We’re Doing Email All Wrong

We’re Doing Email All Wrong


Email was once a fast, flexible solution to communication issues. Fast forward a couple of decades and today it is a defining work problem of our age. SLMan picked up the phone and spoke to Georgetown professor and bestselling author Cal Newport to find out how it’s making us unproductive and miserable, and what we can do about it…

Was there a lightbulb moment, Cal, when you realised email was killing us all professionally?
Five years ago I wrote a book about how unbroken focus was really valuable in a lot of different fields of work and we were underestimating it. The question that came out of that was, why do we find it so hard to focus? I assumed email was just a tool and that if people were having a hard time because of it they were probably just using it wrong. But as I started to dig around this question, I realised there was something much more shocking going on. Email is a catastrophe.

Email is making us miserable and completely suppressing our productivity. When it first emerged in the 90s, it was a great solution to our communication problems – it was much better than fax machines, voice mails and interoffice memos. But it was so good, it spread exponentially and, as it’s grown, it’s had an unintentional side effect. It’s changed the way organisations work, pushing them towards what I call the ‘hyperactive hive mind’. Essentially, email’s so easy, we rely on it too much – the average worker’s sending 126 emails a day and some people are checking their inboxes 400 times a day.

Should we be dusting down our fax machines then?
No. Fax machines are still rubbish. The trap isn’t email itself; it’s that hyperactive hive mind. Email is a great tool for things like sending invoices. It becomes problematic when we feel we have to check it all of the time. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of this on our clarity, mental energy and happiness.

What’s so bad about the hive mind way of working?
There are two threads to its terribleness. First, it messes with our brains by forcing us into ‘context shifts’, which are productivity poison. If I’m working on an article and I check my inbox, I’m probably going to see an email about something completely different. That email has probably come from a person, so it’ll capture my attention simply because we’re wired to prioritise interactions with other people. This sets off a complicated biochemical dance that shifts my brain from one neural context to another. There’s effort involved in that shift so, if we’re doing it hundreds of times a day, you can understand why we’re feeling fatigued by lunchtime. The more we’re fatigued, the more we lose our ability to think. But, because unscheduled back and forth over email is how we collaborate now, we have to keep checking our inbox.

Second, having a pile of messages in that inbox that we can’t keep up with clashes with our social circuitry in such a way that we feel really bad. So that’s unproductivity, fatigue and misery – no wonder the way we work is making us a little tense.

And right now, the problem’s getting worse?
Yes. You can see this in the numbers – how often we check our inbox, the number of emails we send and receive, et cetera. You can also see it in the tool landscape. Slack, for example, is a way of saying, okay, hyperactive hive minds are the way we're going to collaborate, so let's build a better tool for that. Slack is indeed a better tool than email for implementing the hyperactive hive mind thanks to searchable group chats and other features, but we have a love-hate relationship with Slack: it’s a smoother tool for collaborating, but we don’t like the fundamental way we’re collaborating because we can’t think straight and we’re anxious all the time. As tools like that rise, things are getting worse, and the pandemic hasn’t helped either. Remote working has led to more messaging, more unscheduled meetings and I think it’s pushed us closer to breaking point.

"Essentially, email’s so easy, we rely on it too much – the average worker’s sending 126 emails a day and some people are checking their inboxes 400 times a day."

Why are we getting all of this so wrong?
First of all, it takes time to get things right. We only entered our modern world of highly networked knowledge work in about 2000. On the scale of previous intersections of commerce and technology, 20 years isn’t very long.

Another stronger factor is that we have a fierce fidelity to autonomy. Peter Drucker, the management consultant who coined the term ‘knowledge work’ and showed how it was different to industrial work, was very big on the idea that knowledge workers have to be left alone to figure out how to do their own work. Managers should give objectives to knowledge workers then get out of the way so they can do this more creative, skilled work. His influence means today there’s still a hesitancy among managers to think about how their team should organise their work. I think Drucker was right that knowledge workers should be left alone to execute their work, but I believe he was wrong to think the way we organise that work should be left up to the individual – because that’s how we’ve ended up in this suboptimal quagmire where we just keep doing the easiest, most flexible thing even though it’s bad for us.

But we have at least noticed the problem now?
It’s still emerging, but there is a trend for actually caring about how our brain operates and thinking about how we can work in order to make the best of that brain and not burn out. We’re not computer processors who can churn through multiple series of commands in different contexts. It’s much more costly for our brains to switch from one thing to another.

High finance is an interesting example here. Hedge fund managers can really monetise whether their attention is wandering: if someone’s not at peak cognitive capacity, that could be a $100m hit somewhere. It’s not been widely reported but among elite hedge fund managers there’s already a cult appreciation for a certain really simple dumb phone. No email, no social media – I think it’s actually manufactured for older people who need something basic. But hedge funds know what focus costs, so they’re really focused on focus. They’ve got to make decisions in high-stakes situations, so they don’t want distractions.

What can we do about the issue?
It depends on the sector you’re in but, right across the knowledge economy, collaboration processes are going to be reengineered to reduce unscheduled back and forth. This is a problem that can’t be solved in an inbox or with a new tool; it requires teams and organisations to rethink underlying processes.

Currently a lot of companies default to the hive mind way of collaborating because it’s fast and flexible, but the productivity poison is in having to constantly monitor and service all of the conversations the hive mind entails. These companies need to look, process by process, for an alternative to the hive mind that deflates the inbox pressure and allows us to be more productive.

If there’s the incentive for businesses of increased productivity, this could all change quite quickly?
I think things will be quite different in five years. Everybody hates the way we work at the moment – from the top down, everybody feels the pressure. And there’s a lot of productivity being left on the table, so more and more investors are asking about solutions. Silicon Valley is often in the vanguard when it comes to this sort of thing and we’re already seeing tech make these changes.

"It’s still emerging, but there is a trend for actually caring about how our brain operates and thinking about how we can work in order to make the best of that brain and not burn out."

What do the changes look like?
Software developers are using what they call agile project management methodologies to move away from the hive mind. They have a shared board that shows all the tasks that need to be done for a particular product. They have standing status meetings: everyone’s standing up so the meetings are quicker; there’s a brief agenda of who’s working on what today and what do they need to do that work today. Typically there’s a limit on anyone working on more than one thing at a time. Once the meeting’s done, they sprint – they just go and execute. For any incoming information, they have dedicated people dealing with it, so it stays off everyone else’s plates. This is a workflow that doesn’t require all of the ad hoc back and forth we see elsewhere at the moment.

I think we’re going to see a lot more sectors developing their own equivalent of this. Email inboxes will look like old physical mail boxes – they’ll be something you check once a day and they’ll contain only things like tax forms from HR. There will be very little interaction or collaboration happening in them and, as a result, people’s days will look a lot more sequential and intentional. There will be a cognitive focus that makes everyone a lot happier.

Can you give us an example of someone who’s achieved this?
There’s a UX design company in London. It was a fully hyperactive hive mind business and a few years ago its CEO Sean realised it was spiralling out of control – two of its top engineers had quit because of all the back and forth. Sean himself was getting tremors and twitches every time he heard a Slack notification, so he decided to basically get rid of email and Slack – and if they went out of business, they went out of business.

They still used email for private correspondence, sending files and stuff like, but everything else was switched to a much more structured workflow. Client information was stored in Basecamp and they had special tools for scheduling and interacting with clients. They told every client they’d speak to them on one weekly call. Everything they committed to do for them would be documented and sent to the client, but they’d only talk to them on that one call. Internally, they had highly structured, twice-a-day meetings. They’d meet in the morning, go work for four hours (using Basecamp again), then meet in the afternoon to keep everyone on the same page.

It worked well and everyone was so much happier. I caught up with Sean on the phone and asked him to walk me through his email inbox. There was no discussion, no interaction, not even many messages – an invoice, a file or two. He said he sometimes forgot to check it for a couple of days and it was no big deal.

How did he get over that fear of missing something important?
Having an escape valve really helps with that. The phone is a good escape valve. It’s there if, say, a client has something that really can’t wait, but there’s enough friction in the process that you’re not going to be checking your voice messages hundreds of times a day and a client is only going to call if it’s a real emergency.

You’ve convinced us, Cal. Where do we start with making those changes?
Find the right scale. If the CEO of a large company is trying to dictate new processes to 100,000 employees, they’re going to fall into bureaucracy because the scope is too big. You need the nimbleness, flexibility and buy-in of a team to decide for themselves how to reduce back and forth. In the book, I document teams that have done this without cutting themselves off from other teams.

If teams are the right scale, the right place to start is with individuals. If you tweak what you can on your own, without controlling anyone else, you can break the seal. You will also buy yourself some breathing room, so the team can come together and start figuring out new processes to reduce back and forth at that level.



Analyse Your Inbox

Your existing inbox can help you figure out the processes you’re involved in. On a typical day, as you answer emails, ask yourself what the underlying process is (e.g. answering client questions). This is a great way to figure out what you work with other people to do on a regular basis. Then you can ask, where’s the low hanging fruit?


Use A Meeting Scheduler

It’s so easy to email people and say, Hey when do you want to meet? But that can lead to so much back and forth as everyone tries to find a time you can all make. A meeting scheduler like X.AI or Calendly lets you organise meetings with one click.


Automate Your Processes

If you have repeated processes that involve the same steps every time, find a way to do them without unscheduled messages. For example, use shared spreadsheets for status updates on a process.


Focus On The Real Problem

Remember: unscheduled messaging is productivity poison. To achieve a mindset shift and minimise unscheduled messaging, don’t think about how difficult, inconvenient or inflexible an alternative process might be. Downgrade all of those concerns – reducing unscheduled messaging needs to be your obsession.


A World Without Email by Cal Newport is available to buy here.

Check out his Deep Questions podcast here.

DISCLAIMER: We endeavour to always credit the correct original source of every image we use. If you think a credit may be incorrect, please contact us at [email protected].