Listen to Cal Newport discuss a future without email on the Freedom Matters podcast
Many people blame distraction in the workplace on tools like email and Slack. Would our life be improved if we just took those tools away?
Unfortunately the answer is not so simple…
In this episode, we speak with Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including Digital Minimalism and Deep Work. His work focuses on the intersection of digital technology and culture, and he is particularly interested in our struggle to deploy technology in ways that support, instead of subvert the things that we care about.
Today we focus on his latest book, A World Without Email, to discuss:
- Why is email such a problem?
- How do workflows need to change to support a better work environment?
- What does the future of work look like, and is there a place for email?
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell
Cal Newport: I’m very interested in the world of professional writers, the original at-home knowledge workers. They are relentless about finding places to work that aren’t their home. It’s not fancy, they don’t spend a lot of money on it. But basically, every professional writer I know, there’s some beat-up basement apartment. Like this studio I’m in right now is just above a restaurant. It smells like food, and I can hear the rock band outside, but it’s not my home. So it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Writers figured this out a long time ago. If there’s any way you can get through that’s not your home to work, even if it is objectively a much worse aesthetic and physical space, you’re probably going to end up better off.
Georgie Powell: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital wellbeing. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. Each week, I’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. I’ll be asking them three questions to get to the heart of what productivity means to them.
This week, I’m in conversation with Cal Newport. Cal is a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and a New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including Digital Minimalism and Deep Work. His work focuses on the intersection of digital technology and culture, and is particularly interested in our struggle to deploy technology in ways that support instead of subvert the things that we care about.
Today, we’ll be focusing on his latest book, A World Without Email, to understand what is the problem with email? What is the solution? And what impact does this have for the future of work?
Cal, welcome to Freedom Matters. Thank you so much for joining us this week.
Cal: Thanks for having me. I was looking forward to this.
Georgie: In his latest book, as the title may imply, Cal looks at the impact of email on our lives. My first question, “What is so wrong with email?”
Cal: I focus on email because it’s a shorthand for, I think, a very specific, but really high impact issue we have in the world of work, which is this tendency to use low friction digital communication as the main method by which we collaborate with people. This is actually the villain of my book, and the thing that I care about most is this idea of what I call the hyperactive hivemind workflow, which says “The main way we collaborate, unscheduled back and forth messages.” So it’s not the tool email that I have a particular problem with, it’s not that I think some tool is better than another, it’s this way of working ad-hoc back and forth on the fly messaging. That’s where the problem is, and that’s what I wanted to really focus on.
Georgie: Okay, so it’s more than just email. Many platforms elicit this type of unscheduled back and forth. When we have so many platforms to manage across our personal and professional lives, it’s a sheer proliferation of communication tools, not part of the problem, too. It turns out, there are some fundamental differences between our personal and workplace tools.
Cal: One of the things that’s interesting about this current moment is we have multiple different channels pulling at our attention, and the effect is very similar between them, which is that we’re fragmented, our attention is fragmented. How we deal with it, and the underlying sources are different, so it’s probably worth focusing on for a second here. So the book I wrote before this one was called Digital Minimalism, and it looked really at our relationship with our phones, and in particular, non-professional digital distractions, like social media, like YouTube, like online news.
There, the argument is, the reason why we look at our phones too much is in large part because those services have been engineered to engender exactly that effective. They’d been engineered to get us to come back to them again and again by attention engineering and trying to exploit psychological vulnerabilities.
Now, if we shift to the world of workplace communication, we say, “Well, I’m checking email all the time, I’m checking Slack all the time.” It’s easy to think about that through the same framework, “Oh, I’m addicted to email. People have the wrong expectations. My habits are wrong.” Actually, the underlying cause here is really different. It’s not that there’s a company that’s making more money if you check your email more often, that they’re trying to engineer email so that we check it more often. What’s really happening with workplace communication is the underlying workflow. The underlying set of rules and guidelines and systems by which we agree to collaborate right now in most workplaces is built around ad-hoc back and forth, unscheduled messaging.
That workflow drives us necessarily to have to check our email or Slack or Teams all the time because everything is unfolding with these ongoing asynchronous conversations. So in the world of social media, the solution is very personal, and you have a lot of autonomy. You need to stop using these services so much, you need to take them off your phone, you need to rehab what you use and don’t use, you need to become a minimalist. In the world of work, it’s much different.
The solution is not just to say, “I individually going to stop using email because, hey, good luck.” Your boss is going have some questions about that. The solutions actually have to do with the underlying workflows. You have to find different ways of collaborating that don’t require just messages flying back and forth in an unscheduled manner. So the effect of these two different magisterial in the world of techno distractions is similar. The underlying causes, and, therefore, the underlying solutions are actually quite different.
Georgie: Okay, really interesting. I guess what you’re saying is, some companies might be saying they’ve got a problem with email, let’s use another platform to help us solve that problem, and you end up with a proliferation of channels and platforms that actually makes the situation much worse because to your point, they haven’t gotten to the deeper workflow to understand how that workflow needs to be re-engineered.
Cal: Yes, workflows are the whole issue right now with workplace productivity, in particular, the fact that we don’t think about them. We have this drive towards autonomy, which I traced back actually, to Peter Drucker in the 1950s. Peter Drucker, of course, famous management theorist, coined the term “knowledge work” did a lot of the fundamental work on helping, especially American industry, understand how knowledge work was different than industrial work and how to manage for knowledge work.
He had a very clear message, autonomy, autonomy, autonomy. You can’t take the work of a knowledge worker and break it down into an assembly line, like style of step by step actions. You got to just give a knowledge worker more autonomy to figure out how to do their work. That’s all fine, bu we took that message too far.
We also applied it to how we organize our work. We say, well, how you identify what the work on, how you coordinate with other people to get that work done, how you move information around, that should all basically be left up to the individual as well. Too much autonomy brought us down to this lowest common denominator of what we’ll just do the hivemind, and everyone will just rock and roll with messaging to get things done. Our brains cannot function that way. It’s a disastrous way of actually harnessing all these resources to get useful stuff done.
The key thing here is we’re not going to solve these problems of, “I have to communicate too much, I have to constantly check in inboxes.” We’re never going to solve these problems with habits and expectations, we have to solve the problem by replacing the underlying workflow with an alternative.
This is one of the key ideas in the book is that we convince ourselves it’s all about habits and expectations, “If just my stupid boss would stop expecting to get a response so quickly, we can just change the norms, and then I had better habits, maybe if people would just batch their email checks, it would all be better.” No, the issue is the underlying workflow.
As long as the hyperactive hivemind is how you organize your work, there’s really no alternative to having to check these conversations all the time, having to bother people all the time because again, if everything just happens informally with messages back and forth, I have no way of knowing if this work is getting done. I probably just have to bother you, and I’m going to need really quick responses because, otherwise, this is on my head till I hear back and everything spirals out of control.
So I really want to go under the inbox, forget habits, forget expectations, go under the inbox and replace the actually underlying workflows with ways of collaborating that does not require all these back and forth messages.
Georgie: It makes perfect sense. We all know that the way we communicate right now is wasting valuable time and brainpower. How can we change? How can we move ourselves, our teams, our organizations towards an alternative and more productive workflow?
Cal: So at a big picture, we have this idea, I call this the process principle. We have this idea that you have to think about your team or your company or yourself as being made up of a bunch of different processes.
These are things you come back to and do again and again, that help your business run and produces value. Just like a factory that has a bunch of different products it creates, you have a bunch of different processes, whether you name them or not.
The right approach is to then look at each of these processes and say, “How do we want to implement it? How do we actually want to identify the information needed to get this done? How do we move that information around? How do we collaborate to reach decisions? How do we move this product from this to that step?”
You want to have an actual implementation that you’ve thought through. What are you trying to actually try to optimize with this implementation? I would say, unscheduled messages is the best metric to try to minimize. You say, “How can we implement each of these processes in such a way that we are actually minimizing these unscheduled messages?” Why? Because unscheduled messages require context shifts. You have to keep checking your inbox. The context shifts are productivity poison. So this is the fundamental principle.
Then you have a series of principles about well, what might that look like? So when you start to reengineer these processes to have less unscheduled messages, it’s going to look different for different types of processes, different types of work. It have nothing to do with one particular tool, there’s not one work philosophy that’s going to come in and change everything.
The biggest meta- mindset is that we need to rethink processes to reduce unscheduled messages. So very briefly, the other principles in that part of my book get at different ways you might re-engineer these processes. One thing, some of these processes are automatable, so you can automate it to get rid of unscheduled messages.
Sometimes you need to actually structure the information and communication around something. If you’re working on a project, maybe you need a place, some sort of Trello board or some sort of Basecamp project, you need a place for all the information about a project to live to be transparent, everyone involved knows the information, and you have very structured ways of communicating about the project, maybe a twice a week status meeting, highly structured, who’s working on what? What do you need to do? What’s next?
That’s another type of thing you see. Sometimes it’s just a technological solution. We have to schedule a lot of meetings. If we just go back and forth with email and say, “When can you meet?” that actually is creating a huge number of back and forth messages, so let’s put in a tool, like Calendly or SchedulOnce or the native calendly tools in Outlook, so that we can schedule meetings with one message instead of six or seven.
So it looks different, depending on what type of process we’re talking about, but what underlies all these solutions is recognizing that my work is made up of processes; there’s different ways to implement them; a hyperactive hivemind is a bad way to implement them, for the most part; let’s find alternatives that require many fewer messages.
Georgie: And this can be done at the individual and at the organizational level, right?
Cal: Yes. So you can start this as an individual, just say, “Here are the processes I’m regularly involved in. Given just what I can control, how can I try to re-engineer these processes to reduce the number of back and forth messages I have to send in order to accomplish this process?” That’ll go a long way.
At the organizational level, I actually think the right scope to do this work is at the team level. Everyone in a team should be involved and coming up with these new process definitions. At the organizational level, you should just set a culture where that’s what’s expected. But you don’t want to pass these down from too high of a level because it’s not flexible enough, it’s not adaptive enough, and the people it effects don’t have enough by it.
So at the team level is where you would optimally want to make these process implementations. At the organizational level, you want to support that type of thinking. But again, even if your whole company wants nothing to do with this, do this process as an individual, look at each of your processes, improve them, reduce unscheduled messages. It’ll make a huge difference.
Georgie: We get it. The hive mind has to go, and there are new process-based approaches we should move to instead. But just how can we make this happen when current workflows are so ingrained in companies, Cal explained, “Where profit lives, new approaches will follow.”
Cal: There’s typically just a hurdle to doing these innovations, these shifts. So there’s usually a dialectic between here’s the increased potential of how much more successful the company will be, and here’s the difficulty of actually getting there. It’s why I talk in the book about how much of a pain it was to actually shift the Ford Highland Park plant from the crafting method over to the assembly line method back in the early 1920s. A huge pain to do, and it took a while because of the complexity of it. But once they did, they got a 10x improvement and became the largest company in the world.
So because there’s a profit motive behind it, I don’t really have much fear that we are going to move to more sophisticated ways of coordinating minds and the knowledge of our context. The hive mind is just too crude. It’s just going to take a little while because we have the back pressure of this autonomy principle with the knowledge work and is more complex. It’s very easy just to say, “Let’s rock and roll in the moment.” It’s actually quite difficult to put in place better processes that’s going to get away from those unscheduled messages.
Here’s the good news in our current situation. Sometimes when we’re looking at issues of work style or workplace revolution, what you have is some sort of dialectic, something that is better for the workers, but worse for the manager; something that’s better for the managers, but worse for the capital owners, and that there’s some notion of revolution that has to happen.
This is actually one of those happy cases where everyone is more or less aligned. No one likes the hyperactive hivemind. It makes workers miserable, it makes managers miserable, it makes the people who own the companies miserable. No one is happy with it. So everyone is actually aligned in the same direction.
If there’s a better way to work, let’s get there, let’s find it. So I’m not so worried again about how do we convince people to make this change. The way we convince people to make those change is that make their companies way more profitable and their employees way more happy.
We’re in the very early stages of knowledge work in the digital age. What we’re doing right now is just the first simplest, crudest way we could come up with for how to collaborate. This is very common. When you have the initial introduction of new technology into a commerce context, we tend to at first just use whatever is the simplest way, most convenient, most flexible as we get used to it, and then things evolve to get more complex.
So there’s nothing ahistorical about our current setup. What would be ahistorical is if we stayed with this initial crude way of organizing, if somehow we stayed for the next five decades, using the hyperactive hivemind. That’d be an incredibly ahistorical example of a non-evolving technological commerce intersection. So I think everyone is aligned in the same direction here. Everything will be better if we move away from the hive mind, so I think it’s inevitable that we will.
Georgie: Finally, how can solopreneurs and freelancers put in place this process shift?
Cal: Solopreneurs and freelancers are in a great situation, vis-à-vis my theory because they have so much autonomy, in terms of how they can experiment with their workflow. So it’s actually a really great situation once you recognize what it is you’re trying to do. So once you recognize that, “Okay, I want to list my processes. I’ve never done this before, but let me do this. Here are my processes.”
Then for each, you can ask the question, “How do I actually want to implement this to try to reduce back and forth messages?” And it can spur massive innovation. You say, “Okay, first of all, these four processes I’m getting rid of because it seems like it generates a lot of back and forth messages, and they’re not that useful. So those are gone. Over here, oh, we can greatly simplify how we talk to clients, we have this new framework, we have a call every week with a written summary of expectations. Great. There goes 50 Slack messages a week. Okay. Over here, dealing with vendors, why don’t I set up a Google form?” Suddenly, the innovations start to flow.
The thing that allows all this innovation to flow is recognizing what it is you’re trying to do, which is identify your processes, rebuild how you do the processes to minimize unscheduled back and forth messages. Sometimes, just seeing what the target is allows you to start hitting it a lot more times. So freelancers and solopreneurs are in a very exciting situation because they can actually make pretty dramatic steps as they go through this engineering process.
Georgie: Amazing. Okay. So one final question. One thing I always ask my guests, particularly ones that do a lot of thinking is, hindsight’s such a powerful thing. And I think if we knew what email was going to do to our productivity, we would have treated it differently. What are you interested in now in terms of what we’re starting to use, or the way that technology is shifting? What do you think you’ll be writing a book about in five years’ time, basically?
Cal: Yes, the trend I saw over the last 10 to 15 years is basically, email ushered in the hyperactive hive mind is a way of collaborating. That led to tools that were designed to implement the hyperactive hive mind better. That’s how I understand, for example, tools like Slack. Okay, if we’re going to communicate with just ad-hoc back and forth messages, here’s a much better interface for that than an email inbox. We can do it in a chat, we can have searchable transcripts. So it’s taking a bad way of work and building a better tool for that way of working.
I think that trend is a dangerous one. I think people are starting to recognize, “Oh, what we want to do is not make the hyperactive hive mind even easier to use, we want to support completely alternative ways of working. I think this push towards significantly increased remote work that was caused by the pandemic is going to force the issue a little bit.
This was the point I made in The New Yorker piece I wrote last summer about remote work earlier in the pandemic is that as you move remote, the unstructured nature of the hyperactive hive mind becomes even more noticeable and even more of a problem. It basically forces the issue of this ad-hoc way of working, where we figure things out on the fly, can start to spiral out of control as we all move out of the office.
So the trend I’m hoping to see is that if we’re going to have more persistent high levels of remote work, that will be the forcing function to get a lot of companies to say, “I think we need to get a little bit more structured about what work means. Here are the things we do, here’s how we do it. Here’s how we collaborate, here’s where the information lives.”
Hopefully, that’s the forcing function that gets us away from this simplistic crude way of collaborating, just says, “Hey, everyone just plug into Slack or jump on an email inbox, we’ll go on zoom a few times a day and just figure everything out.” We need more structure, we need to optimize the right metrics. I’m thinking this remote work resurgence, pandemic-driven, might actually force us into that type of thinking.
Georgie: So are you worried about anything? That all sounds pretty positive, like it’s going to just solve itself.
Cal: Well, I think it’s going to be a hard transition, though. So what a conjunction that New Yorker piece is that during the year of the first remote work of the pandemic, we would quickly see this and have to make these changes on the fly so that as we came out of this year, we’d be in a much better place. What seems to have happened instead is because there are so many different disruptions in the world during the pandemic, that we were willing just to put up with a lot of bad things because everything was bad in the world.
We didn’t really feel the pain point. The pain was there, but there’s so many other sources of pain during the pandemic. We just chalked it all up to like, “It’s a terrible year.” So I think it’s going to be the next year is where that pain is going to become unbearable, once we’re back in a more normal circumstance. But now we have 30 to 40% of our workers remote, and we really can’t write off the losses anymore, we need our company to keep growing, we have to actually start caring about the bottom line again. It’s not working because now, it’s constant back and forth, and people are miserable and the remote is not integrating with the non-remote properly.
So I think we might have another year ahead of us of this type of pain, where it’s going to feel it more because the other pain is away. You feel the paper cut much more acutely, once the broken leg has been set. I think that’s what’s going to happen next year. So it’s not going to be an easy transition, but I think once enough large companies notably get out ahead of getting away from the hive mind, I think it’ll spread very quickly.
Georgie: What about the future of work? Can we all keep working from home?
Cal: Yes, I’m a big believer in this concept of work from near home. I think if I’m a company, I’d say, “Okay, we’re going to have some remote workers who don’t work at the office.” I don’t want them working at their home either because there’s a lot of psychological downsides to trying to completely mix your home with your work environment. It’s very hard to overcome it. If I was a company, I would invest in ways to help fund and support a place for remote workers to work that is near their home, but not in their home.
Cal: You might say, “Well, this seems like a waste of money. Why would I spend money on that?” Because you’re going to get three or 4x more productivity out of that worker. If there’s a place where you can go that’s not your home, and work when you’re working and be done with you’re working when you’re not there, that worker is going to be so much less likely to turn over, so much less likely to leave or downgrade their position in the workforce, and they’re going to get a lot more done with their time.
That almost any reasonable investment there for work from near home location, I think it’s going to get paid back. You’re going to get a return on that investment almost immediately.
Let me just say, a quick plug to the Freedom users is, I’m very interested in the world of professional writers, the original at-home knowledge workers. They are relentless about finding places to work that aren’t their home. It’s not fancy, they don’t spend a lot of money on it. But basically, every professional writer I know, there’s some beat-up basement apartment. Like this studio I’m in right now is just above a restaurant. It smells like food, and I can hear the rock band outside, but it’s not my home.
David McCullough worked in a garden shed, Steinbeck used to go out on a boat, like a rickety little fishing dory, and he’d bring a notepad out with them. So it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Writers have known this for a long time. Even writers don’t make a lot of money, freelance writing in particular, they figured this out a long time ago. If there’s anywhere you can get to this not your home to work, even if it is objectively a much worse aesthetic and physical space, you’re probably going to end up better off.
Georgie: It’s just time for me to wrap up, to say, Cal, thank you so much for joining us this week on Freedom Matters. It’s been absolutely fantastic to have you on as a guest. We’re really so grateful for you joining us.
Cal: Well, thanks for having me. Thank you everyone else for listening. Now it’s time to turn on Freedom and get back to work.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. Until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.