A World Without Email

by Cal Newport

Cover image

Publisher: Portfolio/Penguin
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 0-525-53657-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 264

Buy at Powell's Books

A World Without Email is the latest book by computer science professor and productivity writer Cal Newport. After a detour to comment on the drawbacks of social media in Digital Minimalism, Newport is back to writing about focus and concentration in the vein of Deep Work. This time, though, the topic is workplace structure and collaborative process rather than personal decisions.

This book is a bit hard for me to review because I spoiled myself for the contents by listening to a lot of Newport's podcast, where he covers the same material. I therefore didn't enjoy it as much as I otherwise would have because the ideas were familiar. I recommend the book over the podcast, though; it's tighter, more coherent, and more comprehensive.

The core contention of this book is that knowledge work (roughly, jobs where one spends significant time working on a computer processing information) has stumbled into a superficially tempting but inefficient and psychologically harmful structure that Newport calls the hyperactive hive mind. This way of organizing work is a local maxima: it feels productive, it's flexible and very easy to deploy, and most minor changes away from it make overall productivity worse. However, the incentive structure is all wrong. It prioritizes quick responses and coordination overhead over deep thinking and difficult accomplishments.

The characteristic property of the hyperactive hive mind is free-flowing, unstructured communication between co-workers. If you need something from someone else, you ask them for it and they send it to you. The "email" in the title is not intended literally; Slack and related instant messaging apps are even more deeply entrenched in the hyperactive hive mind than email is. The key property of this workflow is that most collaborative work is done by contacting other people directly via ad hoc, unstructured messages.

Newport's argument is that this workflow has multiple serious problems, not the least of which is that it makes us miserable. If you have read his previous work, you will correctly expect this to tie into his concept of deep work. Ad hoc, unstructured communication creates a constant barrage of unimportant small tasks and interrupts, most of which require several asynchronous exchanges before your brain can stop tracking the task. This creates constant context-shifting, loss of focus and competence, and background stress from ever-growing email inboxes, unread message notifications, and the semi-frantic feeling that you're forgetting something you need to do.

This is not an original observation, of course. Many authors have suggested individual ways to improve this workflow: rules about how often to check one's email, filtering approaches, task managers, and other personal systems. Newport's argument is that none of these individual approaches can address the problem due to social effects. It's all well and good to say that you should unplug from distractions and ignore requests while you concentrate, but everyone else's workflow assumes that their co-workers are responsive to ad hoc requests. Ignoring this social contract makes the job of everyone still stuck in the hyperactive hive mind harder. They won't appreciate that, and your brain will not be able to relax knowing that you're not meeting your colleagues' expectations.

In Newport's analysis, the necessary solution is a comprehensive redesign of how we do knowledge work, akin to the redesign of factory work that came with the assembly line. It's a collective problem that requires a collective solution. In other industries, organizing work for efficiency and quality is central to the job of management, but in knowledge work (for good historical reasons) employees are mostly left to organize their work on their own. That self-organization has produced a system that doesn't require centralized coordination or decisions and provides a lot of superficial flexibility, but which may be significantly inferior to a system designed for how people think and work.

Even if you find this convincing (and I think Newport makes a good case), there are reasons to be suspicious of corporations trying to make people more productive. The assembly line made manufacturing much more efficient, but it also increased the misery of workers so much that Henry Ford had to offer substantial raises to retain workers. As one of Newport's knowledge workers, I'm not enthused about that happening to my job.

Newport recognizes this and tries to address it by drawing a distinction between the workflow (how information moves between workers) and the work itself (how individual workers solve problems in their area of expertise). He argues that companies need to redesign the former, but should leave the latter to each worker. It's a nice idea, and it will probably work in industries like tech with substantial labor bargaining power. I'm more cynical about other industries.

The second half of the book is Newport's specific principles and recommendations for designing better workflows that don't rely on unstructured email. Some of this will be familiar (and underwhelming) to anyone who works in tech; Newport recommends ticket systems and thinks agile, scrum, and kanban are pointed in the right direction. But there are some other good ideas in here, such as embracing specialization.

Newport argues (with some evidence) that the drastic reduction in secretarial jobs, on the grounds that workers with computers can do the same work themselves, was a mistake. Even with new automation, this approach increased the range of tasks required in every other job. Not only was this a drain on the time of other workers, it caused more context switching, which made everyone less efficient and undermined work quality. He argues for reversing that trend: where the work cannot be automated, hire more support workers and more specialized workers in general, stop expecting everyone to be their own generalist admin, and empower support workers to create better systems rather than using the hyperactive hive mind model to answer requests.

There's more here, ranging from specifics of how to develop a structured process for a type of work to the importance of enabling sustained concentration on a task. It's a less immediately actionable book than Newport's previous writing, but I welcome the partial shift in focus to more systemic issues. Newport continues to be relentlessly apolitical, but here it feels less like he's eliding important analysis and more like he thinks the interests of workers and good employers are both served by the approach he's advocating.

I will warn that Newport leans heavily on evolutionary psychology in his argument that the hyperactive hive mind is bad for us. I think he has some good arguments about the anxiety that comes with not responding to requests from others, but I'm not sure intrusive experiments on spectacularly-unusual remnant hunter-gatherer groups, who are treated like experimental animals, are the best way of making that case. I realize this isn't Newport's research, but I think he could have made his point with more directly relevant experiments.

He also continues his obsession with the superiority of in-person conversation over written communication, and while he has a few good arguments, he has a tendency to turn them into sweeping generalizations that are directly contradicted by, well, my entire life. It would be nice if he were more willing to acknowledge that it's possible to express deep emotional nuance and complex social signaling in writing; it simply requires a level of practice and familiarity (and shared vocabulary) that's often missing from the workplace.

I was muttering a lot near the start of this book, but thankfully those sections are short, and I think the rest of his argument sits on a stronger foundation.

I hope Newport continues moving in the direction of more systemic analysis. If you enjoyed Deep Work, you will probably find A World Without Email interesting. If you're new to Newport, this is not a bad place to start, particularly if you have influence on how communication is organized in your workplace. Those who work in tech will find some bits of this less interesting, but Newport approaches the topic from a different angle than most agile books and covers a broader range of ideas.

Recommended if you like reading this sort of thing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-11-30

Last modified and spun 2021-12-26