The scourge of business email is much worse than you might think
Every time I check my emails, a number pops up in the upper right corner of my computer screen that filled me with a horrible feeling of hopelessness.
It shows how many emails are in my inbox and as I type I can see there are thousands of them. Another number at the top left shows something that once caused even more misery: unread emails. There are also thousands of them.
For a while, I did what people told you to do to deal with a bloated inbox. Configure filters. File stuff into folders. Reserve time for mass deletion. But the scale of the digital hold was overwhelming. So I did something much more effective. I dropped.
I have never regretted the liberating strategy of letting disorder seep in. Still, I was delighted to see an email arrive the other day with the news that Cal Newport, an American scholar, had written a new book called A world without email. He promised to free workers from Inbox Tyranny and I immediately found a copy.
Newport has become an authority on smarter ways of working. At 38, the computer science teacher has eliminated seven books in the past 16 years, including a hit in 2016, In-depth work, whose title has become a slogan to focus in a frantically distracted world.
I guess he knows how to work productively. If he knows how to end the plague of too many emails, that’s another thing.
What I like most about his book is that it shows that the email problem is much worse than you thought. What might have been a slight nuisance 10 years ago has turned into a serious productivity sap.
The average worker now sends and receives about 126 work emails a day, Newport reports, and many white-collar workers spend more than three hours a day in the Sisyphean task of processing them.
They do this knowing that many messages are irrelevant and few require instant responses. Why? Partly because our old brains are wired to worry about ignoring social obligations. It made evolutionary sense when we lived in interdependent tribes. Today, he explains the distress that erupts at the sight of a screen of unanswered emails.
The problem is, email is so cheap and easy that it has spawned what Newport calls “the hyperactive hive mind” – a new way of working in the office that revolves around conversation. continuous unanticipated messages.
Email and its more feverish cousin, Slack, no longer simply interrupt important tasks. They fuel an endless and exciting digital discussion about the tasks that we have come to see as normal and inevitable.
In other words, the email scourge is part of a larger systemic problem that cannot be solved by one-time productivity “hacks”, such as writing better topic titles or using the email. Gmail’s autocomplete feature.
It requires a much larger structural overhaul, similar to how Henry Ford revolutionized automotive manufacturing with the assembly line.
This is, I think, a profound insight. I’m less convinced by some of Newport’s ideas on what can be done about this. This is in part because organizations differ so much that there are few universal answers. Additionally, some of its suggested solutions require online project management tools like Trello, which allow more focused work on specific tasks. To a computer scientist like Newport, they may be more familiar than others.
Many companies would be reluctant to test some of his other ideas – setting hours when a worker cannot be interrupted; the hiring of an “attention capital ombudsman”; overeating »administrative support in the workplace. Such changes, Newport admits, can be “painful in the short term,” even though he is convinced that the long-term productivity gains are worth it. I think he’s right. Someday a new Henry Ford will be awarded for fixing the imperfect world of work that was unwittingly forged by technological breakthroughs such as email. Meanwhile, Newport defined the scale of a problem that too few of us knew