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“We know email is a better way to deliver messages that the technologies it superseded: it’s universal, it’s fast, it’s essentially free,” says Newport, author of A World Without Email.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

Six ways to send better emails (review of Nick Morgan’s Can You Hear Me?)

can-you-hear-me-nick-morganThis review first ran in the Dec.8 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Can You Hear Me? How to Connect With People in a Virtual World

By Nick Morgan

Harvard Business Review Presss

$39

I take pride in having never put an emoji into a work email.

Nick Morgan says it’s time to swallow my pride and start sending out smiley faces.

“Yes, they run the risk of seeming childish,” says Morgan, a communications coach and author of “Can You Hear Me?”

“But they do let the recipient know what you’re feeling. And that’s incredibly important — way more important than what you’re actually saying.”

An emoji puts some emotion back into our virtual communications and helps reduces the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

“The virtual world bleaches out human emotion and takes away one of the deep joys of human interaction — that sense of near simultaneity, when you and I are in sync, communicating effortlessly, immediately and passionately with hardly any sense at all of the distance between us.”

Morgan says virtual communications suffer five basic problems. There’s a lack of feedback, empathy, control, emotion and commitment.

“Humans crave connection and the virtual world seems endlessly social. But real connection, like decision-making, is based on emotions. Take the emotions out, and we feel alone more often than makes sense. The bonding that naturally happens when people meet face-to-face and size each other up, fall in love, find mutual interests, and so on, is lacking.

“And thus with thousands of Twitter followers, oodles of Instagram and Facebook friends, and a huge LinkedIn community, we’re still left endlessly chasing the junk food of connection online — likes, clicks and links that give us a passing thrill but no real sense of connection.”

emailYour employer won’t be shutting down the email system so Morgan has some practical fixes on how to make the best use of what he calls a messy, imperfect and overwhelming impoverished method of communication.

Lead off your email with a one sentence headline that clearly answers the “what’s in it for me” question that everyone asks when another email lands in our inbox.

Ruthlessly edit your emails. “Writing needs clarity, a point of view, a clear idea, hierarchical thinking and grace of expression.”

Practice restraint. Tell us something we don’t know but don’t tell us everything. “We only crave a little extra knowledge,” says Morgan.

Don’t send a hot email that stings with snark. Practice self-restraint. Sleep on an email before you hit send.

Never email a brick at the last minute, says Morgan. “One of the most irritating features of modern digital life is the last-minute communication.” It’s the 50-page report or PowerPoint deck that lands in your inbox at 8:30 a.m. to be discussed at the 9 a.m. team meeting. “Don’t send last-minute reading bricks to others and don’t ready them if they come from someone else. That’s a rule we all need to live by.”

And if you want and expect a response to your email? Explicitly ask for it.

Morgan also offers strategies for improving conference calls, webinars and chat sessions.

“Our very human job now is to learn to put the emotional and the memorable back into this attenuated world that has sprung up around us, the digital dragon’s teeth we have sown and that have brought us virtual convenience and speed — at far too high a price.”

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