Caught in a Web: A Review of A World Without Email

May 11, 2021
Title: A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload
Author: Cal Newport
Publisher: Portfolio
Publishing Date: March 2, 2021
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)

Do you ever feel like your email is running your life? That your job consists almost exclusively of responding to emails? That no matter what you do, you can’t stay on top of your inbox? 

Early in my teaching career, a mentor told me that he thought being a professor was much harder now than when he started, because he now spent several hours “doing email” each day. I have another colleague who is presently buried so deep in the email overwhelm that he rarely responds to email (the department strategy is now to email him every few days hoping that your message will be near the top of the inbox when he happens to look…needless to say, this perpetuates the problem, but is occasionally effective). You probably have your own stories like these, or maybe you feel like you are living one of them yourself.   

Hope against the tyranny of email is the theme of Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email. Listening to anecdotes like these and looking at data collected by tech companies, the first half of the book demonstrates how email “work” has increasingly overwhelmed value-creation work for most knowledge workers (those whose jobs are based on using information to create something more valuable). Newport believes that it doesn’t have to be this way, but change starts with first understanding how we got caught in this tangled web. To be clear, Newport is not an anti-technology Luddite; he’s a computer science professor who values his ability to be productive and solve hard problems, and in the tradition of Peter Drucker (who first coined the term knowledge work in 1959), he believes that solving hard problems requires focused time and space. 

Newport lays the groundwork for his argument in the introduction, where he presents the idea of “the hyperactive hive mind,” which he defines as “A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services”(xvii). This understanding of the haphazard way knowledge work unfolds is central to his overarching thesis. While this might strike some readers as hyperbole, Newport directly supports his claim with data showing the magnitude of the fractured attention problem, including aggregate data published by the software company RescueTime that shows users checking email/Slack/messaging an average of once every 6 minutes (xvi). Having thus given the problem a name, Newport spends the first section of the book exploring technological determinism and how email tends to lead to this unproductive state. He follows up with a second section proposing how individuals and organizations might begin to reject the hive mind and chart better courses towards productivity. 

The first three chapters take the reader through a partial but fairly extensive history of email and how it has shaped knowledge work since its widespread adoption in the early 1990s. With provocatively descriptive titles of “Email Reduces Productivity,” “Email Makes Us Miserable,” and “Email Has a Mind of its Own,” Newport (in his typical fashion) mixes history, philosophy, and current examples to make the point summarized in each chapter title. It is clear that Newport reads widely, and while the presentation of his arguments doesn’t have the philosophical rigor of some of the tech philosophers he references, he nevertheless presents a compelling and accessible argument for the causes of the problem, setting the stage for suggested alternatives in the second half of the book. 

The second half of the book is comprised of four chapters (approximately two-thirds of the book’s pages) discussing ways to change individual and corporate habits by focusing in turn on: assigning work (“The Attention Capital Principle”), creating processes for doing work (“The Process Principle”), communicating about work (“The Protocol Principle”), and focusing on doing work (“The Specialization Principle”). In all of these chapters, the main goal is to avoid the siren call of the hive mind in order to create more products of a higher quality. Each chapter has examples of individuals and businesses that have radically experimented with their practices and have no intention of returning to their old ways several years post “experiment.” 

There are two consistent themes running through the practices and case studies Newport presents. First, creating a non-email/slack/messenger way of managing tasks and obligations; and second, moving communication about work off of email as much as possible. He points to (among others) a tech startup with five hour work days (100), a marketing firm that runs all its internal communication via electronic task boards (105), and daily stand-up (i.e. <15 minutes) group status meetings (208) as exemplars of moving the communication and work planning burden off email. In many of these case studies, task boards come up over and over again. This is such a central feature to many of these practices that Newport devotes a largish section in “The Process Principle” chapter to explaining what they are and how to best use them. At the risk of oversimplifying to the point of absurdity, the basic idea is that you place tasks and information on cards and then organize those tasks in columns. The columns vary depending on the place, but Newport recommends starting simplepossibly using the Kanban columns to do, doing, done (160). Some people/places use physical cards taped to the wall, while others use a digital software like Flow or Trello.  

Personally, I’ve been experimenting with task boards for workflows since I heard Newport discuss them on a podcast about a year ago, and it has been extremely helpful. Most of my Trello boards start with a column for quick links so that I don’t have to spend time searching for frequently used information; then, the columns diverge depending on the project, but generally follow the ideas presented in the book. This saves me time and distraction when I’m ready to work on a project and has also been invaluable for team-teaching, where we (mostly) make cards and then discuss them at our regularly scheduled meetings instead of sending each other emails. One important thing to recognize is that changing workflows takes time. Newport alludes to this in the experimental nature of figuring out what works for your situation, but downplays the time that this can takeit’s only in the last three months that I’ve really gotten it to start working effectively (admittedly, though, if I had read this book at the start of that experiment, it probably wouldn’t have taken so long!). So if you’re going to adopt these practices, be ready to tinker a little bit and give yourself time to figure out what works best for you. 

Reshaping your workflows as suggested in A World Without Email is a disruptive action with the goal of creating something better at the end, not unlike Henry Ford and the factory innovations that lead to the efficient production of the Model T (an analogy which Newport explores extensively at the beginning of Chapter 4). These modifications will likely change the way you work, which in turn may change the way you interact with others. Newport addresses this several times, noting that as an individual you should not “require the people you work with to learn about your new systems or change the way they interact with you” (131). Furthermore, if you are a company leader seeking to shift your company work culture in this direction, getting buy-in from your employees is critical to implementing successful change. Newport spends several pages discussing the importance of this in the context of a psychology theory called locus of control, noting that “motivation is closely connected to whether people feel like they have control over their ultimate success in an endeavor” (125). 

This side-effect of changes affecting others is perhaps the most troubling one, particularly as it relates to work roles. In the Specialization Principle chapter (chapter 7), Newport makes a compelling argument that doing less actually results in getting more done. The important detail here is that he is advocating that knowledge workers specialize, focusing on a few jobs that create value while off-loading all the trivial, non-value creation work to non-specialist support roles. While this sounds good in theory, and does in all likelihood get more done for that individual, it conjures the stereotypical images of doctors, university professors, and engineers who think everyone else is less worthy and less valuable than them. This is (or should be) a problem for anyone who believes that all people bear the imago dei and thus are inherently valuable. Furthermore, in our current world, where the knowledge work jobs are still largely dominated by white males, and support roles are mostly filled by white females, Newport does not satisfactorily address the potential ways that these ideas perpetuate inequality in our society. It is true that this is not necessarily the end result of these choices, and Newport does spend a few pages addressing this, but given the previous technological determinism arguments regarding email, this potential outcome of his suggestions feels like it needs more unpacking.  

Overall, while not a deep philosophical tome, Newport’s book provides a compelling case and actionable ideas for solutions. If you feel like your email is running your life, or  even if you simply desire less email distraction within your work environment, Newport’s book provides a great place to start breaking the cycle. 


About the Author
  • Kayt Frisch is a wife and mother who serves an Associate Professor of Engineering at George Fox University. When not teaching in the classroom she can be found building relationships over good food, good coffee and board games, or hiking with her family.

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