A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload
I am a huge Cal Newport fan. I’ve read most of his books, and his podcast makes a regular appearance in my rotation. I really started getting into his concepts presented in the book hear about a year or so ago – a combination of listening to his podcast as well as going through MGT525: IT Project Management and Effective Communication. Along with those external influences, I was also struggling with trying to wrangle a mess of many different client projects for work, and was looking for a way to help make sense out of the mayhem.
This was a 5/5 book for me. A few of my favorite quotes listed out below.
While the ability to rapidly communicate using digital messages is useful, the frequent disruptions created by this behavior also make it hard to focus, which has a bigger impact on our ability to produce valuable output than we may have realized.
The constant IMs and emails and messages makes it seem like we’re getting more “stuff” done – but is that the right stuff?
To help understand the true scarcity of uninterrupted time, the RescueTime data scientists also calculated the longest interval that each user worked with no inbox checks or instant messaging. For half the users studied, this longest uninterrupted interval was no more than forty minutes, with the most common length clocking in at a meager twenty minutes. More than two thirds of the users never experienced an hour or more of uninterrupted time during the period studied.
Think of your day – you’re likely just as bad. I’ve been trying to schedule in interruption-free windows where all notifications are blocked.
how Marshall organized the War Department and led it to victory. The key point that jumps out as you read these notes is that even though Marshall managed more people, had a larger budget, and faced more complexity, more urgency, and higher stakes than just about any manager in the history of management, he rejected the attraction of an always-on, hyperactive hive mind approach to his work.
“[The War Department] is filled with able men who analyze the problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.”
If it can be done at a scale like this, there is no reason why it can’t work for you.
Tools like email almost completely eliminate the effort required—in terms of both time and social capital—to ask a question or delegate a task.
If slightly increasing friction drastically reduces the requests made on your time and attention, then most of these requests are not vital to your organization’s operation in the first place; they are instead a side effect of the artificially low resistance created by digital communication tools.
The “hyperactive-hivemind” approach makes it far too easy for people to outsource their work and cognitive load to you. An email takes mere minutes to send to you, regardless of the value within. If they can simply ping-pong the topic back to your inbox and out of theirs, they will. Where there is a formal structure and there is some effort involved, the quality of the communications will increase.
I’ll adapt this principle to workplace communication, arguing that by spending more time in advance setting up the rules by which we coordinate in the office (what I’ll call protocols), we can reduce the effort required to accomplish this coordination in the moment—allowing work to unfold much more efficiently.
There is no “one-size fits all” approach to this, but this is something that you need to spend time on. Spend time with your team talking through how this communication could be run to allow each member to be maximally effective. Include any “what-ifs” and think through how those might be handled. Nothing here is so rigid that one-off issues can’t be addressed outside of this structure, but spending the time to think through potential issues ahead of time will avoid many of these.
I’ve found a major benefit by providing very clear expectations up front, including timelines and responsibilities for all involved. Getting buy-in early on both timelines and SOPs makes it easier to stick to when the going gets tough.
When facing stark numbers, it becomes difficult to justify overload—why bother hiring a hotshot if the bulk of their time is spent doing administrative work? When these numbers are obfuscated, it’s much easier to just shrug about the reality that we’re all busy.
This final quote really drives home the point in my line of work. In consulting, hourly rates make a big difference in both client work and how projects are addressed internally. Why is it seen as “normal” that these high-price individuals are spending significant amounts of time on work that someone with a much lower hourly rate can be doing just as well? What about building a structure to automate or even remove the need for so many tasks?