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Can we really banish email from the workplace? Author Cal Newport says yes

March 2, 2021, 5:01 AM UTC

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Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport may be better known as a writer than as a teacher. For the past several years, starting with his blog and subsequently in books and articles, he has focused on the concept of “deep work.” That’s work that requires focus to make connections and creatively solve problems, like writing a paper, coding software, or analyzing lab results. As Newport has noted, it can be hard to focus in a modern workplace filled with constant distractions like email, chats, and meetings.

In his latest book out on March 2, A World Without Email, Newport has a radical solution. And this is no spoof or satire. Newport seriously tries to make the case that doing away with many of our instant means of communications, or at least greatly limiting their use, should be a key strategy in improving productivity among knowledge workers.

His interest in helping people work smarter started in the late 1990s when Newport was a teenager and, like more than a few kids with an entrepreneurial spirit at the time, had launched a simple website business with a friend. That led to his reading a ton of classic business advice books including Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Jeff Fox’s How to Become CEO.

In college, the premise for his first book, How to Win at College, published in 2005 while he was still finishing school, was “to write [it] in the same format as Fox’s advice book,” Newport recalls. He spoke about what he learned as an early author and how he came up with his latest book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fortune: Your first couple of books were aimed at helping college students. Is it a big leap to helping businesspeople?

Newport: I just had this idea that someone should write advice for students as you would write business advice. No nonsense. You want to get good grades. We’ve studied people who have good grades. Here’s how they study. So here’s how you should study.

And it turns out, hey, not surprisingly, at the college level, there are huge amounts of inefficiencies. People are typically terrible at studying. There’s almost no thinking about habits or systems. And so there were massive gains to be had, even with just a little bit of systematic thinking about how should I take notes? How should I schedule my time?

Five years ago you published Deep Work, which is about how some tasks benefit from focused concentration. But you weren’t so radical yet in your suggested solutions. Why?

Right, so Deep Work was somewhat dismissive of those problems. It just said that, for various reasons, like email, we’re distracted. The book was really about how individuals can train their ability to focus and why they should make time to focus. I kind of just naively assumed that once you understood that focus was important, you or your organization would just make more time for that. I didn’t realize how entrenched the issues were: how entrenched the necessity to be constantly context shifting; to be constantly managing email; to be constantly managing Slack.

For the new book, you’ve studied the history of the introduction of email. What did you learn?

So in the 1980s, IBM decided to install an internal email server. They studied how much communication they were already doing to make sure that they had a big enough mainframe to actually handle all the communication. Their very reasonable guess was, we’re using voice mail, we’re using memos, and people are leaving notes. And email is an easier way to do all three. So if people are rational, they’ll just move that communication to email, because it’ll be easier.

So they did the study; they figured out how much of this stuff goes on. And they ended up getting, in the first week, with email, five to six times as much communication as predicted. Within just days, the presence of this tool, in an emergent fashion, significantly increased the amount of back and forth communication that people at IBM were doing. It’s way too fast for there to have been a directive—way too fast for a group to come in and decide how we’re going to use this.

Okay, so the solution—it’s right in the title—get rid of email. Sounds simple.

The first thing I say is, let’s replace email, which is a shorthand for the bigger issue—what I call the hyperactive hive mind workflow. Lots of teams, lots of organizations, by default, the way they collaborate is: “Let’s just work things out on the fly. We’ll just rock and roll on email. We’ll just rock and roll on Slack—unstructured, ad hoc, back and forth messaging, you can just figure things out.” When you use that as the primary means by which you collaborate on most work that happens in your organization, it simply doesn’t scale.

If I have three dozen different things going on, each of which has an ongoing, asynchronous, back and forth conversation, that’s a huge amount of messages being generated between these things. And I have to constantly be monitoring my channels.

What’s the harm in that?

All of that context switching back and forth significantly reduces cognitive capacity and makes it very difficult to produce value with your brain at anywhere near your capabilities. And then the second reason is it makes us miserable. We’re just not wired to have this constant fiddling, “can’t keep up with it” container full of messages from other human beings who we want to please. It’s just a recipe for touching our social neural networks in a way that’s going to make us anxious.

So you also found some success stories, like the small marketing firm that did away with email for internal communication. How did they do it?

They did a very simple switch, where they said, “Let’s have a Trello board [a virtual workplace in the Trello app] for every client.” And all the tasks related to that client showed up as cards; all the information relevant to that client project was attached. And you had one board for each client.

This seemed right, because now when it came time to work, you go to that client board. All you’re seeing is information about that client. You’re not in an inbox where you’re hearing about that client and other clients, and it’s all piling up. Everything you need is right there. You’re not searching through an inbox and having to have all this back and forth communication. Pick something to work on. You work on it, you update that card, you attach things to it, maybe move it to another column. Everyone else working on the project will automatically see that when you’re done working on that client, you’re done.

Microsoft has tried adding some related features to Outlook, where the app suggests time for deep work, for example. Is that helpful?

Well, they’re trying. There is a lot of excitement in the tech sector realizing how much value is on the table, and there is an increasing amount of investment in startups and increasing amount of focus at large companies to see if they can unlock some of this productivity using software tools.

There’s billions’ if not a trillion dollars’ worth of value over the next 50 years that may be on the table. More companies realize that if you can be a big player in that space, it will make a difference. Now, whether or not it’ll work, I think software could make a big difference. If what it is doing is somehow capturing or crystallizing alternatives to the hyperactive hive mind workflow, it’s probably going to be a win for productivity.

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