Cal Newport reveals how the rise of email led to a productivity disaster and what we can do to change that.
- How email changed the way we work for worse
- Simple strategies for cutting down the email back-and-forth
- Why we feel guilty when we don’t respond—and what to do about it
Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to researching cutting edge technology, he also writes about the impact of these innovations on our culture. Newport is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller, Digital Minimalism, which argues that we should be much more selective about the technologies we adopt in our personal lives, and Deep Work, which argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace.
Newport’s work has been published in over 25 languages and has been featured in many major publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Washington Post, and Economist, and his long-running blog Study Hacks, which receives over 3 million visits a year. He’s also a frequent guest on NPR.
- Cal’s book: A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload
- Cal’s book: Deep Work (Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World)
- Cal’s podcast: Deep Questions
- Cal’s planner: Time Block Planner
- Cal’s website: CalNewport.com
Resources mentioned in the show:
- App: Calendly
- App: Trello
- Researcher: Sophie Leroy
- Book: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
- Previous episode: 632: How to Reclaim 40 Hours Every Month (WITHOUT Multitasking!) with Dave Crenshaw
Thank you, sponsors!
- LinkedIn Jobs. Post your first job for free at linkedin.com/awesome
Cal, welcome to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Well, thanks for having me.
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I got to hear one of the most noteworthy things about you, which is an interesting comment to make in this day and age, is that you have no social media accounts. Can you tell us why and how it’s going for you?
It’s true. I think I’m the last person under the age of 65 and above the age of 12, for which that’s true. I don’t know. I’ll tell you what, this has not been that bad of a period to not be on social media, I think, if you could measure cortisol levels and graph it somehow, you would have all of American culture, all American society, and then me, probably a good 50% below it because I’m just not exposed to the up-to-the-minute fretting and doom-scrolling. So, it’s been good.
So, basically, it turns out it’s allowed. Just for idiosyncratic reasons, a long time ago, I’m talking 2004, I just decided, “I think I’m not going to use social media,” which at that point that was not a fraught decision in 2004 because there was not that much social media but I just sort of stuck with it because, why not? And it’s given me this really interesting vantage point. I’m like an anthropologist able to look around me and watch the impact the social media on everyone’s lives with a little bit of distance. I mean, I’m the last people who’s actually never had an account who can actually study it with some distance.
And here’s what I’ll say, I know what’s going on in the world, I still have friends, I still find ways to be entertained, I still manage to sell books and run a business, so it might not be as bad as people fear.
All right. I’ll take it. And have there been any downsides, any regrets, anything you miss? Maybe you can’t miss it if you’ve never had it.
No, not really. I’ll tell you what happened that helped reduced regret is the big social media platforms, they had initially had this claim that, “We’re valuable because of network effects. We’re the best way to connect with friends and family and we’re the platform where all your friends and family are, so if you’re not on Facebook or if you’re not on Instagram, you can’t connect with your friends and family.”
But they basically gave that up about five or six years ago, and said, “No, no, what we’re really about is entertainment. We’re kind of leveraging your social connections to learn the type of stuff you’re interested in but what we are is a stream of things to look at,” and most of these digital interactions with friends and family began to shift from social media over to tools like text message, or Zoom calls, or other types of tools like that which I do use.
And so, I’m not missing out on the original promise, which is, “This is how you keep up with friends and family,” because that is largely moved off of social platforms. Now, they’re just a highly addictive form of entertainment and, I don’t know, I think I found other ways to entertain myself so, so far so good.
All right. Well, let’s talk about your latest work, A World Without Email. Provocative. Could you kick us off maybe with one of your surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made as you’re doing your research there?
Well, I was surprised to discover the extent to which how we work today, which I call a hyperactive hivemind workflow, which is, put simply, work unfolds with a constant unstructured stream of ad hoc messaging, whether that’s delivered through email or Slack or whatever tool you want to use. I was surprised by the extent to which that way of working is basically arbitrary.
So, we assume all of this emailing and Slacking, like we do this because it’s a pain but it’s more productive, or this is how work gets done. If we didn’t always communicate with each other, if we weren’t constantly, “Here’s a message,” “Here’s an email,” “Here’s a reply,” “Here’s a CC,” that we’ll somehow be less productive. And it was rationally decided by managers and consultants, and at some point, people figured out this is a better way of working. It turns out that’s not true.
It largely emerged somewhat haphazardly, more it’s just a side effect of what this new tool made available and it interacted in an unpredictable way with just human nature, and you can document this. But, basically, we stumbled into this world of sort of constant, ongoing, unstructured conversation. And then we look backwards and try to justify it and live with it.
And one of the big claims in this book is that there’s nothing fundamental about, “Let’s put an email address, associate it with every person. Let’s put everyone on a Slack channel and just rock and roll to figure things out.” There’s nothing fundamental about that being the best way to do knowledge work. And, in fact, when you really look closely at it, it’s actually a pretty terrible way of doing it for a lot of factors. There are many other ways you could approach it. So, I think that degree to which this is just, in some sense, email is decision that we work this way and not our own was definitely a liberating discovery for me as I got deeper into this topic.
That is intriguing. All right. So, we just kind of fell into it. And so, lay it on us, so why is it terrible? What makes email so detrimental to knowledge worker productivity?
Well, the first thing I’ll further clarify, just so we have like a foundation for the discussion, is the title is sort of provocatively succinct when I say A World Without Email, but what I really mean, and this would be a less sexy title, is a world without the hyperactive hivemind workflow that email introduced. So, when I say a world without email, what I mean is a working world in which constant unstructured unscheduled conversation is not at the core of how we get things done.
The problem with that workflow, that hyperactive hivemind workflow, is that it forces us to switch cognitive context constantly. Say that four times fast. Because if you have to be maintaining dozens of these ongoing asynchronous, unstructured, unscheduled conversations, all these different threads, because that’s how everything gets figured out, from figuring out how to deal with a new client, to scheduling something, to pulling together bullet points, I mean, all this is happening on asynchronous threads, unstructured, unscheduled, just messages going back and forth, the only way for work to move forward is you have to constantly be monitoring and tending these threads.
That’s why when you look at the data, you see that people check their email inbox, on average, something once every six minutes. It’s not a rational behavior, it’s not a lack of willpower, it’s the only way you can keep up with so much ongoing concurrent communications is you have to keep checking. The problem is every time you check an inbox, you check a Slack channel, you induce a context shift within your brain. So, you’re switching your attention from the primary thing you’re working on to an inbox full of messages, most of which you can’t address right there in that moment.
And then you’re trying to bring your attention back to the main thing, that creates a huge pileup within your brain that reduces your effectiveness, that stresses you out, it makes you anxious, it makes it harder for you to think. So, we basically designed an approach to work that accidentally really reduces our ability to actually do work. We just cannot maintain these two parallel tracks of constantly monitoring communication while also trying to work on other things. We’re not wired for that, it goes against our sort of fundamental neural architecture, and I think it’s been a real big hindrance to both productivity but also people’s happiness.
Okay. Well, so then I’m curious. We had Dave Crenshaw on the show recently talk about the myth of multitasking and talked a bit about switching costs. Can you dig into that a little bit sort of just how costly is it when we do that? Do we lose a few seconds or something much greater?
I would say it’s much greater. It’s hard to exactly quantify but every time you’re doing one of those email checks, you might induce 10 to 15 minutes of notably reduced cognitive capacity, where one-half of your mind is still trying to figure out, “Well, what about this message from our boss?” And we’ve all had that experience of writing emails in our head, which is like a real indication of our mind. It sees these open loop social communications. It wants to have to deal with that.
Now, the issue is if you’re checking your inbox on average once every six minutes, that means you never escape that effect. So, the typical knowledge worker is basically spending the vast majority of their time in a significantly reduced cognitive state. It’s almost as if every 30 minutes, you walk by and gave everyone in your office a shot, “Here, take some whiskey,” right? It’s less fun but it kind of has a similar effect. So, we’re talking about not, “Oh, I’m wasting a few minutes.” We’re talking instead like maybe you’re at 50% of what you could produce.
So, in that ballpark of 50%, okay, that’s striking. And could you share, is there any provocative studies or experiments or bits of research that can put an exclamation point on this?
Well, the idea that there are these switching costs goes is something that goes back to research from even the early 20th century. But there was a researcher named Sophie Leroy who more recently really applied this idea of switching costs to exactly the context of working in an office. And she had a really interesting background.
I tell her story in the book because I spent some time interviewing her. She had actually been in academia, she had been working on her degree, and then she went and worked in industry. And then when she came back to academia from industry, she said, “Man, there’s this thing going on out there that wasn’t like it was before with all of this messaging,” this was the early 2000s, “We have to study that.”
And so, she had this dual background where she had a business background, she was an organizational management but she’d also trained in psychology so she understood the brain, and she exactly was quantifying what happens when you do this context switching and you’re trying to do actual office work. So, she had subjects come in to do this research, and they were giving them office work style tasks like reading resumes and trying to summarize and rank candidates, like the type of stuff you would really do in knowledge work, and they would interrupt them.
So, the researcher would come in and they would interrupt them. They had various ways of doing it but it would be, “Hey, you forgot to fill out this form that we need for our research.” And they could really precisely measure the impact on their performance, so the groups that got interrupted and the groups that didn’t. And you could just see that performance, you can see it drop, and you can just watch the numbers as it drops.
They recall less information. When they’re working on puzzles, they make more mistakes. And so, Sophie Leroy’s research really makes clear the degree to which these switches, boom, you just watch performance graphs just drop.
All right. Well, so then tell us, what is the superior alternative?
So, once we understand the issue is the workflow, the good thing about that is that it takes off a lot of sort of common responses off the table. So, when you understand, like, “Oh, the hyperactive hivemind, this fundamental way that the way we organize work and identifying and assign and review tasks, the way we do this is just messaging back and forth.”
Like, when you understand that is the underlying way you do work, then you realize that superficial fixes won’t get you there. Let’s say, “Let’s talk about etiquette, let’s talk about norms, let’s talk about turning off notifications, let’s talk about checking your email in batches, let’s talk about having a rule that says don’t expect you to answer emails after 5:00 or whatever.” None of that is going to solve the underlying problem so long as the underlying way that you organize work is unstructured ad hoc messaging.
So, in the book, what I really push is forget those superficial fixes, forget the etiquette, forget the norms. You got to actually replace, you have to replace the underlying workflow, “This is how we do this type of work. This is how we identify, assign, and review tasks.” You have to replace it with something better than the hyperactive hivemind. You don’t need advice for how to deal with your overflowing inbox more efficiently. You need to change the structure of your business so that that inbox is not overflowing.
And, basically, two-thirds of the book gets into principles for how to redesign whether it’s in your own life as an employee, or if you’re an entrepreneur that runs your own company, or if you’re an executive of a big team, “How do you begin this re-engineering process? How do you begin seeing your work in terms of these different processes?” And we can actually talk about each process, “This is how we’re going to do this. This is how the information is going to flow. No, we don’t just figure this out on email. For this, we have weekly status meetings. We have a shared document. We have this…” whatever it is.
There are tons of examples that you begin to explicitly engineer how work happens in a way that minimizes all this ad hoc unscheduled messaging, stops all the context shifting, and makes work much more sequential, “This then this, then this.”
Okay. That’s really beautiful in that I personally had some experiences with that, it’s like, “It seems like I was sending a lot of emails back and forth about this. That needs to stop. How would I go about stopping that? Well, I guess we’re going to make a standard process associated with boom, boom, boom.” And it’s worked. It’s so funny, like you and I, that we have this podcast interview, like we could’ve had a lot of emails between us. We had zero which makes me feel pretty cool, I’m talking to the no-email guy.
And we pulled that off because of the systems and the processes and the automation. It’s sort of like there’s an invitation, you pick a time, and then you get all of the info. And then, on my end, me and my team are thinking about, “Okay, what do we want to ask Cal? Okay, and then you’re going to send me the draft of some things, and I’m going to edit those things, and then I’m going to study it up the day of, and away we go.”
So, lay on us these principles and some examples for, hey, before we’re emailing about this thing, and after, here’s how it gets done.
Well, let’s make it really proximate to what we’re doing right now, right? So, I’m doing a book launch, so there’s a lot of podcasts to be done, and I have someone at my publisher that I work with to help sort of schedule the podcasts and keep that calendar, or this or that. We had to figure out a process. So, the very easy thing to do would be she could just email me, like, “Oh, here’s one. Does this time work? Here’s another podcast. What do you think about this?” But I said, “Okay, that’s not going to work. There’s going to be so much back and forth emailing that I’ll constantly be context shifting.”
So, we created a process where I thought about the problem. And I had tried before with a previous book. Just to be concrete, I had tried giving the publisher access to a calendar, or I had made open, like, “Okay, here’s times I’m available,” and they would schedule things directly. I didn’t quite like that because I wanted more control over when I schedule things because I have a more nuanced understanding of my calendar.
So, what we did this time is we have a shared document and it has different sections. And what happens is I check it a couple of times a week. She’ll put into the top section, like pending, “Okay, here’s a podcast,” or, “Here’s the link to schedule it,” or, “Here are some time you’re available. Which one works for you?” And I just go into that shared document and just annotate it, like, “This time works for me. Okay, I went to the link and set up this interview. Here’s a question.”
So, I basically go into this shared document twice a week, spend about 20 minutes in it, and all of this happens. Now, it might seem like, “Well, what’s the point? Is it really that hard to just have figured this all out on email?” And one of the big principles, to argue from the book, is, yes, that matters. So, to take those two checks that are 20 minutes and to spread it out over 20 emails is a huge difference in terms of the impact on your cognitive performance because those 20 emails are unfolding throughout the week. It’s a conversation you have to keep tending. To tend it means you have to keep checking your inbox, and it’s a thread that’s kind of an open loop in your mind. There’s a huge drag to having you go back and do those back-and-forth communications.
Which brings me to a larger point about this type of process engineering is that it’s annoying, it’s almost always less flexible and convenient than just emailing that’s why this hyperactive hivemind is so entrenched because it’s easy and it’s flexible and it’s really convenient. But flexible, easy, and convenient in the history of business and technology rarely is the formula for getting the best work done or getting the most work done.
And so, example after example in my book come back to the same point which is it’s like often a pain to say, “Let’s actually think about the right way to do this in a way that minimizes all these messages.” It’s a pain. It might generate some hard edges. There might be some exceptions where bad things happen. Still worth it. Still almost always worth it because, again, the way to get the most value out of your brain is almost differently going to be something different than what would be the easiest way to organize work.
Okay. So, I dig it. So, we think through it. And do you have any particular prompts or guidelines or steps associated with how we might do some good structured thinking and collaboration about, “Hey, what is the process by which this thing gets done?”
Well, one thing I talk about is when you’re trying to optimize a process, think about context switching as being something you’re trying to minimize. So, just like if you’re optimizing a manufacturing process, you might try to minimize like the time required to produce a car. In knowledge work processes, you want to minimize context switches, “So, how many times am I going to switch my attention to this thing in order to get it to completion?”
And so, if your process involves back-and-forth emails and there’s going to be a dozen back-and-forth emails to figure something out, you’re now context shifting a dozen times to complete this process. So, if you could come up with an alternative where maybe, “Okay, I spend some time in a shared document for 20 minutes twice,” you’ve now reduced the amounts of times you have to shift your attention to this and back significantly, and that makes a big deal. And then the other thing to try to optimize is the degree to which you have to keep track of things in your mind or you feel like things are somewhat unscheduled or out of control.
So, the more you can actually have a sense of comforting structure, “Oh, I know how this works. It’s in the system. It’ll come up automatically. I don’t have to keep track of it in my mind. I don’t have to hope that I’ll just wait to get an email at some point, that’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this thing?’” That you feel like, “This is controlled. It’s not just in my mind. I don’t feel overwhelmed by various things,” that’s another thing to optimize.
So, those are the two general metrics you want to push people: less context shifting, less sense that things are just up in the air, in your mind, or ad hoc, or out of control.
Okay. Got it. So, those are the things that we’re optimizing for in terms of let’s minimize those bits. And so, I guess there’s probably a million different ways we can make a process to get something done. But could you maybe share a few of your favorites in terms of, “Wow, these are maybe pretty flexible. They cover a wide array of stuff, work that needs to get done, as well as they’re pretty darn time-leveraged when you do it”?
Well, one thing that seemed to come up a lot was making task assignments more transparent. So, we often use email to assign tasks and to check on tasks, we keep track of tasks just because they’re messages in our inbox. That’s where we keep track of everything on our plate. When you look at companies or groups that have moved all these tasks out of just people’s individual inbox and onto shared like task boards or project management systems, there’s often huge wins to be had.
And you can go and look at a Trello board for your team, or a Flow board, or an Asana board if you’re more techie, and you can actually see, like, “Here are all the things we’re doing, and here’s their status, and here’s who’s working on what.” Once a day you get together and you all look at it, and say, “Okay, where are we? What do you need? Here’s a new thing. Who should take this on or shall we leave it over here?” That seems like a basic thing but it makes a huge difference.
I profiled a guy who runs a marketing company and when they shifted. I talk about how they shifted from their inbox, just everything was kind of in there, to these Trello boards, one per project. And I actually had them show me the Trello boards, and I go through them, and I kind of go through, “Okay, here’s specifically what the columns are and here’s what’s under it.”
The relief they got when now their workflow is not about, “Open your inbox and rock and roll with messages,” but, instead, “Go to the Trello board for the project you want to work on, look at the status of things, take what’s assigned to you, make some progress on it, update the information. All the information you need to make progress is here on the Trello board attached to different cards. You don’t have to go find it in an inbox.”
Just the relief they got from that being the workflow, “Oh, I’m working on this project now. Here’s all the information on this project. Here’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Here’s everything I need to know to do this. Let me work on this. Let me update this board. All right, I’m done. Next project.” You switch over to that board. It was so much more relieving than, instead, just having this inbox open where, “Yeah, you’re hearing about that project but also other projects, and everything is coming in, and the whole thing is riled together.” So, task boards come up a lot in groups and teams that have moved away from a hivemind.
Okay. And so, I’m wondering if we zoom into the individual contributor, if they don’t feel they’ve got a whole lot of power or influence to restructure the fundamental processes of how stuff is flowing, do you have any pro tips on how to navigate those conversations or bring it up?
Well, one of the things I actually talk about is running your own shadow processes individually and having basically an invisible interface to everyone else. So, let’s say you’re at a big company and your boss is a jerk, he’s like he’s not going to want to hear this. He’s like, “I don’t care. I want you to answer my emails. It makes my life easier.” You can internally have these processes. And I talk a lot about this, like personal task boards or personal communication protocols where you really work out your various processes and how information comes in and out of them, how you keep track of things to try to keep yourself out of your inbox.
And instead of actually trying to explain it to everybody and say with autoresponders, like, “Here’s how I’m doing it now and this is how it’s going to work,” you just do it internally. And they don’t even maybe realize that you have these processes, they don’t even really realize that, “Oh, I was ready to just send a bunch of messages back and forth with you to, whatever, set up this meeting or pull together this report. Andfuiltwhen you replied, it was actually there’s a list of times, you had a Calendly schedule app, it was like ‘Choose one of these times and I will have this information ready, and it’ll be in this folder. Look it up before. We’ll meet at this time.’” You’ve described some process in an email. They don’t even realize it’s a process, they go, “Okay, whatever. Great. That saves me some messages.”
But internally you have it all processed, or you have different Trello boards internally for your different roles, and you’re keeping track of who you’re waiting to hear back from, and things you need more information on, and what you’re working on this week. I talk about how I ran a stealth ticketing system for a while when I had an administrative role where I had to answer a lot of questions from students in my department at Georgetown for an administrative role I ran. I didn’t make them use a ticketing system but I was moving all their messages into a ticketing system so I could much better keep track of them with my program manager, we could see what was going on where, who we’re waiting to hear back from, we can annotate them with notes, and then we’d just email people to get back to them again.
So, that’s one of the things I talk about just how to basically structure all of the process in your own life. Even if all the people around you aren’t restructuring how they do it, even if they’re still bothering you without constraint, if all that incoming goes into internal structured processes, you can still have a massive win in terms of how much context shifting and email wrangling you have to do.
And so, I don’t know about all the listeners, but as I think about this, I’m super excited, like, “Heck, yeah, let’s get processes up and going for everything.” How do you recommend thinking about where to start or how to zero in on your first couple wins here?
Use your inbox as a guide. So, you’re in your inbox, you’re overwhelmed, that you’re annoyed at all these messages. Start asking the question as you’re answering these messages, “What is the underlying process that this is a part of and that this message is trying to help advance towards completion?” And so, you just let the messages you’re getting be a guide. Then you can start saying, “Okay, this process kind of comes up a lot. Like, a lot of these messages have to do with whatever, like pulling together the weekly client memo. Or a lot of this have to be like answering questions from clients about the status of the project.”
So, now, you’ve let your inbox be the guide, “Oh, a lot of my communication is about this.” Then you can ask the key follow-up, “What would be a better process for accomplishing the same thing?” So, then if you see a lot of your messages in your inbox or your clients asking you questions kind of ad hoc, “What’s the status here? What’s that?” you might realize, like, “Maybe what we should do…” and this is just an example from the book, “…is like schedule a weekly status call with each client, we let them know where things are, we listen to them, and we immediately send them, after the call, a record of everything we committed to during that call, and they know that we are going to be on the phone the next week.”
You do that, for example. You may reduce your back-and-forth emails from a client down to basically none. Just the same thing done. The client wants to know what’s going on, to make sure the ball is not being dropped, to make sure that you’re actually doing the things you said you’re going to do, that’s a lot of what client emailing is, it’s just that they’re not sure, like, “I don’t know. Are you really doing this? Do I need to keep bothering otherwise I don’t know what’s going on?”
That’s just a case study but now that you’ve seen that’s what a lot of your emails were, you could actually come up with a better process that has a lot less back and forth. So, let the messages in your inbox influence you, “What is this message about? Is there a better way to get that general type of work done?”
All right. I dig it. And how about some of the internal emotional guilt stuff in terms of, if folks, they have incoming messages and they feel, from habit or compulsion, the need to frequently check the inbox? You say, “Well, hey, part of it that’s kind of how it has to be done because your processes are so unstructured, what alternative do you have?” But if we’re starting to move in this direction and there are some emotional guilt or resistance or trickiness, how do you recommend folks address that?
Well, that guilt is really important because it’s at the core of why email makes us so miserable so I really get into those studies where basically the way we’re wired as social beings means it is really hard for us to see an email message in our inbox from a person we know and to not answer it. And it’s a deeper part of our brain. So, if you feel guilty about these things, as a general notice to your audience, that’s not a flaw. That’s a deeply human reaction because there might be, let’s say, a prefrontal cortex part of your brain that says, “I know I don’t have to answer that email right away. We have norms, they’re not expecting an answer right away. It’s okay if I write them back next week.”
That’s fine but there’s a deeper part of your brain that says, “Someone in my tribe is tapping me on the shoulder. If I ignore them, that’s a problem. If I ignore someone in my tribe who’s tapping me on the shoulder, what’s going to happen when we come into the famine? They might not share their food and I might starve.” We have a huge genetic compulsion to take otherwise communication very seriously. So, email really contradicts that instinct because, again, our paleolithic deep brain knows nothing about email etiquette. It’s just like, “Here’s a person I know, they want something from me, I’m ignoring them. Danger! Danger! Danger!” and that’s why we feel this anxiety about our inbox and the fact that it’s always growing.
So, that’s a really real thing and it’s a problem. It’s also a problem because this guilt is not equally distributed among people. So, there’s research I talk about in the book where they could look at how you scored on the big five personality scale, and based on how you scored on various attributes of that scale, they could measure real differences in how stressed you get about batching email.
So, for some people, your personality type is naturally such that you get incredibly stressed if you say, “I’m going to wait to check my email till the end of the day because all these people need me.” Other people have personalities in which they don’t mind it that much. Now, the issue is the people who are probably more willing to ignore their inbox till the end of the day are probably going to get more important things done, which means they’re going to move ahead probably faster than other people.
And what you’ve now done is accidentally selected for in your company that people that are essentially more jerks from a personality scale, less conscientious, are going to do better in your company. And so, now you’re selecting for the executive ranks to be less conscientious and more like jerks, which is not what you actually want to happen. It’s an unintended consequence.
So, I think that is also an issue and so, I don’t know, this is probably not the most optimistic answer but this is why I’m saying until you fix the underlying processes, this is going to be a real problem and it’s going to apply unequally. As long as there’s a lot of messages that you’re not answering, you’re going to be stressed, and that stress is going to vary dependent on your personality. So, your best bet is to figure out how to reduce the number of messages that end up in that inbox. It’s just not the right tool for doing a massive amount of communication.
So, lay it on us, where and when is email appropriate, when it’s something sort of new, one time, different, undefined, uncharted? What are your thoughts?
Well, it’s a fantastic communication protocol, so if you need to asynchronously deliver information from one person to another, from one place to another, it solves a lot of problems. Before that, we had fax machines, memos, and voice mail, and those were all pretty ineffective and pretty high-friction ways of communicating asynchronously. So, for the delivery of information, for the delivery of digital files, for the broadcasting of information, email is a fantastic tool. You would not want to get rid of it.
Where it is a problem is where it becomes the primary medium of collaboration. So, if the primary unit of you working together with people to solve things, just back and forth messages, that’s where you get into the problem. If you want to email out, whatever, “Here’s the new parking policy at our company,” that’s a great use of email. It’s better than printing it out and having to put it in people’s mailboxes.
If you need to deliver a contract to someone, or let’s say I want to send you a headshot or something, yeah, email is great. Better than putting the mail or using the fax machine. So, it’s a great medium for asynchronous delivery of information and files but it’s a terrible medium for being the primary tool by which you actually interact and collaborate with people.
All right. Well, Cal, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?
I would say, more generally, when it comes to email and when it comes to the shift, at least the way that I see it, the less that I’m trying to convince people that they should move away from this type of hyperactive hivemind, everything is just back and forth messaging, it’s more giving the message that that shift is inevitable. There is a lot of money on the line.
Just like when Henry Ford figured out the assembly line, no one made cars the same way again after that. The same thing is just beginning to happen in knowledge work. There’s no way ten years from now we’re all still just going to be plugging into email inboxes and checking every six minutes. There’s just so much productivity and value and human happiness on the line.
This transformation to a world in which we have more sophisticated ways, less convenient maybe, more annoying, more overhead, but more sophisticated ways of actually collaborating, that means we get a lot more done and we’re a lot happier in general, that’s going to happen. So, the only question is, “Are you going to be ahead of the trend or not?” And that’s the way I like to see it.
So, I’m kind of prognosticating that we’re in a very early stage of knowledge work in the digital age. The way we work today is just our very first rudimentary attempt to figure out how we should work in an age of computer networks. The history of commerce and technology tells us that transformations take a long time, but then the phase shifts can be pretty rapid. We’re going to have a rapid phase shift away from this world of constant communication. So, again, hopefully, this is a book that’s predicting the future, more so than it’s trying to convince people that we need a better future.
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
A favorite quote that came up kind of in the context of this work came from Neil Postman who was a really well-known sort of philosopher and social critic and technology critic. And he had this really important quote for at least my own thinking about technology and the world where he was saying, “Technological changes are not an addition; it’s ecological.” It’s not addition, it’s ecological. I’m a little bit messing that up but the basic point is when a new technology comes along, it’s not just like, “Oh, you’re in the world you were before, plus the addition of this new technology.”
Instead, a lot of technologies tend to change the entire world, change the whole ecology. So, he famously said that when the printing press came along, it wasn’t like you had medieval Europe plus a printing press. Like, no, you had a whole different Europe. It just changed the way everything worked. I like that quote. That’s the way I see a lot of technologies.
In 2001, we didn’t just have the 1991 office plus email; we had a completely different type of office. What worked meant the ecology of work completely transformed once this tool is here. And so, that quote is important to me because it tells us we got to be pretty self-aware of the way that new technology can completely change things often in ways that no one planned or no one intended. And once you realize that, then you might say, “Maybe we should step back and push back a little bit.”
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
There’s a bit of research I enjoyed in the book because it was devious where they’re trying to understand exactly what we’re talking about, how communication is something that’s really deep in us, we get really anxious when we can’t communicate, when we know someone wants our attention and we can’t give it to them.
And so, there’s this great study where they brought people in and they hooked them to heartrate monitors, and they told them it’s a study about something unrelated. And then they had a confederate come in and say, “Hey, your phone is interfering with our machines and we’re just going to move it to get the electromagnetic radiation.”
And when they moved the phone to the other side of the room, they turned off the silent mode. So, they could only do these with iPhones because iPhones have the switch on the side. And then they would call it. So, you’re in the room, you’re doing this experiment, you’re all hooked up to all these heartrate stress monitors, thinking you’re supposed to be working on this computer screen, and you hear your phone ring.
And it’s a really cool experiment because, obviously, they did not expect to be able to communicate, they didn’t need to communicate, they had turned their phone on silent so they’re completely comfortable with the ideas of, “During this experiment, I will not be communicating with people.” But, still, hearing the text message buzz on the phone, their heart, their galvanic response, all the indicators of stress jumped up because they’re all hooked up to these things and they could measure it.
So, I just love that experiment because it meant they were calm even though they knew rationally, “Oh, yeah, I turned off my phone. I’m not going to hear from anyone who calls me. It’s fine.” They knew rationally that was fine, “I’m doing this experiment. It’s fine.” Still, hearing a text message come through made the stress response go up.
That’s all day every day in the world of email. It’s like no matter how you tell yourself, “It’s okay. I don’t have to answer all these emails. We have expectations. We have norms,” there’s a deeper part of you that when it just sees or hears that person’s name and it’s in bold and you can see they want something from you and you’re not answering it to them, we get stressed. And so, I thought that was a beautifully designed experiment to try to capture that real effect.
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?
One I like to recommend is Amusing Ourselves to Death, also by Neil Postman who I mentioned. It’s short and it’s brilliant and it’s really original. And, basically, it gets at that ecological notion. His argument is when you change the technologies with which we communicate or send information, you can actually change the way our brains understand the world, that there’s this impact between the medium and the message being delivered.
Postman studied under Marshall McLuhan who actually said the medium is the message. Simple idea, beautifully delivered, but it completely changes the way you see technology. It moves you away from this notion of like, “Heck, it’s just tools and it can do some things well, so use it in the way that it does things well. And if you’re having a trouble with the tool, you’re just using it wrong.” It’s like the typical nerd, engineer, or like our typical response.
And Postman comes in and says, “No, no, it’s way more deeper than that.” This was before email but basically you could extrapolate from him. Like, the mere presence of email can change the very structure of what work means, and his work was about television. The presence of television changed the way we understood the world. He’s really smart, really accessible, and I recommend it, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
I’m a big believer in time blocking where you actually schedule out what you’re going to do with your time as opposed to going down a list. And so, having a good notebook in which you’ve schedule out what you’re going to do. Give every minute of your day a job. Don’t just go from a list and say, “What’s next?” Instead, say, “From 1:00 to 2:00, I’m working on this and I have a meeting from 2:30 to 3:00.”
Having a good notebook in which you do that is a complete gamechanger. So, in the fall, I put out my own planner called a Time Block Planner that helps you make these plans. But whether or not you use my planner, I have used notebooks and I’ve built these analog plans for my day for whatever it’s been, about eight years now. So, that simple of a piece of a paper in which I see the whole plan drawn out is, by far, one of the biggest impactful things I have in my professional career.
And how about a favorite habit?
I do a shutdown ritual and I’m a big proponent of this, that when you’re done with your workday, you have a shutdown ritual where you basically close all of the open loops. So, you look at your inbox and make sure you’re not missing something, you look at your calendar, you look at your plan for the week. If you’re captured like notes or ideas on scraps of paper, you get them into your system. So, you close all the loops, “All right. There’s nothing else I need to do for work tonight. I have a plan for tomorrow. I’m not forgetting anything.”
And then you have some sort of phrase or ritual you do to indicate that you’re done with that routine. So, like I used to actually say the phrase, “Schedule shutdown complete,” which was like purposefully nerdy. I talk about this in my book Deep Work, and there’s a whole subculture of people who, when they see me now, are like, “Schedule shutdown complete.”
But it was weird on purpose because what happens is that later in the evening when you begin to feel some work anxiety, instead of going through it, instead of…
A schedule shutdown has been completed.
You say, “Why else would I have said that stupid phrase unless I had actually gone through the whole thing?” Now, in that planner, I actually added a checkbox that says, “Shutdown complete.” So, instead of having to say that out loud and risk the mocking of everyone within earshot, you can put a checkmark next to the phrase. But the whole point is you have something really weird and clear you do to indicate you’ve done the shutdown ritual. So, if you get anxious, you just say, “I did that weird thing, which means I did a ritual, so I’m not going to get into the particular anxiety. I’m just going to trust myself that I would not have said something so dumb unless I’ve actually gotten things under control.”
I love that ritual. I’ve been doing that since 2007. I started it as a grad student and it’s incredibly effective.
And is there a particular nugget you say or have written that people quote back to you frequently? It sounds like “Shutdown ritual complete” is one of them. Any others?
Yeah, I get “Shutdown complete” a lot. For some reason, so I have this podcast Deep Questions where I answer questions from readers. And, for whatever reason, we went down a rabbit hole of…I don’t know how I encouraged this. It’s just like one of these cycles of superfluous references to Greek mythology. So, I do these mini episodes once a week where people kind of call in with questions, and now it’s become kind of a competition to see who could work in like the most superfluous reference to Greek mythology in trying to set up their question about workplace productivity. So, I get a lot of that from people now. I don’t know how that started, by the way.
“How could I soar like Pegasus to new heights of productivity?”
Oh, yeah, Hydras. Earlier today, I had a Bacchus reference. That’s a good one. I had a question from a classicist recently, a classicist professor, so that was intimidating because she actually knew the whole canon. So, yeah, I don’t know, but I get that a lot. I get a lot of Greek mythology.
And if folks want to learn more, where would you point them?
So, you can go to CalNewport.com if you want to find out about the books and sign up for my newsletter. I’ve been writing a weekly essay there since 2007. If you want to hear me instead of read about me, Deep Questions is my podcast. If you want to find me on social media, as we’d mentioned, you’d be out of luck.
Yup. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
It is a hundred percent possible for almost anyone or any job to get to a place where your email inbox is something like it was in 1995. It’s something you check maybe once a day, “Hey, here’s this file I needed,” or, “Here’s a reminder. Let me look at it,” and that’s the only role it plays in your life. This idea that you have to constantly be checking and communicating to do your job, that might be true about your job as constructed right now, but it can be reconstructed.
So, my challenge is do not give up on this utopian dream of a world without email by which I mean not a world in which you don’t have an email address but a world in which email does not play a central role to how your work actually gets done.
All right. Cal, this has been a treat. Thank you so much and keep on rocking.
Yeah, thanks. It was my pleasure, like Icarus flying close to the sun on wax wings, I think. I’m trying to make the reference work. I’m trying to make it work.
Maybe not afterwards.