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A World Without Email

Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

By Cal Newport
15-minute read
Audio available
A World Without Email by Cal Newport

A World Without Email (2021) presents a bold reimagining of the workplace, one in which the days of email and instant messaging are a thing of the past. It argues that while email may seem like an integral part of modern knowledge work, it’s actually making everyone less productive and less focused, not to mention miserable. The solution will require a major paradigm shift –⁠ but it will be well worth the effort.

  • Business leaders who want to root out inefficiencies in their organizations
  • Employees frustrated with the workplace culture of constant communication
  • Freelancers and entrepreneurs looking to improve their workflow

Cal Newport is an associate computer-science professor at Georgetown University and the New York Times best-selling author of the books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, among others. He created and runs the popular blog Study Hacks and regularly contributes pieces on technology and culture for the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Wired.

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A World Without Email

Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

By Cal Newport
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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A World Without Email by Cal Newport
Synopsis

A World Without Email (2021) presents a bold reimagining of the workplace, one in which the days of email and instant messaging are a thing of the past. It argues that while email may seem like an integral part of modern knowledge work, it’s actually making everyone less productive and less focused, not to mention miserable. The solution will require a major paradigm shift –⁠ but it will be well worth the effort.

Key idea 1 of 9

Email leads to a hyperactive workflow, which⁠ impedes productivity.

When the author first interviewed Sean, the cofounder of a small technology firm, his company was in the midst of a productivity fiasco.

It began with an email fixation – practically every business activity was handled via the employees’ inboxes. Then, once the company adopted an instant-messaging tool called Slack, things got really crazy. Business clients were granted access to the service, which meant they could pop in and ask questions at any time. Soon, Sean was working until 1:00 a.m. every night because he could barely finish anything important during the day.

Sean’s company was deep in what the author calls the hyperactive hive mind workflow. It’s characterized by a constant, ongoing conversation within an organization, in which employees’ activities are determined by the messages in their inboxes.

The key message here is: Email leads to a hyperactive workflow, which⁠ impedes productivity.

The truth is, in workplaces today, the hyperactive hive mind workflow is pretty ubiquitous. That’s no surprise, as nothing fosters it like email. And it’s killing productivity. Why?

On average, modern knowledge workers check their email once every six minutes. In total, they spend over a third of their working hours in their inboxes –⁠ an absolutely incredible amount of time!

These numbers are already staggering, but the problem gets worse. In 2018, a software company called RescueTime monitored the computer habits of 50,000 active users. They ultimately concluded that, all told, the average knowledge worker gets just an hour and 15 minutes of undistracted productive work done per day.

Clearly, the constant focus on email is disastrous for productivity. But why is that the case? Well, because of the human brain –⁠ specifically, a region called the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for attention.

The prefrontal cortex is only capable of focusing on one thing at a time. Yet the hyperactive hive mind workflow encourages us to maintain multiple ongoing electronic conversations, all while completing the difficult aspects of our jobs, like coding computer programs or writing business strategies. 

Psychologically, this takes a toll: rapidly switching between tasks takes time and energy. So when we multitask, we end up taking longer to complete each activity than we would if we were executing each one in isolation.

Many people freely admit that email makes them less productive. But they also believe they don’t have a choice –⁠ that responsiveness is more important to their teams than optimized performance. That’s understandable but wrong.

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