3 Takeaways from Cal Newport’s “A World Without Email”

A World Without Email, Cal Newport

Cal Newport has some of the most actionable writing of any author I follow. I first came across his writing in 2016 when reading “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and have since written reviews on “Deep Work” and “Digital Minimalism”. I’m a fan of the practicality Cal approaches his writing with as each one of these books has created a slight shift in my behavior which in the long game has a significant impact. Below are my takeaways on his most recent book, “A World Without Email”, published earlier in 2021. If any of these ideas are of interest I encourage you to get a copy and get the details!

  1. Understand why email (slack, jabber, etc.) can both hurt productivity and trigger stress.
    • Attention switching: our brains work best focusing on tasks in a sequential, not parallel, order. As such, the constant notifications and/or jumping back and forth between demanding work and email leads to a longer time to getting both objectives done.
    • We are hardwired to want to respond: In tribal society those who are the best communicators are most likely to pass on their genes because they will develop social capital within their society that leads to sharing of resources. This is part of the reason why having a full inbox can be stressful: our base instincts believe this will decrease our chances of survival.
    • Frictionless communication leads to the “hyperactive hive mind”: when it is of no inconvenience to the sender to fire off a message we are more likely to do it. This, in turn, leads to an ad-hoc approach to getting things done (more on this in a moment).
  2. Established workflows and optimizing for processes are part of the answer.
    • Organizations are obsessed with optimizing for products and people but frequently ignore processes. In the knowledge work sector, we would be well served to spend less time thinking about how to make people faster and more time thinking about how to make processes more effective.
    • Effective workflows are unlikely to emerge naturally because there will be friction in the creation of the workflow. Leaders should explicitly identify operating procedures for common tasks.
  3. Minimize your attention switching to do more deep work by:
    • Establishing and using workflows.
    • Consider a task board like Kanban or Trello.
    • For leaders: adopt more synchronous communication methods by having office hours for one-off questions and semi-regular 15-minute stand-up meetings (taking a page out of SCRUM methodology that software engineers use).

Following these principles may be temporarily inconvenient but will improve quality of output. The higher quality the output you have, the more freedom you will earn.