Is A World Without Email Possible?

Most of us have complained about email overload from time to time. But Cal Newport dislikes it so much that in his latest book, “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work In A World of Communication Overload,” he argues that electronic mail reduces our productivity, causes mental stress and fatigue. For example, he reports that researchers at the University of California hooked up forty office workers to wireless heart-rate monitors for 12 days. Their results showed that the longer the participants spent on email in a given hour, the higher their stress levels (measured by heart rate).

Newport has made a name for himself, writing about technology and culture while continuing his work as a professor of computer science at Georgetown University.  He is critical of what he calls “the hyperactive hive mind,” described as any workflow “centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.”

Not just email. The same applies to other digital platforms like Slack, Zoom, and Teams.

We work in an environment where people who collaborate to do their work constantly check email messages even though this kind of multitasking reduces productivity.

While Newport’s ideas might be popular with those who have not learned have to manage the crush of their email effectively, it is not practical to think that we can give it up or even rein it in.

Newport prefers non-email-based systems like Trello, which uses project boards to track the work you and your colleagues need to do. Oddly, he seems to be trading one system for another. Trello still requires maintenance to remain valuable and a regular exchange of ideas with colleagues. While it’s true that Trello and other similar systems are not based on email, they still require things like daily short status members to identify project issues.

That makes me wonder how is that different from only checking email messages one time per day?

He admits that email has its place, writing, “there’s no debate that email elegantly solves real problems that once made office life annoying.”

If you can’t or don’t want to go cold-turkey without email, he offers some other ideas:

Using software to schedule meetings without the back and forth of comparing availabilities.

Create group email addresses where any member can respond. That would be similar to sending an email to your help desk at work rather than a single person.

Keep emails brief.

My experience is that while his final points make sense, abandoning email for other online platforms doesn’t make sense. I’d instead look for different ways to tame your email.  It just takes discipline and a desire to focus on work rather than placing a greater focus on quick interaction with email senders.

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