A World Without Email by Cal Newport

Cal Newport explains how email (including Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other messaging services) became popular and why it destroys our productivity.

A World Without Email by Cal Newport explains how email (including Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other messaging services) became popular and why it destroys our productivity. Sending email made it so easy to quickly send messages and tasks to others that, before we realized it, we're spending all of our time on our email applications.

Email changes the way we work

Cal Newport provided an example wherein the 1980's a company set up a server that would handle the number of analog transactions currently taking place. After only three days, the volume blew past the server capacity with five to six times more transactions than when using analog methods. Why? Because sending a quick message digitally was so simple. It was easier to send through the server rather than waiting for a face-to-face conversation. Also, they did not consider the unnecessary banter that goes along with many real-time conversations.

Email makes us miserable

Email can also make us unhappy and anxious. Especially when you are using it for active conversations. Your mind is trying to keep the conversation going, and you tend to keep going back to check for a reply.

You may continue to refresh your inbox if you rely on email to be notified of important updates or tasks you need to be aware of. We have a FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

Moving from email to a workflow tool to handle these important items can significantly help. For example, this is the whole premise of IT Ticketing systems. If someone needs help, it goes into the ticketing system, where it is assigned and prioritized. If you are working on the tickets, you simply look at the next ticket on the list and handle it. You're not trying to prioritize or send an acknowledgment. You know that has already been handled.

Hyperactive Hive Mind

"Hyperactive Hive Mind - A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services." (Cal Newport, A World Without Email)

Cal calls the type of workflow these tools produce the "hyperactive hive mind." This is when we center our workflow around ongoing conversations. We're constantly monitoring these inboxes to continue the conversation. We can no longer focus on our primary work, or our work becomes dependent on this constant communication.

The book provides several examples to help solve this problem. Primarily, we need to determine what processes are being handled in email and move those workflows into appropriate tools, such as a ticketing system or Kanban board. There is also the old fashion method of communication, talking to someone face-to-face (or over your preferred video communication tool).

The Attention Capital Principle

"The Attention Capital Principle - The productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify workflows that better optimize the human brain's ability to sustainably add value to information." (Cal Newport, A World Without Email)

When dealing with Knowledge Work, an individual should determine how they want to execute a task. However, the workflow process itself should be controlled by the team. Move the process into a Kanban board or other project/task management solution, schedule daily status meetings, create space for people to do their work without interruptions. Those are some examples of things we can do to focus on getting our real work done, rather than spending time managing distracting ping-pong communication.

We could apply the 30x rule explained by Rory Vaden here. If you're repeating something more than 30 times per year, it's probably worth the effort to automate the process.

The Specialization Principle

"The Specialization Principle - In the knowledge sector, working on fewer things, but doing each thing with more quality and accountability, can be the foundation for significantly more productivity." (Cal Newport, A World Without Email)

Work on fewer things and get better at those few things. Rather than being good at email and other tasks, be good at your core work, which provides value to you or your company.

The Protocol Principle

"The Protocol Principle - Designing rules that optimize when and how coordination occurs in the workplace is a pain in the short term but can result in significantly more productive operation in the long term." (Cal Newport, A World Without Email)

We often revert to the easiest path when we're busy and overwhelmed. If we were to create specific protocols to handle things, we spend more time upfront adhering to these protocols. However, we gain clarity and peace of mind in the long term knowing that everything is in its place and being handled. If there is simply too much coming in and we don't have time to stick to the rules we created, then perhaps more delegation is needed.

The Process Principle

"Introducing smart production processes to knowledge work can dramatically increase performance and make the work much less draining." (Cal Newport, A World Without Email)

We often get stuck in the routine of consuming and responding to email and other communications as they come at us. We need to take a step back and remember the purpose of these tools. They allow people to communicate with one another without being face-to-face. We tend to start using them as a replacement for face-to-face (or video-to-video) communication.

Email, Microsoft Teams (enter your communication tool of choice) is not the best solution for many things.

For example, if you need to schedule a meeting, instead of going back and forth, use an automatic scheduling service. If you're in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem, you can simply ask Cortana to schedule the meeting for you. Calendly is another service that provides similar features.

My Thoughts

Overall, this was a decent book. It is a vital topic, and hopefully, the book will likely hold up well over time. The content was well researched. Cal Newport is also known for similar material from his previous books, Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

If you are already familiar with Agile methodologies, and if you're a productivity nerd, you may not get any new ideas out of this book. The key message is to extract the processes from communication tools into more appropriate workflow management tools. Being someone who lives their workday in Azure DevOps (Trello on steroids), I'm very familiar with the processes described in the book.

With that said, I certainly still struggle to deal with the incoming communication. I try to handle it in a few different ways.

  • Keep my email client closed throughout the day. When I have a few minutes before a meeting or after finishing some long task, I'll open it and process whatever has come in. Then close it again. Turn off notifications!
  • Block Focus Time on my calendar. Microsoft My Analytics does this for me automatically. It will block up to four hours per day for `Focus Time.` During that time, Microsoft Teams automatically goes into `Do Not Disturb` mode.
  • Don't send or respond to email after work hours except for important updates about scheduled work that occurs after hours (deployments, patching status, etc.).
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