Reading Time: 3 minutes
My book review this month is on Cal Newport’s book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication OverloadThe premise of Newport’s book is that email is making all of us less productive. And other forms of digital messaging are not helping.
Newport introduces a concept he calls the Hyperactive Hive Mind – which he defines as “A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.” (p. xvii)
The first part of the book involves a presentation of evidence that this state, now ubiquitous in many office environments, is counterproductive to the notion of getting work that matters done efficiently and effectively.
In the second part of the book, Newport introduces suggestions for how we can reimagine work flows so that email is removed from the process. More takeaways include:

Attention Capital Theory

Attention Capital Theory is a framework developed by Newport that “argues for creating workflows built around processes specifically designed to help us get the most out of our human brains while minimizing unnecessary miseries.” For a simple example, suppose you regularly produce a project report that requires you to check in with several others to get an updated status. Rather than sending emails back and forth throughout the process, can you set up a shared Google spreadsheet that tracks every step with links to the needed documentation? The entire process can be run from that spreadsheet – eliminating all of the distractions from those emails.

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological

A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. (pp. 257-258). In adding texting and Slack channels, we haven’t really removed email, we’ve added yet more digital channels that can interrupt deep work.
It is not productive or smart to have highly educated specialists spending their days on administrative work and being distracted by email and text messages. We can divide the work that is done in an organization into value-producing efforts and administrative work. No one is saying that administrative work is unimportant but it may well make sense to increase the support staff so that the professionals trying to create value for the organization can focus on that for much of the day.
And to get the administrative work done, try removing email from the process. Email has the added disadvantage of making people feel overwhelmed and unhappy.
If you work for an organization and are feeling overwhelmed by email and interruptions, he mentions several strategies. One is to outsource the work that someone else could do better. Another strategy was to offer management your willingness to perform more value-producing work with the understanding that you plan to slack off on being interrupted.

Is productivity increasing or declining?

According to a 1999 article written by Peter Drucker, “since 1900 the productivity of the manual laborer increased by a factor of fifty!” (p. 101) And this increase in productivity accounted for most of the economic growth. We all know that email has solved a lot of challenges that many of us remember in the pre-email business world. Yet, according to economists at the Federal Reserve and the Brooking Institute, only .2 percent of growth from 1987 to 1993 can be attributed to the huge investment in technology that was supposed to improve productivity.
According to Newport, “the Luddites in this current moment are those who nostalgically cling to the hyperactive hive mind, claiming that there’s no need to keep striving to improve how we work in an increasingly high-tech world. Once we understand the contours of our frustrations with knowledge work, we recognize that we have the potential to make these efforts not only massively more productive, but also massively more fulfilling and sustainable. This has to be one of the most exciting and impactful challenges that almost no one is talking about . . . yet. ‘We need to proceed with our eyes wide open,” concluded Postman, “so that we may use technology rather than be used by it.'” (p. 261)