Dollars & Sense: A world without email
Cal Newport hooked me with the title A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. If that concept seemed dreamy a year ago, it now feels like those of us lucky enough to be working from home are yearning for the salvation that Newport is suggesting.
I first encountered Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and author, when I read Deep Work, a treatise on how we can focus without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks. The advice proffered in that book was invaluable to me and changed the way that I address writing articles like this one. I begin by blocking out the time of day for my deep work, then I turn off all notifications, and like magic, I grind out the work that is required.
Newport followed up Deep Work with Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, which encouraged me to identify aspects of my digital world that impeded my professional progress and endeavors—and more importantly, caused me great unhappiness. After I interviewed Newport for my podcast, I immediately deleted all social media apps from my phone and created a system where I stopped obsessively checking the platforms. The result was magical: I didn’t miss any of them—and I most certainly did not miss the nastiness that seemed to be growing on them.
In the new book, Newport is tackling the most pernicious aspect of the early digital age—email. “Email is a productivity gut punch,” he told me in our most recent interview. As he explained, when we bounce between doing our real work and checking our email/Slack/instant messenger/texts, we create—and are imprisoned by fragmented workdays.
I am old enough to remember when you could get away with checking email once a day and be just fine. Twenty-five years after email went mainstream, we have become slaves to the so-called “productivity miracle.” Newport highlights behavioral data that revealed half of workers are “checking communication applications like email and Slack every six minutes or less” and more than a third check their inboxes “every three minutes or less.” Yowza!
That kind of attention switching between tasks is not how human brains are wired to function. In fact, as we move from working on a presentation, to checking email, to texting, to going back to the presentation, our cognitive performance slumps. And yet, because many organizations require that we do check, we continue the dance. Sadly, when we try to avoid the constant checking, we experience “the psychology of an inbox that fills up faster than we can empty it.” I have felt this firsthand. When I allow my inbox to pile up with unread messages, I feel messy and out of control. To combat the feeling, I am drawn to checking and trashing messages far too often than I would like to admit.
The solutions that Newport offers are not easy, especially if you are not part of a larger management effort to stop the email reliance and the madness and anxiety that the reliance brings. Start your journey by thinking about how you work and what processes might be more efficient than the blunt, but easy, email. Go back in time and think about the old task board, which helped thousands of teams work toward a unified goal and broke down the work in one, easy to view location. The bad news is that the conference room where those white boards lived are not in use right now. The good news is that there are virtual versions (Asana, Basecamp, ClickUp, and Trello) that are accessible by workers all over the globe. Oh, and buy Newport’s book.
Jill Schlesinger, CFP, is a CBS News business analyst. A former options trader and CIO of an investment advisory firm, she welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.