First Published: July 4, 2021 | Last Updated: July 4, 2021

The gist: What would A World Without Email look like? That's what Cal Newport explores in his latest book about the "hyperactive hive mind" created by Hustle Culture.

At one point when I still worked in-house, I realized I spent HALF my time on email.

It straight up scared me.

Since then, I've been on a quest to change my email mindset, systems, and habits, often writing about it in places like here and here as I do so.

So when I heard Cal Newport was writing a book about "a world without email," boyyyy was I intrigued!

After reading this, I find it so striking how often Cal Newport seem to be on the same page at the same time while he's writing his books.

Deep Work came out just as I needed it. Digital Minimalism came out when what I prefer calling "tech balance" was a big focus of mine, although towards the end of that journey. And now, he was probably writing this at the same time I was experimenting with better ways to email.

We seem to be exploring the same problems with work at the same time, but only one of us has a book deal. 🤣

(Real talk: if you're in the book world, hit me up and let's change that!)

So let's dive into his latest.

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, I'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but I'm not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

Introduction to the Hyperactive Hive Mind

Few people (according to Newport, no one...but I'm proof that's incorrect 💁🏻‍♀️) have questioned the underlying value of email.

Instead, it's just accepted as a necessary evil without argument.

We assume the benefits outweigh the costs, and that those can't be reduced.

But email has profoundly changed the ways we worked, often not for the better, in ways Newport's been studying for a decade.

The normal workflow of "knowledge workers" is now one of literal constant communication, because it's so easy and low-friction.

And that constant communication has encroached on our work so much that it can take priority over actual work. People spend their days in their inboxes, doing "actual" work on nights and weekends, when they're not receiving as many messages.

I was one of them! I used to do content planning and writing at home, and only edit and publish in the office because of how many distractions there were.

Newport's coined this The Hyperactive Hive Mind: the ongoing conversation of unstructured and unscheduled communication office workers so often have to be plugged into.

This context switching means it takes more time, money, and mental energy to get the same amount of work done. And you know I'm all about reducing mental energy of work, so I was interested.

In reality, his "world without email" isn't actually one without any email and instant messenger. It's just one where they're not a constant presence. Where you spend most of your work time actually doing your work.

It’s important to remember that there’s nothing fundamental about email as a tool that demands that we use it constantly. - Cal Newport, A World Without Email

Thanks to my own productivity journey and the privileges of self-employment, I've gotten to taste this world without email.

It's wonderful. It should be the norm.

And this book looks at how that can happen.

Part 1: The Case Against Email

Part one of the book looks into how email took over our lives and why it's such a nightmare:

Email Reduces Productivity

The Hyperactive Hive Mind costs knowledge workers their ability to do their work, to the point that, "People now confuse answering emails with real work."

But not only are they not the same, they're actively in conflict with each other.

Studies of modern knowledge workers show that they shift their attention about every three minutes, and a big cause of that is email and IM. Data from RescueTime supports that, showing how many people check Slack and email that frequently, or even once a minute.

We're literally using these tools CONSTANTLY.

Constant communication is not something that gets in the way of real work; it has instead become totally intertwined in how this work actually gets done. - Cal Newport, A World Without Email

It's led to what Newport calls a "parallel track" style of working where "knowledge workers essentially partition their attention into two parallel tracks: one executing work tasks and the other managing an always-present, ongoing, and overloaded electronic conversation about these tasks."

But here's the thing:

The prefontal cortex can only process one attention target at a time.

This creates a cognitive bottleneck, and then that also compounds within the organization's hierarchy.

It can create a hive mind with a manager at the center of connections, like in the Doctor Who Episode about Satellite 5, where one reporter "plugs into" the network and the other reporters surround them to receive information.

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Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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Email Makes Us Miserable

A few of the main reasons email makes us miserable are:

  • The anxiety of never catching up on it
  • Text-only communication is less efficient than other kinds
  • Too little friction or low of a barrier to entry for communication.

Studies have shown that there's a positive correlation between stress levels for a given time period and how much of that time period was spent checking email.

And surprisingly, batching email doesn't make it less stressful, you're just feeling less frequent bursts of more intense stress.

This backs up my theory that a lot of people are batching the wrong kinds of work.

Plus, if you're a generally neurotic person (hello! it me!), batching emails can then add additional stress from worrying about the messages you're missing.

Email really trips up our brain's programming to treat socializing urgently for the sake of survival. Even though the stakes of email aren't that high, that part of our brain doesn't recognize that.

In addition to being stressful, over-reliance on email is also just inefficient, partially due to people using email for things they don't need to do at all. There's so little friction that the feedback loop spirals out of control. And partially due to the lost signals from nonverbal communication we lose in the translation to email as well.

Email Has a Mind of Its Own

Finally, email has a mind of its own.

It was never meant to become the beast, the hyperactive hive mind, that it did.

Email first became so popular because some added asynchronicity was actually needed in the workplace.

Alternatives of the time, like fax, voicemail, and the intra-office mail cart all had barriers to mass adoption.

And while the government sometimes used underground pneumatic tubes (shown in an episode of Brooklyn 99 but I didn't realize truly existed 🤣), most companies couldn't justify that.

So for most office, email was the first high-speed asynchronous communication. That was BIG.

But unintended effects also took hold, like how the possibility of ccing people also made it possible to be pulled into conversations people wouldn't have been included in otherwise. It was "just so easy."

So without really intending or deciding to, people started communicating exponentially more. (These unintended consequences are known as technological determinism.)

This all leads to the evolution of the hyperactive hive mind in a few ways, like:

  • Hidden costs of asynchrony
  • The cycle of responsiveness spiraling out of control
  • How our old brains aren't used to the larger social groups we see in modern offices

Another complicating factor is how little structure there is for knowledge workers, due to Peter Drucker's influence in the 20th century. He advocated for total worker autonomy over how work gets done, which puts the onus on the individual worker to figure that out.

It's like a digital communication of the tragedy of the commons.

But there's a sweet spot between micromanaging and total autonomy, which the rest of the book explores.

Maybe the way we work today is much more arbitrary than we realize. - Cal Newport, A World Without Email

Part 2: Principles for a World Without Email

The Attention Capital Principle

The knowledge work economy lays so much praise on the innovation Henry Ford brought to manufacturing, but spends its time and energy trying to emulate it, instead of looking for knowledge work's equivalent innovation.

Newport's Attention Capital Principle theorizes that the best way to improve knowledge worker productivity is by identifying workflows that helps brains think.

If you're in the Work Brighter community, that's not news to you. But not enough people realize it, and huge gains can be made from thinking about it more.

A lot of applying the attention capital theory/principle involves adding structure to the autonomy currently in place.

If knowledge work is the combination of work execution and work flow, then execution is the actual work, but flow is the way those work activities are identified, assigned, coordinated, and reviewed.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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Workflows to Avoid Context Switching

Workflows are the structure of the implementation, and shouldn't be left to individuals to figure out for themselves, because what will emerge is the lowest common denominator, like the hyperactive hive mind.

(Again, we know the importance of workflows around here already. 😉)

This puts us in a state of constant context switching, and dealing with the cognitive cost that comes with it.

To improve your return on attention capital, use workflows that minimize context switching in between tasks, as well as your sense of communication overload.

And don't fear inconvenience!

The short-term convenience of email is part of its problem. It comes at the expense of bigger picture productivity.

When implementing experiments to improve attention capital, keep them collaborative by educating the people you communicate with about what you're doing and why, obtain buy-in from higher ups, and create processes for dealing with issues that come up.

"Work is not just about getting things done; it’s a collection of messy human personalities trying to figure out how to successfully collaborate."

The Process Principle

Without systems and process oriented thinking, your only way of increasing productivity is working faster. Hierarchies and systems still form, just without any intention or strategy.

Newport's "Process Principle" proposes that using smart production processes in knowledge work more not only increases work performance, but decreases the amount of energy required, making it less draining for the workers.

This doesn't need to mean reducing all creative processes down to step-by-step recipes, just adding more structure and organization.

For a production process to be effective, it should be:

  • Easy to review who's working on what and how that work is going
  • Possible to make progress without lots of unscheduled communication
  • Known procedures for updating assignments to minimize both unscheduled communication and ambiguity

Production processes for knowledge work need to be highly customized (which is why we say productivity is personal), but they still need to exist.

Team Kanban

Like I said before, processes still need to exist. And one structure that's popular to use is agile and task/kanban boards.

Some best practices for kanban project management include:

  • Having a clear way to assign cards so everyone know's who's responsible for what
  • An easy way to connect info to its relevant card.
  • Starting off with Kanban's default columns, knowing that you can build on top of them if needed
  • Holding regular meetings to review the board with the team working on it
  • Holding conversations about the projects on cards themselves, instead of "in the hive mind"
Work is not just about getting things done; it’s a collection of messy human personalities trying to figure out how to successfully collaborate - Cal Newport, A World Without Email

Personal Kanban

Personal workflows can also be improved with kanban, where you maintain a board for every major project or role in your life. 

More specific than that, though, and things will probably feel too scattered. It's like the GTD saying, "have as many as you need and as few as you can get away with."

You'll also want to have a "to discuss" column for things to go over with other people, and a "waiting to hear back" column. Like with team boards, you'll also want to review it regularly, maybe weekly for personal boards.

"Automatic" Processes

With enough optimization, processes can become almost automatic, where they can happen without any new interactions or decisions to make. This is easiest with processes that produce repeatable products.

To create such a process:

  • First, split the process into defined phases.
  • Then, put in place a notification system for phase changes.
  • Finally, decide on clear channels for delivering resources and information throughout stages.

To automate personal processes, start with doing set processes at set times. Then create rules for execution, and finally look for optimizations for each stage of the process.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

The Protocol Principle

By spending more time setting up rules or protocols for work in advance, we can spend less effort coordinating the work in the moment.

Think of knowledge work as having a measured cost of cognitive cycles. The cognitive cost of a process is the number of time periods or cognitive cycles that you spend at least some effort on it. You can also measure protocols in terms of inconvenience.

Both measures need to be balanced correctly, versus maximized or minimized as much or as little as possible.

Newport's protocol principle states that designing rules that optimize when and how workplace coordination occurs results in significant long-term gains.

An example of this is meeting scheduling. The standard protocol for it is "energy-minimizing email ping pong," which has a low energy cost in the moment but large cognitive costs long-term. Something like a scheduling link or open office hours can change that dramatically.

Client protocols like portals and work diaries and communication guidelines of contracts are helpful, too. Also, customer support protocols like using team emails instead of personal ones (which are an unintentional default) changes people's expectations around communication.

And finally, consider email protocols like not promising to reply to every email and keeping emails short.

The Specialization Principle

When Edward Tenner wrote about why the arrival of personal computers didn't make us as productive as predicted, one of his main arguments was that computers created more work instead of reducing it.

So many things that workers, especially specialists, didn't do before, became easy enough that they started. Specialists began doing more generalist work like administration in companies' quests to cut support staff costs.

The specialization principle says that doing fewer things with higher quality and more accountability can significantly improve productivity. Basically, applying essentialism to knowledge work.

Accountability can mean different things.

Extreme programming popularized pair programming, where two developers share a computer when coding.

Less intense ways to further specialize are:

  • Outsourcing what you don't do well
  • Giving your team more autonomy (or getting it yourself)
  • Sprinting on specific projects
  • Considering budgeting attention, workloads, or meeting time

Companies should also consider supercharging support staff and making those roles more efficient, building smart interfaces between specialists and support or different departments. On solo teams, you can mimic this by segmenting your time by responsibility.

Looking Towards a World Without Email

Two quotes from the conclusion of the book, that I want to leave you with, are:

"Email made the hive mind workflow possible, but it didn't make it inevitable."

“Knowledge worker productivity is the moonshot of the twenty-first century.”

At Work Brighter, we don't just agree, we encourage you to take that same questioning mindset to ALL parts of work and productivity.

Stick around if you're game.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.