Matt W. Kane

A World Without Email

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload By Cal Newport

A report from the summer of 2018 analyzed anonymized behavior data from over fifty thousand active users of the tracking software. It reveals that half these users were checking communication applications like email and Slack every six minutes or less. Indeed, the most common average checking time was once every minute, with more than a third of people checking their inbox every three minutes or less.

To help understand the true scarcity of uninterrupted time, the RescueTime data scientists also calculated the longest interval that each user worked with no inbox checks or instant messaging. For half the users studied, this longest uninterrupted interval was no more than forty minutes, with the most common length clocking in at a meager twenty minutes. More than two thirds of the users never experienced an hour or more of uninterrupted time during the period studied.

The ability to slow down, tackle things sequentially, and give each task uninterrupted attention is crucial.

We can find contemporary support for this claim in an academic paper titled “Boxed In by Your Inbox” published in 2019 in The Journal of Applied Psychology, which used multiple daily surveys to study the impact of email on the effectiveness of a group of forty-eight manage. in various industries. One of the paper’s authors summarized their findings as follows: “When managers are the ones trying to recover from email interruptions, they fail to meet their goals, they neglect manager. responsibilities and their subordinates don’t have the leadership be. havior they need to thrive.” As the number of these messages increases, the manager becomes more likely to fall back on “tactical” behaviors to maintain a feeling of short-term productivity-tackling small tasks and responding to queries-while avoiding the bigger picture.

This effect implies there’s something irrational lurking in this system we use to allocate cognitive resources in the workplace. If slightly increasing friction drastically reduces the requests made on your time and attention, then most of these requests are not vital to your organization’s operation in the first place….

In the fall of 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported on a German entrepreneur named Lasse Rheingans, who had adopted a novel practice at his sixteen-person technology start-up: a five-hour workday. Rheingans wasn’t just reducing the time his employees spent in the office, but the total time they spent working each day. They arrive at around eight each morning and leave at around one in the afternoon. During the day, social media is banned, meetings highly restricted, and email checks constrained. When they’re done with work, they’re actually done until the next morning–no late-night sessions at the keyboard, no surreptitious smartphone messaging during their kids’ sporting events–as professional efforts are restricted to time spent in the physical office. Rheingans’s bet was that once you eliminated both distractions and endless conversations about work, five hours per day would be sufficient for people to get done the main things that mattered for the company.

Productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify the workflows that better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information.

We see this division in action in Devesh’s marketing firm. By moving project management to Trello boards, Devesh didn’t constrain how his team actually executed the core activities of designing and deploying marketing campaigns. What he did change, however, was the workflows that supported these activities–including how information about these projects was tracked, and how relevant information and questions were communicated. He innovated workflows but left the details of work execution up to his skilled employees.

Differentiating workflows and work execution is crucial if we’re going to continue to improve knowledge sector productivity. To get the full value of attention capital, we must start taking seriously the way we structure work.

Just the following design principle for developing approaches to work that provide better returns from your personal or organizational attention capital: seek workflows that 1) minimize mid-task context switches and 2) minimize the sense of communication overload. These two properties are the knowledge work equivalent of Henry Ford’s obsession with speed.

Regardless of the source of these interruptions, when it comes to producing value with your brain, the more you’re able to complete one thing at a time, sticking with the task until done before moving onto the next, the more efficiently and effectively you’ll work.

The second property cited above attempts to reduce the cognitive toll of feeling like everyone needs you at all times. All things being equal, workflows that minimize this never-ending stream of urgent communication are superior to those that instead amplify it. When you’re at home at night, or relaxing over the weekend, or on vacation, you shouldn’t feel like each moment away from work is a moment in which you’re accumulating deeper communication debt. In the age of the hyperactive hive mind, we’ve become used to this despondent state as a necessary consequence of our high-tech world, but this is nonsense.

one of the key explanations for the hyperactive hive mind’s persistence in the knowledge sector is that it’s really convenient in the moment for the individuals who use it. There are no systems to learn or rules to remember; you simply grab people electronically as you need them. Almost any alternative to this workflow is going to be less convenient, in the sense that it will require more effort to follow, and lead to short-term problems, like missed tasks or occasional long response delays. This reality helps explain why so many work reform movements, born out of inbox exhaustion, end up reduced down to only small tweaks- like promoting better “etiquette” surrounding messaging–as these toothless suggestions prevent anyone from having to confront the hardships that follow real changes to the hyperactive hive mind status quo.

We still talk about “innovation,” but this term now applies almost exclusively to the products and services we offer, not the means by which we produce them. When it comes to the latter topic, business thinkers tend to focus on secondary factors, like better leadership or clearer objectives to help stimulate productivity. Little attention is dedicated to the actual mechanics of how work is assigned, executed, and reviewed.

In murder took a radical steps to rethink how to get more out of his factory equipment. Knowledge workers need to take radical steps to get more of the human brains they deploy.

Book: Work the System (2008) – Sam Carpenter

Their own ways applying the attention capital principal can impact people with whom you work. The first is when alters workflows in such a way that people are forced to change how they execute their own work. … The second type of impact changes only other people’s expectations about your own work. This applies when you focus on upgrading your personal workflow. If, for example, you now check your inbox only twice a day as part of a larger overhaul of how you work, your cot leagues expectations for how quickly you’ll respond to their messages must shift.

Book: Personal Kanban (2011) – Jim Benson

The core ideas behind personal Kanban are simple enough that Benson can summarize them in a five minute video that he features on the books website.

It’s better to do a small number of things at any one time: give them your full concentration, and only when you finish one should you replace it with something new.

Individual Task Board best practices:

  1. Use more than 1 board. Many proponents of the personal kanban approach deploy a single board to make sense of all the tasks in their professional life. I recommend something slightly different: maintain a separate board for every major role in your professional life.
  2. Schedule regular solo review meetings.
  3. Add a “to discuss” column
  4. Add a “waiting to hear back” column

Article: I’m Joining the Open Office Hours Movement – Scott Kirsner

Why are the recipients in email addresses almost always people, and not, for example, departments, projects, or activities?

If you design workflows that allow knowledge workers to spend most of their time focusing without distraction on the activities for which they’re trained, you’ll produce much more total value than if you instead require these same workers to diffuse their attention among many different activities. This latter course is often the more convenient option in the moment, but rarely the most productive in the long term.