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A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

by Cal Newport

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Overview

New York Times bestseller!

From New York Times bestselling author Cal Newport comes a bold vision for liberating workers from the tyranny of the inbox—and unleashing a new era of productivity.

Modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations—a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work. There was a time when tools like email felt cutting edge, but a thorough review of current evidence reveals that the "hyperactive hive mind" workflow they helped create has become a productivity disaster, reducing profitability and perhaps even slowing overall economic growth. Equally worrisome, it makes us miserable. Humans are simply not wired for constant digital communication.

We have become so used to an inbox-driven workday that it's hard to imagine alternatives. But they do exist. Drawing on years of investigative reporting, author and computer science professor Cal Newport makes the case that our current approach to work is broken, then lays out a series of principles and concrete instructions for fixing it. In A World without Email, he argues for a workplace in which clear processes—not haphazard messaging—define how tasks are identified, assigned and reviewed. Each person works on fewer things (but does them better), and aggressive investment in support reduces the ever-increasing burden of administrative tasks. Above all else, important communication is streamlined, and inboxes and chat channels are no longer central to how work unfolds.

The knowledge sector's evolution beyond the hyperactive hive mind is inevitable. The question is not whether a world without email is coming (it is), but whether you'll be ahead of this trend. If you're a CEO seeking a competitive edge, an entrepreneur convinced your productivity could be higher, or an employee exhausted by your inbox, A World Without Email will convince you that the time has come for bold changes, and will walk you through exactly how to make them happen.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525536550
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/02/2021
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 63,743
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, where he specializes in the theory of distributed systems, as well as a New York Times bestselling author who writes for a broader audience about the intersection of technology and culture. He's the author of seven books, including Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, which have been published in over thirty languages. He's also a regular contributor on these topics to national publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Wired, and is a frequent guest on NPR. His blog, Study Hacks, which he's been publishing since 2007, attracts over three million visits a year. He lives with his wife and three sons in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

The Hyperactive Hive Mind

In late 2010, Nish Acharya arrived in Washington, DC, ready to work. President Barack Obama had appointed Nish to be his director of innovation and entrepreneurship and a senior adviser to the secretary of commerce. Nish was asked to coordinate with twenty-six different federal agencies and over five hundred universities to dispense $100 million in funding, meaning that he was about to become the prototypical DC power player: smartphone always in hand, messages flying back and forth at all hours. But then the network broke.

On a Tuesday morning, just a couple of months into his new role, Nish received an email from his CTO explaining that they had to temporarily shut down their office’s network due to a computer virus. “We all expected that this would be fixed in a couple of days,” Nish told me when I later interviewed him about the incident. But this prediction proved wildly optimistic. The following week, an undersecretary of commerce convened a meeting. She explained that they suspected the virus infecting their network came from a foreign power, and that Homeland Security was recommending that the network stay down while they traced the attack. Just to be safe, they were also going to destroy all the computers, laptops, printers—anything with a chip—in the office.

One of the biggest impacts of this network shutdown was that the office lost the ability to send or receive emails. For security purposes, it was illegal for them to use personal email addresses to perform their government work, and bureaucratic hurdles kept them from setting up temporary accounts using other agencies’ networks. Nish and his team were effectively cut off from the frenetic ping-pong of digital chatter that defines most high-level work within the federal government. The blackout lasted six weeks. With a touch of gallows humor, they took to calling the fateful day when it all began “Dark Tuesday.”

Not surprisingly, the sudden and unexpected loss of email made certain parts of Nish’s work “quite hellish.” Because the rest of the government continued to rely heavily on this tool, he often worried about missing important meetings or requests. “There was an existing information pipeline,” he explained, “and I was out of the loop.” Another hardship was logistics. Nish’s job required him to set up many meetings, and this task was made substantially more annoying without the ability to coordinate over email.

Perhaps less expected, however, was that Nish’s work didn’t grind to a halt during these six weeks. He instead began to notice that he was actually getting better at his job. Lacking the ability to simply send a quick email when he had a question, he took to leaving his office to meet with people in person. Because these appointments were a pain to arrange, he scheduled longer blocks of time, allowing him to really get to know the people he was meeting and understand the nuances of their issues. As Nish explained, these extended sessions proved “very valuable” for a new political appointee trying to learn the subtle dynamics of the federal government.

The lack of an inbox to check between these meetings opened up cognitive downtime—what Nish took to calling “whitespace”—to dive more deeply into the research literature and legislation relevant to the topics handled by his office. This slower and more thoughtful approach to thinking yielded a pair of breakthrough ideas that ended up setting the agenda for Nish’s agency for the entire year that followed. “In the Washington politic environment, no one gives themselves that space,” he told me. “It’s all neurotic looking at your phone, checking email—it hurts ingenuity.”

As I talked to Nish about Dark Tuesday and its aftermath, it occurred to me that many of the hardships that made the blackout “hellish” seemed solvable. Nish admitted, for example, that his concern about being out of the loop was largely alleviated by the simple habit of calling the White House each day to learn if there were any meetings he needed to know about. Presumably, a dedicated assistant or junior team member could handle this call. The other issue was the annoyance of scheduling meetings, but this could also be handled by an assistant or some sort of automated scheduling system. It seemed, in other words, that it might be possible to preserve the profound benefits of the email blackout while avoiding many of the accompanying annoyances.
“What would you think of this way of working?” I asked after explaining my proposed fixes. The phone line went silent for a moment. I had pitched an idea so preposterous—permanently working without email—that Nish’s mind had temporarily frozen.

* * * * *

Nish’s reaction was not surprising. A widely accepted premise of modern knowledge work is that email saved us: transforming stodgy, old-fashioned offices, filled with secretaries scribbling phone messages and paper memos delivered from mail carts, into something sleeker and more efficient. According to this premise, if you feel overwhelmed by tools like email or instant messenger, it’s because your personal habits are sloppy: you need to batch your inbox checks, and turn off your notifications, and write clearer subject lines! If inbox overload gets really bad, then maybe your organization as a whole needs to tweak their “norms” around issues like response time expectations. The underlying value of the constant electronic communication that defines modern work, however, is never questioned, as this would be hopelessly reactionary and nostalgic, like pining for the lost days of horse transport or the romance of candlelight.

From this perspective, Nish’s Dark Tuesday experience was a disaster. But what if we have this exactly backward? What if email didn’t save knowledge work but instead accidentally traded minor conveniences for a major drag on real productivity (not frantic busyness, but actual results), leading to slower economic growth over the past two decades? What if our problems with these tools don’t come from easily fixable bad habits and loose norms, but instead from the way they dramatically and unexpectedly changed the very nature of how we work? What if Dark Tuesday, in other words, was not a disaster, but instead a preview of how the most innovative executives and entrepreneurs will be organizing their work in the very near future?

* * * * *

I’ve been obsessed with studying how email broke work for at least the past half decade. An important inflection point in this journey was in 2016, when I published a book titled Deep Work, which went on to become a surprise hit. This book argued that the knowledge sector was undervaluing concentration. While the ability to rapidly communicate using digital messages is useful, the frequent disruptions created by this behavior also make it hard to focus, which has a bigger impact on our ability to produce valuable output than we may have realized. I didn’t spend much time in Deep Work trying to understand how we ended up drowning in our inboxes, or suggesting systemic changes. I thought this problem was largely one of insufficient information. Once organizations realized the importance of focus, I reasoned, they could easily correct their operations to make it a priority.

I discovered that I was overly optimistic. As I toured the country talking about my book, meeting with both executives and employees, and writing more about these topics on my blog, as well as in the pages of publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker, I encountered a grimmer and more nuanced understanding of the current state of the knowledge sector. Constant communication is not something that gets in the way of real work; it has instead become totally intertwined in how this work actually gets done—preventing easy efforts to reduce distractions through better habits or short-lived management stunts like email-free Fridays. Real improvement, it became clear, would require fundamental change to how we organize our professional efforts. It also became clear that these changes can’t come too soon: whereas email overload emerged as a fashionable annoyance in the early 2000s, it has recently advanced into a much more serious problem, reaching a saturation point for many in which their actual productive output gets squeezed into the early morning, or evenings and weekends, while their workdays devolve into Sisyphean battles against their inboxes—a uniquely misery-inducing approach to getting things done.

This book is my attempt to tackle this crisis. To pull together—for the first time—everything we now know about how we ended up in a culture of constant communication, and the effects it’s having on both our productivity and mental health, as well as to explore our most compelling visions for what alternative forms of work might look like. The idea of a world without email was radical enough to catch Nish Acharya off guard. But I’ve come to believe it’s not only possible, but actually inevitable, and my goal with this book is to provide a blueprint for this coming revolution. Before I can better summarize what to expect in the pages ahead, we must start with a clearer understanding of the problem we currently face.

* * * * *

As email spread through the professional world in the 1980s and ’90s, it introduced something novel: low-friction communication at scale. With this new tool, the cost in terms of time and social capital to communicate with anyone related to your job plummeted from significant to almost nothing. As the writer Chris Anderson notes in his 2009 book Free, the dynamics of reducing a cost to zero can be “deeply mysterious,”[1] which helps explain why few predicted the changes unleashed by this arrival of free communication. We didn’t just shift our existing volume of voicemails, faxes, and memos to this new, more convenient electronic medium; we completely transformed the underlying workflow that determines how our daily efforts unfold. We began to talk back and forth much more than we ever had before, smoothing out the once coarse sequence of discrete work activities that defined our day into a more continuous spread of ongoing chatter, blending with and softening what we used to think of as our actual work.

One study estimates that by 2019 the average worker was sending and receiving 126 business emails per day, which works out to about one message every four minutes.[2] A software company called RescueTime recently measured this behavior directly using time tracking software and calculated that their users were checking email or instant messenger tools like Slack once every six minutes on average.[3] A team from the University of California, Irvine ran a similar experiment, tracking the computer behavior of forty employees at a large company over twelve workdays. They found that the workers checked their inboxes an average of seventy-seven times a day, with the heaviest user checking more than four hundred times daily.[4] A survey conducted by Adobe revealed that knowledge workers self-report spending more than three hours a day sending and receiving business email.[5]

The issue, then, is not the tool but the new way of working it introduced. To help us better understand this new workflow, I’ll give it a name and definition:


The Hyperactive Hive Mind
A workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.

The hyperactive hive mind workflow has become ubiquitous in the knowledge sector. Whether you’re a computer programmer, marketing consultant, manager, newspaper editor, or professor, your day is now largely structured around tending your organization’s ongoing hive mind conversation. It’s this workflow that causes us to spend over a third of our working hours in our inbox, checking for new messages every six minutes. We’re used to this now, but when viewed in the context of even recent history, it represents a shift in our work culture that’s so radical it would be absurd to allow it to escape closer scrutiny.

To be fair, the hyperactive hive mind is not obviously a bad idea. Among the benefits of this workflow is the fact that it’s simple and incredibly adaptive. As one researcher explained to me, part of email’s appeal was that this one easy tool could be applied to almost every type of knowledge work—a much smaller learning curve than needing to master a separate bespoke digital system for each type of work. Unstructured conversation is also an effective method for identifying unexpected challenges and quickly coordinating responses.

But as I’ll argue in part 1 of this book, the hyperactive hive mind workflow enabled by email—although natural—has turned out to be spectacularly ineffective. The explanation for this failure can be found in our psychology. Beyond the very small scale (say, two or three people), this style of unstructured collaboration simply doesn’t mesh well with the way the human brain has evolved to operate. If your organization depends on the hive mind, then you cannot neglect your inbox or chat channels for long without slowing down the entire operation. This constant interaction with the hive mind, however, requires that you frequently switch your attention from your work to talking about work, and then back again. As I’ll detail, pioneering research in psychology and neuroscience reveals that these context switches, even if brief, induce a heavy cost in terms of mental energy—reducing cognitive performance and creating a sense of exhaustion and reduced efficacy. In the moment, the ability to quickly delegate tasks or solicit feedback might seem like an act of streamlining, but as I’ll show, in the long run, it’s likely reducing productivity, requiring more time and more expenses to get the same total amount of work accomplished.

In this first part of the book, I’ll also detail how the social element of the hive mind workflow clashes with the social circuits in our brains. Rationally, you know that the six hundred unread messages in your inbox are not crucial, and you remind yourself that the senders of these messages have better things to do than wait expectantly, staring at their screens and cursing the latency of your response. But a deeper part of your brain, evolved to tend the careful dance of social dynamics that has allowed our species to thrive so spectacularly since the Paleolithic, remains concerned by what it perceives to be neglected social obligations. As far as these social circuits are concerned, members of your tribe are trying to get your attention and you’re ignoring them: an event that registers as an emergency. The result of this constant state of unease is a low-grade background hum of anxiety that many inbox-bound knowledge workers have come to assume is unavoidable, but is actually an artifact of this unfortunate mismatch between our modern tools and ancient brains.

The obvious question is why we would ever adopt a workflow that comes with so many negative features. As I explain at the end of part 1, the story behind the rise of the hyperactive hive mind is complicated. No one really decided that it was a good idea; it instead arose, in some sense, of its own volition. Our belief that frenetic communication is somehow synonymous with work is largely a backfilled narrative we tell ourselves to make sense of sudden changes driven by complex dynamics.

Understanding the arbitrariness behind how we currently work, perhaps more than anything else, should motivate us to seek better options. This is exactly the goal I take on in part 2 of the book. In this second part, I introduce a framework I call attention capital theory that argues for creating workflows built around processes specifically designed to help us get the most out of our human brains while minimizing unnecessary miseries. This might sound obvious, but it actually contradicts the standard way of thinking about knowledge work management. As I’ll show, driven by the ideas of the immensely influential business thinker Peter Drucker, we tend to think of knowledge workers as autonomous black boxes—ignoring the details of how they get their work done and focusing instead on providing them clear objectives and motivational leadership. This is a mistake. There is massive potential productivity currently latent in the knowledge sector. To unlock it will require much more systematic thinking about how best to organize the fundamental objective of getting a collection of human brains hooked together in networks to produce the most possible valuable output in the most sustainable way. Hint: the right answer is unlikely to involve checking email once every six minutes.

The bulk of part 2 explores a collection of principles for applying attention capital theory to rebuild the workflows that drive organizational, team, and individual work in this direction—moving us away from the hyperactive hive mind and toward more structured approaches that avoid the problems of constant communication detailed in part 1. Some of the ideas supporting these principles come from cutting-edge examples of organizations experimenting with novel workflows that minimize unscheduled communication. Other ideas are drawn from the practices that enabled complex knowledge organizations to function effectively in an age before digital networks.

The principles described in part 2 don’t insist that you banish messaging technologies like email or instant messenger. These tools remain a very useful way to communicate, and it would be reactionary to return to older and less convenient technologies just to make a point. But these principles will push you to reduce digital messaging from a constant presence to something that occurs more occasionally. The world without email referenced in the title of this book, therefore, is not a place in which protocols like SMTP and POP3 are banished. It is, however, a place where you spend most of your day actually working on hard things instead of talking about this work, or endlessly bouncing small tasks back and forth in messages.

This advice is designed to apply to many audiences. This includes business leaders looking to overhaul their company’s operation, teams looking to function more efficiently, solo entrepreneurs and freelancers looking to maximize their value production, and even individual employees looking to get more out of their individual communication habits by viewing them through the perspective of attention capital. Accordingly, my examples span from the large scale, such as CEOs making drastic changes to their company’s culture, to the small scale, such as my own experiments with using systems borrowed from software development to move my academic administrative tasks out of my inbox and into a more organized format.

Not every suggestion in part 2 applies to every situation. If you’re an employee of a company that still worships at the altar of the hyperactive hive mind, for example, there are only so many changes you can make on your own without infuriating your coworkers. Some care will therefore be needed in picking and choosing the strategies you implement. (I attempt to help you in this selection by highlighting examples of how the various principles have applied in the individual context.) Similarly, if you’re a start-up entrepreneur, you’re better able to experiment with radical new work processes than if you’re the CEO of a large company.

But I firmly believe that any individual or organization who starts to think critically about the hyperactive hive mind workflow, then systematically replaces elements of it with processes that are more compatible with the realities of the human brain, will generate a substantial competitive edge. The future of work is increasingly cognitive. This means that the sooner we take seriously how human brains actually function, and seek out strategies that best complement these realities, the sooner we’ll realize that the hyperactive hive mind, though convenient, is a disastrously ineffective way to organize our efforts.

This book, therefore, should not be understood as reactionary or anti-technology. To the contrary, its message is profoundly future-oriented. It recognizes that if we want to extract the full potential of digital networks in professional settings, we must continually and aggressively try to optimize how we use them. Attacking the flaws of the hyperactive hive mind is decidedly not an act of Luddism—if anything, the true obstruction to progress is giving in to the simplistic comforts of this blunt workflow at the expense of further refinement.

In this formulation, a world without email is not a step backward but a step forward into an exciting technological future we’re only just beginning to understand. Knowledge work does not yet have its Henry Ford, but workflow innovations with impact on the same scale as the assembly line are inevitable. I can’t predict all the details of this future, but I’m convinced it will not involve checking an inbox every six minutes. This world without email is coming, and I hope this book will get you as excited about its potential as I am.



Notes
[1] Chris Anderson, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (New York: Hyperion, 2009), 4.
[2] Radicati Group, Inc., Email Statistics Report, 2015–2019 (Palo Alto, CA: March 2015).
[3] Jory MacKay, “Communication Overload: Our Research Shows Most Workers Can’t Go 6 Minutes without Checking Email or IM,” RescueTime (blog), July 11, 2018, https://blog.rescuetime.com/communication-multitasking-switches/.
[4] Gloria Mark et al., “Email Duration, Batching and Self-Interruption: Patterns of Email Use on Productivity and Stress,” Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, May 2016, 1717–28. See table 2.
[5] Adobe, “2018 Consumer Email Survey,” August 17, 2018, www.slideshare.net/adobe/2018-adobe-consumer-email-survey.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Hyperactive Hive Mind xi

Part 1 The Case Against Email 1

1 Email Reduces Productivity 3

2 Email Makes Us Miserable 35

3 Email Has a Mind of Its Own 63

Part 2 Principles for a World Without Email 95

4 The Attention Capital Principle 97

5 The Process Principle 135

6 The Protocol Principle 179

7 The Specialization Principle 215

Conclusion: The Twenty-First-Century Moonshot 257

Acknowledgments 263

Notes 265

Index 283

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