Zero Inbox? Professor Cal Newport’s World Without Email
Illustration by Mr Kouzou Sakai
The premise of associate professor Dr Cal Newport’s new book A World Without Email sounds tantalising – who doesn’t want less email? But also terrifying. How would we get anything done?
“The reason why that horrifies people is that the way their organisation runs depends on email,” explains Dr Newport, the author of seminal productivity texts such as Deep Work, about the value of focused attention on cognitively demanding tasks (so not email then), and Digital Minimalism, about curtailing technological distractions (so email then, and social media). His Zoom interview with MR PORTER is arranged – potentially to his annoyance – via email.
Dr Newport first turned his attention to the technological distraction of email in 2016 after he got tenure in the Department of Computer Sciences at Georgetown University in Washington DC – not coincidentally, a time when administrative demands on academics “skyrocket”. Simply telling people not to use email so much, or not after 5.00pm, or not on Fridays, doesn’t work, he says, because such hacks, habits and etiquettes don’t address the underlying, ad hoc workflow proliferated, enabled by email.
Spreading throughout the business world in the 1980s and 1990s, email made it easy to fire off a message at your convenience, irrespective of the recipient’s, and copy other people in. Email didn’t merely replace existing communication – it created more, and continues to. In 2005, the average office or “knowledge” worker sent and received 50 emails a day; in 2019, that number had metastasised to 126, or one every four minutes. The typical three hours a day, said worker spends on email are fractured into 77 – for some, as many as 400 – inbox checks. “Compacted interactions” such as calls and meetings have been superseded by a “shattered rhythm” of unstructured, unscheduled, unceasing communication via email (and instant messaging), which Dr Newport has christened the “hyperactive hive mind”.
Dr Cal Newport. Photograph by Ms Penny Gray, courtesy of Dr Cal Newport
“Obviously, when I say A World Without Email, I don’t mean ‘a world in which you don’t use the tool email’. It’s a world without this hyperactive hive-mind workflow”
“Obviously, when I say A World Without Email, I don’t mean ‘a world in which you don’t use the tool email’,” says Dr Newport. “It’s a world without this hyperactive hive-mind workflow.” (That’s perhaps a less catchy title though.) Email is “great”, he says, for sending information and files. And email takes less energy than an actual conversation, so we often default to it even though it lacks tone of voice and body language, leading to miscomprehension. As a “primary mode of collaboration”, however, email is… not great.
Busy though it might be, the hyperactive hive mind isn’t good for productivity. The individual human brain works best “sequentially”, says Dr Newport, which is to say on one thing at a time. Flitting between, say, email and actual work leaves “attention residue”: a portion of cognitive processing power preoccupied with whatever you were just doing, impairing your performance on whatever you’re doing now. “What you should be trying to optimise for is minimising the amount of context-switching required,” he says. That and minimising sense of overload are his key principles for maximising what he calls “attention capital”: your brain’s ability to add value to information.
The hyperactive hive mind isn’t good for us either. “It was critical to our success within our deep history that we had good one-on-one relationships with our tribe members, so when the famine hits, they’re going to share their food with us,” says Dr Newport. Hence our “pervasive sense of anxiety” triggered by unread, unanswered emails.
His book cites studies linking time on email with higher stress levels in the moment, and “suboptimal” health outcomes in the long term. Conversely, when members of the Boston Consulting Group were given “predictable time off” – set periods each week disconnected from email and phone – they felt happier and, not unrelated, more effective.
The best example of an alternative workflow right now, says Dr Newport, is the digital task board adopted by programmers and, increasingly, other savvy knowledge workers. Consisting of a series of columns divided into “cards”, to which you can add information and files, project management tools like Trello, Flow and Asana, in conjunction with regular, short status meetings, make it straightforward to keep tabs on who’s working on what and how it’s going, or isn’t.
Task boards partition communication and attention to what’s strictly relevant to the card in hand. And they foster single-tasking within a “sealed context”, easing our hitherto addled sequential minds. Even if your organisation hasn’t yet seen the light, organising your own work with a task board and making your inbox merely a conduit to that can, insists Trello-convert Dr Newport, make a “big difference”.
“There is great satisfaction and fulfilment in being much more sequential and much more specialised”
Managers often consider their own responsiveness an operational necessity, if not a source of professional pride. But when besieged by emails, other studies cited by Dr Newport’s book show, they fall back on “tactical behaviours” such as ticking off small tasks and answering queries while neglecting the bigger picture and failing to model effective behaviour. And at least one part of most organisations has already streamlined communication in order to get more things done: the IT department, with its ticketing system.
In his previous, heavily administrative role as director of graduate studies for his department at Georgetown, Dr Newport implemented his own ticketing system, communication protocols, multiple task boards. To field the “onslaught” of interview requests he receives in the US, he created a shared document that his publisher updates.
If you’re not your own boss, someone else’s boss or the IT department, you can still deploy some outside-the-inbox strategies that Dr Newport’s book details. Set yourself a word limit for emails (see five.sentenc.es) and move anything more involved to an actual conversation. Or set up an impersonal email address, eg, “firstname.lastname@example.org”, which subtly manages expectations of your responsiveness: he uses one to communicate with MR PORTER.
Dr Newport doesn’t, however, recommend auto-replies stating that you’re staying off your email, which make people feel put out. Better to just quietly deliver, about which nobody will complain.
A World Without Email by Dr Cal Newport. Image courtesy of Penguin
Alternatively, “budget” your attention: quantify how much of your time is taken up by email and other shallow work and, diplomatically, ask your superior if they wouldn’t prefer you to spend more producing value. You’ll make yourself accountable, rather than being able to hide behind responsiveness – but that’s good. “There is great satisfaction and fulfilment in being much more sequential and much more specialised,” says Dr Newport.
Computers enabled organisations to axe support staff and offload the admin onto specialists paid, usually much more highly, to produce value: an economy since demonstrated to be false. If you’re not in a position to hire your own assistant, you can simulate one, says Dr Newport, by dedicating a certain number of hours a day to support work – even whole days a week, if your job allows. (NB: he doesn’t endorse pretending to be your own assistant.) You could use separate email addresses for collaboration and administration, even separate locations: the office for support days, home for specialist.
Or at least you could before the pandemic, which forced a pivot to remote working that amplified the hyperactive hive mind’s worst aspects. Organisations just barely held together by dint of everybody being in the same place, says Dr Newport, quickly fell apart. Amid the chaos, the need for ordered workflow, structure, processes, is greater than ever: “Now is the time to feel that pain, because now is the time that the benefits are going to be more pronounced.”
Modern knowledge work is currently where building cars was before Mr Henry Ford’s revolutionary production line, says Dr Newport. The history of technology and commerce dictates that we’ll inevitably come up with more efficient, and profitable, ways of getting things done. In the meantime, he’s constantly working on the “ongoing process” of optimising his processes: “I think I’m in a much better place than most.”