Book Review: A World Without Email

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

Those old enough to remember the early days of email may recall when the work days didn’t revolve around reacting to a back and forth volley of online messages. The original intention of email was to send written memos that expedited communication. Instead, email has morphed into something more pervasive which creates stress and deters us from creating our best. Today, emails, instant messaging, texting, and social media dominate and complicate our work.

This negative impact of email is the focus of the recently-released book “A World Without Email” by computer science professor and author Cal Newport. This new book builds on concepts introduced by Newport in his 2015 book “Deep Work,” which was a breakthrough for many distracted workers. One of his solutions at that time was to take significant blocks of time and set them aside away from interruptions, including online emails and social media.

In “A World Without Email,” Newport digs in deeper to his earlier principles, this time with additional evidence and what he believes are viable solutions. Newport describes how the onslaught of email conversation and interruptions create what he terms a “hyperactive hive mind.” A workday full of email and messaging takes our attention away from what we should be doing. This constant shifting from task to distraction builds, over time, a residual effect in our brains, preventing us from significant work.  Newport points out that the hyperactive hive mind is the key difference between those who are just busy and those who accomplish things.

The solution is more than making a clean break from the online distractions. A large portion of the book reveals actual workplaces that have solved this conundrum. Workgroups within these organizations dig in to tasks with team-oriented software and task boards directed toward moving projects quickly along a desired timeline. These examples tend to be smaller, project-based organizations where communication to those outside of that team or group can be minimized. In smaller organizations where employees wear multiple hats and converse regularly with outside parties, email and messaging likely garners more attention than what Newport prescribes.

Is this the future? Is Newport really onto something? Is there a middle ground? What parts of the book’s best practices can someone in a non-management position implement?  While “A World Without Email” raises some logistical questions, Newport does a credible job demonstrating the companies that have successfully adopted the no email credo in a variety of situations.

While email cannot be completely eliminated for most of us, recognizing when communication is careening away into useless chit-chat is the first step. Responding in ways that reduce unscheduled and unnecessary messaging helps co-workers understand (over time) that you’re not someone who instantly reacts to email and instant messages. Carving out blocks of uninterrupted time where we routinely get good work done is a carry-over from Newport’s earlier work, and also a key part of this book.

I felt tested eliminating the communication clutter of emailing and texting that is essential to my work. Fortunately, the book offers up plenty of ideas that I’ve already adapted for my situation and strategies that can also work in other work settings. One overall message is simply changing to a mindset that trades “accountability: showing up and performing reactive, easy, brain-dead work” for autonomy: “intentional, difficult, focused, creative work.”

Adhering to Newport’s best practices was challenging in the short period of time that I tested them out. I’m convinced, though – as we move forward with an ever-increasing level of information pouring down on us in our lives – that a less-is-more mindset will become the norm rather than the exception. Newport is calling for sweeping ways in how we handle organizational workflow. If we’re fortunate, more people forming workforce policy will read “A World Without Email” and his ideas will become standard practices.

Chris Wendel is a Business Advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org

 

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