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“We know email is a better way to deliver messages that the technologies it superseded: it’s universal, it’s fast, it’s essentially free,” says Newport, author of A World Without Email.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.

Review: Six ideas worth considering for your career, company and community in 2017

This review first ran in the Jan. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Here are six ideas worth considering in the new year, pulled from some my favourite business book reviews in 2016.

deep workTake an unannounced social media sabbatical.  You won’t miss much. And we really won’t miss your daily musings, deep thoughts, witty observations and running social commentary. Once free of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, you’ll suddenly have more time to focus on what’s actually important. “A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement,” says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World. “It is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.  Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. To succeed, you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing – a task that requires depth.”

hug-your-hatersWhile taking a break from oversharing on social media, start paying attention to what’s being said online about your business. Customer service is now a spectator sport thanks to review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and TripAdvisor. We’re watching to see how you respond to complaints posted online. And we’re blown away when a company responds to our complaints and goes above and beyond what we expected. “In today’s world, meaningful differences between businesses are rarely rooted in price or product, but instead in customer experience,” says Jay Baer, author of Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. “Hugging your haters gives you the chance to turn lemons into lemonade, morph bad news into good and keep the customers you already have. So few companies hug their haters that those that make the commitment are almost automatically differentiated and noteworthy when compared to their competitors.”

snowblowersIf you’re in a leadership role, try talking less amongst yourselves behind closed doors and start listening more to your frontline staff. They likely know the solutions to whatever problems you’re wrestling with and other issues that aren’t even on your radar yet. They have a very clear sense of what’s working, what’s not and how things could work even better. “The answer to unleashing the power of your team – and to delighting your customers – lies outside the conference room,” says Steven Goldstein, author of Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami? Transform Your Business Using The Five Principles of Engagement. “It is astounding how much valuable information can be obtained by simply talking to the people who really know the everyday inner workings of the company.”

no fearStart encouraging your children to follow their passion even if it doesn’t lead into law or medicine. And never tell your kids to quit dreaming, get practical and settle for a real career that they may eventually learn to like. Even telling your kids to have a plan B in case their big dreams doen’t pan out is not helpful advice.“Since we are protective of our children, why would we send them on a blood-sucking and soul-destroying path?” asks Larry Smith, a University of Waterloo professor and author of No Fears, No Excuses.  “The grown-up world is where talent goes to die. The rules are clear: do what you are told and you get paid; work to live on the weekend and dread Monday; look forward to retirement and hope you do not end up dreading that as well; expect that pleasure or satisfaction in the work is an uncommon bonus.”

work rulesTake a good chunk of your training budget and spend it instead on recruitment. Run your own in-house search firm, give bonuses to employees who make successful referrals and pay a premium for top talent. When you hire the right people, you don’t need to invest as much in soft skill training and development. “The presence of a huge training budget is not evidence that you’re investing in your people,” says Google VP Laszlo Bock, author of Work Rules. “It’s evidence that you failed to hire the right people to begin with. Refocusing your resources on hiring better will have a higher return than almost any training program you can develop.”

human-city-1Start loving the suburbs. To sustain Hamilton’s momentum, we need densification downtown and growth on our suburban boundaries. Like every generation before them, many of the young professionals we’re courting will eventually outgrow their one-bedroom condos in the heart of the city and dream of single family homes with front porches, back decks and driveways. They’ll look elsewhere if they can’t find, or afford, a home to raise their kids in Hamilton. “In reality, for most residents of cities, life is not about engaging the urban ‘entertainment machine’ or enjoying the most spectacular views from a high-rise tower,” says Joel Kotkin, author of The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us. “To them, the goal is to achieve residence in a small home in a modest neighbourhood, whether in a suburb or in the city, where children can be raised and also where, of increasing importance, seniors can grow old amid familiar places and faces. Cities with few children and families will prove fundamentally unsustainable, deprived of a base from which they can draw new workers and consumers, as well as critical sources of both parental motivation and youthful innovation.”

Jay Robb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College and has reviewed business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Cal Newport’s Deep Work – Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World

deep workThis review first ran in the Aug. 2 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World

By Cal Newport

Grand Central Publishing

$34

How about we quit social media cold turkey and don’t tell a soul?

At the end of 30 days, we’ll ask ourselves two questions.

Did our professional and personal lives suffer irreparable harm because we weren’t on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram?

And did anyone care or notice that we were gone?

If we realize that we didn’t miss out on much of anything and no one was clamouring to hear what we have to say then let’s quit for good.

Walking away from social media is one way to ween ourselves off the near universal addiction to constant distraction.

That addiction makes it tough for us to do deep work, a term coined by MIT grad, Georgetown University assistant professor of computer science and author Cal Newport.

We’re at our best when we’re doing distraction-free deep work. We’re learning and mastering new skills. We’re solving big, complex problems. And the quality and speed of our work is at an elite level.

“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement,” says Newport. “It is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. “

“Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. To succeed, you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing – a task that requires depth.”

The ability to focus for a sustained stretch on deep work is increasingly rare and valuable.  That makes it the coin of the realm in today’s economy for knowledge workers. “Deep work is becoming a key currency, even if most haven’t yet recognized this reality,” says Newport.

But we spend far too much of our days keeping busy doing shallow work.  Newport calls this kind of work “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Shallow work also makes us easily replaceable by cheaper people or faster machines.

If a freshly minted grad could step in with little or no training and fill your shoes then there’s a good chance you’ve loaded up on shallow work.

Social media is only part of the problem. It’s a challenge to do deep work when you’re in an open concept office, your calendar’s full of standing meetings, you’re conditioned to constantly check your inbox for urgent emails demanding immediate responses and you’re expected to have an active presence on social media.

“This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact,” says Newport.

Along with a social media sabbatical, Newport recommends carving out blocks of time for distraction-free deep work. Aim for uninterrupted stretches of three to four hours.

Also ask your boss for a shallow work budget. Get agreement on how much of your time should be spent on shallow work.

“Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behavior,” says Newport. “You’ll almost certainly end up forced into saying no to projects that seem infused with shallowness while also more aggressively reducing the amount of shallowness in your existing projects.”

You should also make yourself harder to reach to limit distractions. Newport leads by example. You won’t find him on social media. On his website, there’s a special-purpose email specifically for offers, opportunities or introductions that will make Newport’s life more interesting. He tells you upfront that he’ll only respond to proposals that are a good match for his schedule and interests.

“Most people easily accept the idea that you have a right to control your own incoming communication, as they would like to enjoy this same right,” says Newport. “More important, people appreciate clarity. Most are okay to not receive a response if they don’t expect one. In some cases, this expectation reset might even earn you more credit when you do respond.”

Deep work is hard work and forces us to make tough choices. We’ll need to break habits, learn new routines and get comfortable saying no. Yet Newport speaks from experience when he tells us a deep life is a good life.

Jay Robb has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999, serves as director of communications for Mohawk College and lives in Hamilton.