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New book ‘A World Without Email’ challenges companies to ditch the inbox

(Photo by Solen Feyissa, Unsplash)

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, has written many best-selling books about how to study and work smarter. His book Deep Work is about avoiding distractions, and Digital Minimalism is, …well, it’s just that.

But Newport realized many workflow inefficiencies aren’t the fault of individuals, but rather the fault of our system; specifically our seemingly unavoidable, time sucking, constant tether to email. His new book is called A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.

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“We’re checking our inboxes once every six minutes because there are so many back-and-forth ad hoc conversations going on,” Newport said. “We have to tend this channel all the time, be it an email inbox, or a Slack channel, or Teams. Our brain can’t do that well. It actually is a complex, non-trivial, neurochemical process that has to unfold to change our attention from one thing to another and it takes time.”

“It’s a huge cognitive pileup,” he said. “It reduces our ability to think clearly, it makes us anxious, and it gives us a sense of cognitive fatigue. We didn’t know this was going to be a problem [when we started using email], but it has become a major drain on our ability to actually get work done using our brains.”

Our email inboxes are packed with a potpourri of topics and information, and quickly bopping from one subject to the next slows our brains down. Newport argues that we should spend most of the day working, and have scheduled interruptions for pointed communication.

“Early in the book, for example, I talk about a UX design firm out of London. They got completely burnt out on Slack, they lost a couple engineers due to burnout, they said ‘no more.’ So they built a new workflow, based largely around Basecamp. They have pre-scheduled, highly efficient, status meetings twice a day at set times. They might say, ‘OK, what happened to what you’re working on? What are you working on next? What do you need to get it done? Go.’ Then they would just work, and four hours later they would meet again. And it was night and day!”

“They don’t have an inbox they check anymore, there’s no Slack messages that can bother them and they were fine,” he said. “It was complicated to work it out, and there was some other things they had to automate and systematize, but they were much happier and much more effective. So this is definitely possible.”

Newport mentioned Basecamp, which is a project management tool that allows a team to organize information pertaining to a single topic or project, opposed to an email inbox filled with miscellaneous messages that can make you feel scattered.

I asked Newport if the constant email checking is partly due to addiction, the thrill of seeing a new email message.

“No, the underlying workflow demands you check it because all these messages are there and they need your response for things to move forward,” he replied. “So it’s actually quite rational to be on your inbox all the time. The more you’re away from it, the more you fall behind, and the more problems you cause.”

“So I tend not to think about the checking issue as a personal will issue because it’s actually a rational response to a broken way of working,” he said. “I think we focus too much on what the individual can do to have better habits and will, and now we have to turn our attention to how our organization is actually functioning.”

While changes need to be company-wide in order to truly work, one tip Newport offers individuals is to schedule your day so you’re doing deep work in big, several-hour long chunks, and then schedule in 20 minute increments to do your administrative work, like checking emails. But don’t hop back and forth between the two all day.

“I’m convinced that there is so much GDP and economic growth at stake here that it is inevitable that we’re going to move past [email],” Newport said. “Ten years from now we’re going to look back at this notion that we answered emails once every six minutes. It will be as laughable as the original way we built cars in the late 19th century seemed to Elon Musk today in his Tesla factory. So this world without email is coming, I’m just trying to figure out how we can help people get ahead of that trend.”

Newport admits the title of his book is hyperbolic. He doesn’t think email will stop entirely, but it must be reduced significantly if companies want to increase productivity and happiness, and reduce anxiety.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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