Sam Radford

April 1, 2021

Book Notes: “A World Without Email” by Cal Newport

As soon as I heard Cal Newport had a new book coming out tackling digital messaging, I was sold. 

I’ve read two of Newport’s previous books – Deep Work and Digital Minimalism – and found them both stimulating and challenging.

Do I agree with everything he says or suggests? No. But I appreciate his prodding me to think hard about life and work and the role of technology within both.

The first three chapters of A World Without Email make the case against email. Or, rather, outline the problems email has introduced to how we work. It’s not a difficult case to make. 

His main argument is that we will do better work if we are not having to check email (or Slack, Teams, etc) every few minutes. It’s not simply that constant communication gets in the way of the work we need to do; it has, he writes, ‘become totally intertwined in how this work gets done’. 

So, inadvertently, email has led to a whole new way of working. He calls it ‘the hyperactive hive mind’, which he defines as this: 

A workflow centred around ongoing conversation fuelled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communications tools like email and instant messenger.

The problem with this workflow, Newport says, is that our brains are not designed to work this way. This constant state of communication requires us to keep switching our attention. But, ‘our brains were never designed to maintain parallel tracks of attention.’

As a result, the way we’ve ended up using email and instant messaging tools has made us less productive.

It’s not only that though, it’s also made us pretty miserable! Our stress levels go up when we have to deal with email. Not just when we’re at work either. We’ve all had that sinking feeling, on holiday, worrying about the emails we’ll have to deal with when we return. It’s always on our minds. A burden.

Email very often creates more work. It’s so easy to ask each other questions or delegate tasks that we do it more and more. The lack of friction with email means it’s effortless to fire off a one-liner that takes seconds for me, but could be hours of work for the person I’ve sent it to. And we’re all doing this to each other. All the time. 

The arrival of email was a good thing, solving a real problem. But, as is the case with the introduction of any new technology, the tool changed our behaviours. It started out saving someone having to physically carry a note from my desk to the person in accounts on the third floor. Before long, because it was so easy, we were sending more notes, via email, to more people. And when we received these notes, we all started replying to them faster and faster. And expecting others to do the same with ours. A trickle soon turned into a flood.

And before anyone had time to think about things, we were all bought into this new way of working. 

So, what’s the solution then? Can we do anything about this way of working that’s taken over?

Newport definitely thinks so. And the rest of the book explores various ideas around this. Though it’s fair to say I found this second section less compelling than the first.

He makes the case for a revolution around email similar in scale to when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to the car making process. For years companies had been getting a little bit faster at building cars. But Ford took a step back, rethought the whole approach, and changed the car industry forever. 

With email, we’ve been at the getting-a-little-bit-faster stage. Think Slack or Teams. These tools don’t actually solve the problem. They enable us to work more efficiently with the same flawed approach to work.

Newport says we need workflows that, ‘better optimise the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information’. And those workflows need to cut out mid-task context switches and communication overload. If the optimal way to deploy the human brain is sequentially, we must design workflows that maximise opportunities to work that way.

Newport offers a task management tool called Trello as something to consider. It helps organise workflows based on project boards that encourage single-tasking. Any conversation around the work happens in Trello, not via email. 

Regardless of tool, Newport says, ‘a good production process should minimise both ambiguity about what’s going on, and the amount of unscheduled communication required to accomplish the work’. And centering how we work around specific projects – that we can focus on one at a time – is one way to do this.  

There’s plenty more I could say about the second section of A World Without Email. For example, he goes on to explore protocols around how we work: from scheduling meetings, to how and when to ask colleagues questions. He proposes more specialisation (doing fewer things, better) as another route to greater productivity. There’s a lot to ponder; far more than I can cover here.

Overall, I have more than enough to chew over for many weeks and months to come! In some respects, I wanted more from the book. Perhaps I was wanting things all laid out on a plate. But it is going to need me to do the work of thinking about my work. And, inevitably, that’s going to run into conversations with colleagues too. It’s definitely a book to read with others. And a book that would benefit us all to read.

Has anyone else read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Or if this has triggered any questions, let me know. I'd love to hear from you – just hit reply or drop me a note. I read all your messages, and always try to respond. 

–Sam