Whenever I check my emails, a number pops up on the top right corner of my computer screen that used to fill me with a terrible feeling of despair.
It shows how many emails are in my inbox and as I type I see there are thousands. Another number in the top left shows something that once caused even more trouble: the emails that are unread. There are also thousands of them.
For a while, I’ve been doing what people tell you to deal with a bloated inbox. Set filters. Store things in folders. Make time to remove en masse. But the scale of the digital bilge was overwhelming. So then I did something much more effective. I gave up.
I’ve never looked back on the liberating strategy of letting the mess in. Still, I was pleased that an email recently arrived with the news that Cal Newport, an American academic, had written a new book called A world without emailIt promised to free workers from inbox tyranny and I immediately found a copy.
Newport has become an authority on smarter ways of working. At the age of 38, the computer science professor has knocked out seven books in the past 16 years, including a hit from 2016, Deep work, whose title has become a catchphrase for achieving focus in a hectic distracted world.
He also has a podcast, a blog, a newsletter and three sons under the age of nine. He doesn’t usually work after 5:30 pm on weekdays and keeps most of his weekends off.
I suspect he knows how to be productive. Whether or not he knows how to end the scourge of too much email is another thing.
What I like most about his book is that it shows that the email problem is much worse than I thought. What could have been a mild nuisance a decade ago has grown into a serious productivity juice.
The average employee now sends and receives about 126 business emails a day, Newport reports, and many white-collar workers spend more than three hours a day on the Sisyphean task to handle them.
They do this knowing that many posts are irrelevant and few require immediate replies. Why? In part, because our old brains are determined to worry about ignoring social obligations. That made evolutionary sense when we lived in interdependent tribes. Today it explains the suffering that erupts when you see a screen of unanswered emails.
The problem is, email is so cheap and convenient that it has given rise to what Newport calls the “hyperactive beehive brain” – a new way of working in the office that revolves around an ongoing conversation of unplanned messages.
Email and its more feverish cousin, Slack, no longer simply interrupt important tasks. They fuel an endless, attention-grabbing digital discussion about those tasks that we have come to regard as normal and inevitable.
In other words, the scourge of email is part of a broader, systemic problem that can’t be solved with one-time productivity hacks, like writing better subject headings or using Gmail’s auto-complete feature.
It requires a much larger structural overhaul, similar to the way Henry Ford revolutionized the automotive industry with the assembly line.
This, I think, is a profound insight. I’m less convinced by some of Newport’s ideas of what can be done about it. This is partly because organizations differ so much that there are few unambiguous answers. Some of his suggested solutions also require online project management tools, such as Trello, that allow for more focused work on specific tasks. They may be more familiar to a computer scientist like Newport than to others.
Many companies would fail to test some of his other ideas – set hours when an employee cannot be interrupted; hiring an “attention capital ombudsman”; supercharging ”administrative support at workplaces. Such changes, Newport admits, can be “tedious in the short term,” although he is confident that the productivity gains will be worth it in the long run. I think he is right. One day, a new Henry Ford will be rewarded for repairing the imperfect working world that was unwittingly forged by technical breakthroughs like email. Meanwhile, Newport has defined the magnitude of a problem that few of us knew existed