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How 'A World Without Email' Could Increase Productivity, Happiness At Work

Multicolored envelopes. (Getty Images)
Multicolored envelopes. (Getty Images)

Cal Newport‘s new book lays out the problems with the way workplaces create what he calls a hyperactive hive mind — rapidly communicating, responding and sharing information.

This way of working creates information overload and reduces productivity because it creates constant interruption, the computer science professor writes in “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.

“I don’t want to go back to using fax machines again or voicemail,” Newport says. “But the thing that I do think we need to get past is the style of work that was enabled once email arrived.”

The hyperactive hive mind — when workers collaborate through unscheduled, ad hoc digital messages — also applies to digital channels such as Slack or Microsoft Teams.

This style of working is easy and flexible, but it forces people assigned to multiple collaborative projects to constantly check their inboxes. This nonstop checking for messages is “killing” workers by reducing their ability to think clearly, causing mental fatigue and making them unhappy, he says.

“Our minds cannot do these rapid context shifts from one thing to an inbox back to the one thing, back to an inbox,” he says.

Unless you’re a cyborg or receiving assistance from an implanted computer chip in your brain, Newport says people aren’t good at swiftly switching back and forth between tasks. For the book, he spoke with psychologists and neuroscientists to study the phenomenon of network switching — something the human brain can’t do quickly.

Network switching can take the brain between five to 15 minutes, he says, but one study he cites found that people check their email every six minutes. And organizations that use Slack network switch even more quickly, according to the RescueTime study.

This constant switching exhausts our brains and also causes anxiety, Newport says.

“When we have an inbox that we know is filling with messages from people we know and we’re not answering them in the moment, that sets off alarm bells in our brain,” he says. “Our brain thinks, ‘look, there’s tribe members who need me and I’m ignoring them.’ ”

Companies need to rethink how to organize knowledge work to solve this problem, he says, rather than create new technology. In software development, workers utilize task boards and structured daily status meetings to keep track of progress, he says, for example.

In the book, he writes about one small marketing firm where employees burnt out using a hive mind style of working. The company found that switching all of its client information and tasks to the list-making platform Trello helped workers stay on the same page without feeling overwhelmed by perpetual email chains, he says.

Management and employees agree that the hive mind is a problem, but the “ethic of autonomy in knowledge work” holds organizations back, he says.

“We have to pull back this autonomy trap and say, actually, wait, wait, wait, this is not all just up to the individuals to figure out. Let’s think what’s best for our company or our team or our organization,” he says. “And once we start thinking that way, there’s a lot of innovation that will follow. This can make everybody happy.”

More From The Interview

On email starting as an exciting new innovation

“It was an interesting history to unearth. I mean, so we basically get from about 1990 to 1995 the rapid spread of email. In 1998, we get the Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan movie ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ where people are excited and high five because an email arrived in their email box. By the time we get to 2004, you can begin to find productivity authors talking about email overload as if, of course, everyone knows what this is. So basically it’s spread in five years. We had five good years and then overload became an issue.”

On some offices moving to newer platforms such as Slack

“Slack is interesting. So earlier this fall, when Salesforce announced they were going to acquire Slack for a very large amount of money, I wrote an article for The New Yorker. They asked me to write about what are my thoughts on Slack and what I titled that article was ‘Slack built the right tool for the wrong way to work.’ Basically Slack said, ‘oh, if the hyperactive hive mind is how we’re collaborating, we’ll build a better tool for the hyperactive hive mind. It’ll be an easier way to do this ongoing ad hoc back and forth communication. We’ll get rid of some of the rough edges of email.’ So we both love and hate Slack. We love it because if we’re using the hive mind, it’s a slicker tool, but we also hate the hive mind.”

On the pandemic shifting many people to remote work

“I think it makes it more urgent. I think what we experienced during this period of forced remote work is that the hyperactive hive mind became more hyperactive — more emails, more impromptu Zoom, more Slack messages, much less time to actually work. I hear from a lot of people right now who say, ‘you know what, I now do zero work during my workday. Every minute is Zoom or email.’ This is an absurd state of affairs. I can’t believe that we’re willing to say, ‘I guess that’s just the best way to work.’ So I think the pandemic has really emphasized our need for something much more structured than the hive mind. We need a much more structured way to work because when you’re just completely ad hoc and informal, complete remote work does not work well at all.”


 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 


Book Excerpt: ‘A World Without Email’

By Cal Newport

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.