Reimagining work in an age of communication overload by getting rid of email is what the title of Cal Newport’s latest book suggests.
Are you serious? A world without email is not just a stretch, it’s unimaginable.
Being the super-fan of Cal’s that I am, I pre-ordered the book. Deep work and Digital minimalism had profound impacts on my life and I knew deep down his latest work would be no different, but when the book arrived I didn’t dive right in.
Instead, I put it on the bookshelf where it sat for months. Something about the title was off-putting. Without even skimming the chapters, I wrote it off as a book that would force me to delete my Gmail and Protonmail accounts, then to only fight a losing battle with my corporate inbox. In a sense, I wrote it off.
But every time I scanned my bookshelf, it was the single book that caught my eye time and time again. Fine Cal, I’ll read your book. It didn’t disappoint.
Here are my top 10 insights from A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload: 👇🏻
The Hive Mind was an accident. Unlike the deliberately designed factory floor of Ford motors, today’s work environment was stumbled in to.
With the neck-breaking speed of technology innovation, the work environment that exists today was the constant knee-jerk reactions to constant change.
It’s suboptimal at best.
Digital communication means more communication. When IBM first introduced an email system, internal communication increased by 600%. When they investigated the dramatic increase they discovered that it was largely caused by the reduced friction of communicating digitally. An overwhelming increase in the frequency of communication wasn’t the only issue. They also found that communicating digitally is also less effective for decision making, which further exacerbated the issue of communication overload.
By adopting real-time asynchronous communication in written form we inadvertently crippled the systems that make us good at working together.
Without the richness of interpersonal communication, people are far less likely to understand and correctly interpret what is being said which leads to more communication.
Async fragments communication. Communication used to be dedicated to blocks of time, leaving a clear separation between the different compartments of our lives.
It was inconvenient, if not impossible to communicate with people outside of those boundaries. Smartphones and the internet made it possible to fragment those conversations into little shards of text sprinkled through every minute of every day.
Communication gets in the way of execution. According to Rescue Time’s analytics, its user’s context switch every 3 minutes on average. Digital communication tools aren’t just checked too often, they are checked constantly.
Left unconstrained, communication gets in the way of execution.
Synchronous communication isn't an obstacle to remove. Through trial and error, computer scientists have discovered that it’s far more efficient to include an asynchronous communication protocol than to exclude it. Even though asynchronous communication is the default and preferred method for its speed and concurrency, synchronous is still the most effective when it comes to consensus.
Reduce communication overload caused by meetings. Being stuck in meetings all day sucks. Getting rid of them entirely however, isn’t an option. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to improve meetings.
Reduce scheduling decisions by automating them by using tools like Calendly.
Dedicate time for reoccurring office hours to accommodate ad-hoc conversations with regularity that fits into your schedule.
Schedule short status meetings instead of hour-long team meetings.
Use task boards to replace disorganized communication. Organizing information onto cards puts all the relevant information in a single place, reducing the justification of frequent check-ins to email and other digital communication tools.
Pushing conversations into cards reduces the temptation to check your inbox for an update.
Capture conversations on task board cards. Conversations that have a purpose tend to stay on topic. By using task board cards to keep track of task-specific conversations, you reduce communication overload.
Instead of sifting through a stack of unsorted emails, you can quickly catch up on the status and context of a project or task by reviewing the cards.
Use multiple task boards. Divide the major roles or projects in your life and create a board for each. A good number is between 1-4 boards, anything beyond that becomes unwieldy. Applying this advice to my own life, I now have the following boards: Azure DevOps kanban board for work, Obsidian Kanban board for tracking the research of my writing project, and a Trello Board for family tasks. Tomorrow I have to replace lightbulbs throughout my house.
Schedule reoccurring task board reviews. Use reviews with team members or yourself to discuss work that's being done, blocked, or going to be done next.
In each review, ask what can be improved about the task board or the workflow. Identify what's working well and what's not. Address what's not working with an improvement theme.
Always be open-minded enough to experiment with improvement.
By the end of the book, it was clear. Cal was not demanding you delete your email client. Instead, he offered practical advice for using it less.
Until next time,
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Making Work Visual was a small book I found similar in promoting the benefit of stuff like Kanban boards.
I will say the interface matters. Azure DevOps board cards work, don't really spark that "joy" in using. I find it very erratic that folks I've worked with will use it to communicate over fragmented slack conversations. I think the biggest hindrance is that there isn't a unified inbox like Github, or even a bell icon.
To keep up with a tool like Azdos boards you then need another tool like Catlight or route to a slack channel or back to email. Github has a lot of apps for tracking notifications, but other vendors don't have that eco system.
Thank you for the summary. Much appreciated!