Bestseller and computer science professor Cal Newport thinks email is bad for you and your productivity.
Knowledge workers can sift through as many as 126 emails per day and this deluge impairs their ability to do their jobs, argues computer science professor Cal Newport. His thesis is that email not only makes people less productive, it makes them miserable. Drawing from neuroscience studies, evolutionary psychology and real-world case studies, Newport urges a conscious shift from the “hyperactive hive mind” to a more sustainable, minimalist mind-set.
The incessant flow of emails to and from knowledge workers’ inboxes reduces productivity while forcing their brains to process irrelevant information. Email complicates conversations by involving too many people and inundating workers with redundant messages.
Why is it so hard to do our work? Because our brains were never designed to maintain parallel tracks of attention.Cal Newport
Newport insists that knowledge workers – scientists, writers and programmers – who require deep focus – end up switching focus frequently between digital messages and their tasks, resulting in workday fragmentation and ineffective, nonstop multitasking. The prefrontal cortex can only focus on one task at a time and switching frequently – network switching – reduces performance.
Encourage managers to prioritize thoughtfulness over email responsiveness. Managers respond to the disruptive presence of email by focusing primarily on tactical, or short-term behaviors, while neglecting broader, goal-oriented behaviors.
People should stop treating those in administrative support as machines by assuming it’s their job to constantly respond to messages. Newport notes that administrative work makes cognitive demands too, and administrative workers suffer the same mental fragmentation as distracted knowledge workers.
The core message of Newport’s screed is that email makes people quantifiable unhappy and unhealthy. People who constantly connect to communication and information technologies experienced suboptimal health levels. People’s happiness levels rise, and they feel greater excitement starting their workdays, when they know they can disconnect from email at regular intervals.
As long as we remain committed to a workflow based on constant, ad hoc messaging, our Paleolithic brain will remain in a state of low-grade anxiety.Cal Newport
Email triggers extreme anxiety and is ineffective. For example, people often cannot interpret ambiguity, sarcasm or humor over email or cannot understand another person’s perspective. Managers must design more intelligent workflows that reduce dependence on email.
Hyperactive Hive Mind
People expect instant responses to email due to the human desire to solve problems quickly in small groups, much as Paleolithic hunters did while chasing an elephant together. Humans create behavioral norms without explicitly intending to: If someone responds promptly to an email, others do too, until the group embraces a frenzy of nonstop messaging.
Email exists because people desire an effective form of asynchronous communication – communication in which the receiver and sender needn’t engage simultaneously.
A problem that might have been solvable in a few minutes of real-time interaction in a meeting room or on the phone might now generate dozens of messages, and even then might still fail to converge on a satisfactory conclusion.Cal Newport
Newport cites business theorist Peter Drucker coining the term “knowledge work” to describe an emerging economy in which mental output had greater value than factory output. Drucker challenged Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theory that workers required centralized control, arguing for autonomy.
But this autonomy should never focus on how knowledge workers choose to work. For example, never micromanage a copywriter as he or she generates ideas. Knowledge workers often constantly check email, so organizations should guide them in adopting more effective systems that nurture their focus.
At the moment, most organizations remain stuck in the productivity quicksand of the hyperactive hive mind workflow, content to focus on tweaks meant to compensate for its worst excesses.Cal Newport
New workflows should minimize switching between tasks with different contexts, and reduce feelings of overload.
Conserve Cognitive Energy
Newport urges you to follow “The Process Principle”: Embrace well-designed production processes to boost worker performance while reducing unnecessary demands on their energy and focus. Clear, effective processes liberate teams from the hive mind, improving their sense of mental peace and boosting cognitive energy levels.
Just because you produce things with your brain instead of your hands doesn’t change the fundamental reality that these efforts must still be coordinated.Cal Newport
Divide workflow processes into clearly-defined sequential phases, specifying the action steps that must occur, and who will perform them. Use a notification or signal system to monitor outputs and alert people when it’s their time to take over the next stage of work. Create clear channels to deliver relevant information and resources – for example, shared directories or files – from the previous work phase to the next.
Reduce your cognitive burdens by creating new rules while remaining mindful of their potential costs.
The Luddites in this current moment are those who nostalgically cling to the hyperactive hive mind, claiming that there’s no need to keep striving to improve how we work in an increasingly high-tech world.Cal Newport
To this end, Newport believes you should use automated meeting-scheduling tools, rather than scheduling meetings manually. Eliminate employees’ individual email addresses and replace them with dedicated office hours during which they can communicate on platforms such as Slack. With clients, set up pre-scheduled calls so they don’t expect instant responses to their queries. Hold short, more frequent status meetings to eliminate longer, more burdensome meetings and unnecessary emails. Ensure your emails don’t exceed a certain length or duration of time to draft.
Reduce the number of tasks you take on to improve your accountability, quality and productivity. Embrace a minimalist mind-set and reduce time spent on activities that detract from your focus.
Newport joins – well, leads – the burgeoning anti-email consensus. Given his earlier, best-selling books on excelling in the digital age, Newport’s advice – which at times turns into rants – carries credibility and has found a wide audience. His implicit argument is that today’s work has obsoleted email, which maintains its dominance because you and everyone else are addicted to its short-term anxiety and satisfaction. Newport’s tone does not vary; he’s a scold, which can get tiresome. But he does offer legitimate, workable solutions.
Cal Newport also wrote the bestsellers Digital Minimalism; Deep Work; and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Other books that address reducing email use include Unsubscribe by Jocelyn K. Glei; Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott; and Email Less Talk More by Martin Rola.