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Cal Newport’s Perspective
Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. In addition to his academic research, he writes articles and blog posts on the intersection of digital technology and culture. Cal has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times. Plus, he has a long-standing blog called Study Hacks, which receives over 3 million visits a year.
A World Without Email tackles how emails are among the biggest drivers of stress and anxiety in all workplaces. Most businesses argue that being stressed by emails is a sign of poor organization or management. A World Without Email aims to challenge this myth and offers research findings that suggest emails go against our evolutionary nature. Newport isn’t claiming that emails must be eradicated from all workplaces, though. He merely believes that a world where we have a healthier relationship with emails would be a happier place.
Part 1 – The Case Against Email
Newport starts by describing the emergence of email within the workplace. He explains that IBM decided in the 1980s to install an internal email server. Their motivation for doing so was to combine all their current communications. At that time, they were using memos, voice mails and leaving notes. Email offered the opportunity to combine them and improve efficiency. The issue is that email considerably increased efficiency, which led to five times as much communication in the first week it was introduced. The ease of email as a communication tool meant employees were using it for more back and forth communication than they would have done with the previous communication tools. This experiment highlights one of the greatest issues with email, which is that it’s too fast.
The speed of emails also prevents workers from disconnecting. Newport describes that a French labor law went into effect in 2017 that preserves the “right to disconnect.” This law aimed to encourage companies to create stricter policies surrounding people using email outside of work. The argument made by those proposing this law was that workers were being burned out by the expectation of replying to emails in the evenings or at the weekend. Newport uses this example to highlight that emails are making workers miserable. Scientific research supports this point. 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).
The outcome of this stress and unhappiness is significant. At a business level, increased stress has an impact on team performance. It is also a utilitarian issue if most of the world is being overwhelmed by emails that are harming their health and well-being. Newport challenges the common business view that the negative impacts of emails are attributable to poor habits. He believes our mismatch with emails is due to our evolutionary nature. He compares the social interactions we crave as humans to eating. We have an evolutionary drive to eat, which is why we experience hunger in the absence of food. Newport argues our evolutionary drive to be social leads to a feeling of unease when we neglect these interactions. The speed of emails means we often struggle to keep up with these interactions and are left anxious if we do not respond to them in the evenings or at the weekend. Newport believes this is the core issue with emails.
Part 2 – Principles for a World Without Email
Newport believes our reliance on emails and similar work-based platforms naturally produces anxiety. When no structure is introduced, there will be a huge amount of messages across several tasks that you have to address. To keep on top of this, you have to be constantly monitoring these channels. The issue with this is your lack of focus is reducing your cognitive capacity and you are left miserable.
Newport offers an innovative example of a company that has sought to tackle the anxiety of emails. Arianna Huffington’s company, Thrive Global, decided to develop what they call Thrive Away. In most companies, an automated vacation email is sent in response to an email when you are away. The issue with this is that while you are on holiday, you still worry about receiving social interactions (emails) and not being able to respond. These emails will also pile up and offer an unmanageable amount when you return. So, Arianna Huffington created a process whereby an automated response is provided and the original email is deleted. This means employees on vacation do not have to worry about any unresolved emails.
This is a solution for when you are on vacation. But, the issue would still remain while you are at work. At work, you will still have low-grade anxiety and have misunderstandings because we express ourselves poorly in written mediums. So, Newport also advocates for shared project-management systems. These systems should simplify the task of identifying who is working on what so that less time is spent communicating. Newport also recommends another innovation he has noticed some companies using. Specifically, shifting away from associating with email addresses with one individual. So, instead of making a specific request to one person, having a combined inbox where multiple employees monitor tasks. This change alone can relieve much of the anxiety associated with emails. This moves back towards our evolutionary drive of synchronous messaging and away from the modern types of asynchronous messaging.
We rate this book 4.3/5.
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