The title of Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work In The Age Of Overload, is only mildly misleading. The professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University in the US is not advocating a return to the Luddite postal system. Nor is he championing the use of the telephone as the best communication tool ever. Rather, his purpose is to teach us how to tame “the hyperactive hive mind” workflow that has invaded contemporary corporate work culture. To wit, it is a “workflow centred around ongoing conversation fuelled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger,” as he explains.
The key idea behind the book ties in with Newport’s earlier inquiries into productivity, especially in the bestseller Deep Work, which sought to redefine the rules of modern-day work cultures. “Deep work”, which involves innovation and creativity, demands uninterrupted focus of energies, argues Newport. And such a mode of immersive labour, he adds, is no longer possible because of the endless assault of email and instant messaging services like Slack on our senses. These tools, which were created to enhance our productivity, clear up time to concentrate, and not clutter our already chaotic schedules, are ironically leaving us exhausted, feeling inadequate, and often helpless with rage.
To illuminate the mess modern office workers find themselves in, Newport goes back to key moments in business history, when productivity was expedited by a combination of entrepreneurial foresight and technological revolution. He cites Henry Ford’s assembly line manufacturing principle as an example—not to sing the paeans of exploitative factory work (satirised masterfully by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times after a visit to Ford’s factory), but to understand the seamless workflow that this system allowed.
Throughout the book, Newport repeatedly invokes case studies to distinguish between execution and workflow—especially the perils of conflating the two concepts. Because, as tools that us coordinate workflow, emails and messaging apps are supposed to streamline our tasks and help us execute them better—not drown us in the flotsam of reply-all messages and casual chit-chat, which is most often the case now.
As with all his books, Newport offers practical, hands-on tips to cut down on email overload, either through a rearrangement of our work cultures or by adopting better tech. But most of all, he raises a rallying cry for behavioural changes, both at individual and organisational levels. Instead of wholly relying on AI to manage schedules and workflow, there needs to be a human interface within organisations tasked to make the processes smoother, allowing tired “knowledge workers” to focus on their primary job—to come up with fresh ideas and innovations.
Though well-meaning, such recommendations are likely to fly in the face of increasing budget cuts and lay-offs. But there is enough to pick and choose from Newport’s suggestions to help us make the system work for us, not the other way round. Emails are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future—but you need not lose your mind over their tyrannical demand for your attention.
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