4 ways to send & receive far fewer emails (review of Cal Newport’s A World Without Email)

A world without email seems like an impossible, beautiful dream.

But a world with far fewer emails?

That’s doable and Cal Newport knows the way. The Georgetown University computer science professor has spent five years studying how email affects us at work.

To no one’s surprise, it’s not a pretty picture. Research shows email makes us less productive and more miserable. On average, we’re checking our inboxes every six minutes. It’s tough to get important work done when we’re constantly distracted and interrupted. Email is not a job but sending and receiving messages are eating up whatever time we have left between Zoom meetings.  

“We know email is a better way to deliver messages that the technologies it superseded: it’s universal, it’s fast, it’s essentially free,” says Newport, author of A World Without Email. “At the same time, however, we’re fed up with our inboxes, which seem to be as much a source of stress and overwork as they are a productivity boon. These dual reactions – admiration and detestation – are confusing and leave many knowledge workers in a state of frustrated resignation.”

Here are four ways to tame our inboxes and free up time to actually do our jobs.

Limit emails to five sentences or less. Stick to short questions, answers and updates. If you want a conversation, pick up the phone, go on Zoom or walk down the hall. “Always keeping emails short is a simple rule but the effect can be profound,” says Newport. “Once you no longer think of email as a general purpose tool for talking about anything at any time its stranglehold on your attention will diminish.”

Create shared email accounts for departments and projects rather than individual accounts for people. “By eliminating this connection between email and people, you will, with one grand gesture, destabilize everyone’s expectations about how communication should unfold, making it much easier for you to rebuild these expectations from scratch with a protocol that makes more sense.”

To eliminate all those “just checking in to see where we’re at” emails, hold 15-minute scrums with your team. Meet daily or every other day and have everyone answer three questions. What did I get done since our last meeting? Have I run into any obstacles? What will I do before our next scrum?

“These short meetings can significantly reduce ad hoc email or instant message interaction throughout the day, as everyone synchronizes during the regular gathering,” says Newport. “It is surprising how much overwhelming, attention-fracturing back-and-forth interaction can be compressed into a frequent schedule of very short check-ins.”

And finally, borrow from emergency rooms and introduce a tracking board. Put the board up on a wall or get an online version. Write tasks on cards, including who’s responsible for getting the job done. Then stack the cards under three columns: to do, doing and done. Hold regular meetings to review and update your tracking board. Digital task boards will let you store messages directly on the cards, eliminating the need for email.

“If you’re one of the many millions exhausted by your inbox, hopeful that there must be a better way to do good work in a culture currently obsessed by constant connectivity, then it’s time to open your eyes.” Newport shows us a world where we can curb constant digital distractions and regain the cognitive bandwidth to do important work by putting some thought into how we communicate with each other. “I’ve come to believe it’s not only possible, but actually inevitable and my goal with this book is to provide a blueprint for the coming revolution.”

Sign me up.

This review first ran in the April 10 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as the communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Published by Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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