contribute to Psychic Entropy at Work

Beyond the proliferation of data, information, and content (both at work and more generally), what is making this an increasingly urgent challenge for workers and their organizations? A few thoughts:

  • Multiple systems and channels for org communication (IM, e-mail, phone, meetings, video calls, intranet)
  • Collaborative overload: in which specialized or novel work means that generalists must increasingly rely on internal and external specialist and experts, and the reliance on these ‘intelligent networks’ mean that we spend most of our days in meetings, on calls, and doing e-mails…and then have to do our “actual work”.
  • Overcommitment culture: in which people are spread thinly over a significant number of projects to ensure full ‘utilization’, requiring them to ‘time slice’ their attention across several different areas of focus and teams.
  • A ‘firehose’ approach to learning and development (‘Here’s 3,000 eLearning courses, we want to see a commitment to learning and growth’) due to inability for traditional L&D to stay ahead of the pace of skills/knowledge change
  • Transparency for the sake of transparency, in which we lose sight of what is relevant, and what it means to us (context)
  • The cycle of responsiveness: We can feel driven to be on-call, reply to e-mails at all hours, never go offline, even if we aren’t explicitly told to do this. A Saturday e-mail, or responding to an urgent call can set expectations that start to perpetuate themselves in an unintentional and incremental pattern.

What Can Organizations Do? (Seriously, They Want to Know. Anyone?)

I think many organizations know that this is a problem, and have very little idea what to do about it. Some seem to see this as an employee wellness issue, and while they’re absolutely correct that it can have significant consequences for employees’ well being and mental health, it also impacts their ability to do work of value.

While there has been at least one high-profile effort to legally prevent employers from e-mailing their staff outside of work hours, this doesn’t change the broader economic and digital realities we’re all facing. To date, it seems that most ideas involve employees figuring it out for themselves.

A 2016 article in Harvard Business Review titled ‘5 Ways to Build Your Personal Resilience at Work‘ says:

“57% of respondents said that their organizations are “weak” when it comes to helping leaders manage difficult schedules and helping employees manage information flow, and that there is an urgent need to address this challenge.”

(Side note: is it just me, or is ‘resilience’ nice-person code for ‘toughen up cupcake’??)

Don’t worry though, we’ve got smart people on this problem:  Cal Newport says:

“knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish.”
“We need to spend more time engaged in deep work— cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results.”

Newport and his devotees (there are many, all of whom seem to have morning routines that remind me of Neo in the third Matrix movie) mainly seem to advocate individual commitment to controlling one’s environment: severely limiting distractions, eschewing ‘time slicing’, cultivating helpful mental states, and a number of other strategies aimed at reducing cognitive load. They would all be horrified that I interrupted writing this post to watch Game of Thrones.

Facing the Challenge

Deep work is challenging, but psychologically satisfying in a way that no frantic, scattered day of multi-tasking can ever match. It’s valuable for both organizations and employees, but we won’t all infuse our days with deep work if the system and structures in which we’re operating remain the same. No amount of resilience will make it okay for most workers to check e-mail once a day, close their door for long stretches, or go offline for a couple of days to pursue an interesting new idea. And putting rules in place about after hours e-mail doesn’t address the quality of the significant time we spend at work each day.

So what then? A few thoughts:

  • Educate leaders, managers, and employees about cognitive load – high quality brain power is not infinite. What should it be spent on? (Remote work plug: a long, harrowing commute is using up valuable mental resources before anyone even gets to work)
  • Talk about managing one’s energy, not time. Focus on cultivating personal work habits that produce the best quality progress and results, not on the number of hours worked.
  • Trust and autonomy: no, flex work doesn’t even come close, this is a bigger mindset shift. If we are to help employees understand and manage their brain like the valuable asset it is, we must realize that organizations and leaders cannot do that for them, but we must give them space to do this for themselves. Trust and support people to know when and where they do their best work.
  • Less meetings, and more time to think in advance and afterwards. Thinking = working.
  • Deliberately discouraging a culture that rewards unnecessary responsiveness. Leaders can and should agree on when it is okay to e-mail someone outside of core hours (what constitutes urgent) and avoid responding to people who do so anyway.

I’m sure there are a lot more ideas about trying to adapt to this crazy world we work in, but my focus is waning, so I’ll ask you to share your thoughts in the comments…

Read This Week:

Every Generation Wants Meaningful Work — but Thinks Other Age Groups Are in It for the Money – HBR, Kelly Pledger Weeks

Got generational conflict? Maybe it’s you. This short post is a refreshing reminder that we all think we’re special, noble snowflakes with pristine motives (unlike those other generations). Illusory superiority much?

“One of the most striking findings was that every generation perceived that the other generations are only in it for the money, don’t work as hard, and do not care about meaning. If each generation thinks this way, it’s not surprising that they treat each other differently than if they believe they are all striving for intrinsic meaning in their jobs. Stereotypes like these likely cause conflict among generational cohorts, which may affect performance, commitment, and job satisfaction.

Interview: “Uber is going to be the best company in the world for women” – People Management, Robert Jeffery

If it seems like I am mildly obsessed with Uber’s ongoing travails it’s because I am. This week’s installment of their hit show “Who’s Making it Worse Now?” involves their head of HR, Lianne Hornsey. I have to believe that Ms Hornsey is an incredibly competent and knowledgeable HR professional to get where she is (she led HR at Google for 10 years), but this interview she did with People Management is like watching a dog try to scuba dive.

LH: “These people were mission-driven and dedicated, and what happened in the media has tainted that and people’s pride in the company has dropped.”

Um…perhaps this was phrased poorly, but if you fired 20 people after an investigation and your CEO left over internal behaviour and climate issues, I’m not sure it’s helpful to suggest it was what happened in the media that was the problem.

People Management: “Would you be happy to be a female engineer in Uber at the moment?”

LH: “Yes, I would. My aim is to get more women engineers into Uber. I believe that within about two or three months – because we are so dedicated to diversity and inclusion, more than any firm I’ve ever known – there will no better place in the world for a female engineer to work.”


All-staff emails that will take you to the stars… – James Elfer

Want to do a behavioural science experiment? Here is a small but mighty suggestion from James Elfer about how HR can incorporate some minor testing into your employee communications. Short and super practical, I love this idea! (Also, James kindly shared an excellent comment on last week’s post about employee happiness – it is worth 2 minutes to read it, just click through and scroll down).

“We can all experiment with behavioural science every-day, with nil cost and a little effort, and all-staff emails (or any mass email for that matter**) is the most accessible way I can think of doing so…

The potential for such testing to incrementally improve (and robustly evidence) the impact we have as an HR and communications community is a frontier that’s worth exploring.”

Image credit: Raul Petri via

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