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Book:  A World Without Email

Author:  Cal Newport

Purchase:  Print | eBook | Audiobook

Citation:  Newport, C. (2021). A world without email : reimagining work in an age of communication overload. New York: Portfolio / Penguin.

Three Big Takeaways:
  1. George Marshall was the US Army Chief of Staff during World War II - meaning he essentially ran the entire war effort. Those who were involved in the war credit Marshall as a key figure in coordinating the allied triumph. Perhaps Marshall's most striking habit was his insistence on leaving the office each day at 5:30 p.m. He felt it was important to relax in the evening. “A man who worked himself to tatters on minor details had no ability to handle the most vital issues of War.”  Marshall focused his energy as a manager on making key decisions that would impact the outcome of the War. He then trusted his team to execute these decisions without involving him in the details. As Eisenhower recalls Marshall telling him: “The war department is filled with able men who analyze the problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for the final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.”  Marshall was more effective at his job because of his ability to focus on important issues – giving each full attention before moving on to the next. If he had instead accepted the status quo of the war department operation, with 60 officers pulling them into their decision-making and hundreds of commands looking for approval on routine activity, he would have fallen into the frantic and predictably busy whirlwind familiar to most managers, and this almost certainly would have harmed his performance. (pg. 22)

  2. In Sam Carpenter’s book a key insight he preached is the need to involve those who are affected by a new work procedure in the design of that procedure. His staff wrote 98% of the procedures currently in place and had a heavy hand in shaping the remaining 2% that Carpenter created himself. As a result, his employees are fully vested in these processes. Carpenter’s approach makes sense in the context of what's known as locus of control theory, a subfield of personality psychology that argues that motivation is closely connected to how other people feel like they have control over their ultimate success in an endeavor. Regardless of a decision’s inherent benefits, you might be accidentally shifting your team's sense of control from the internal to the external, sapping motivation and making it unlikely that they'll stick with the changes. On the other hand, if your team members are involved in the construction of the new decision and feel like they're able to improve it as deficiencies arise, then the control remains internal and the workflow is much more likely to be embraced. There's perhaps no better way to keep the locus of control internal than to empower your team to change what's not working. In practice, you might be surprised by how few changes are actually suggested. It's the ability to make changes that matters, as it provides a psychological emergency steam valve. (pg. 125)

  3. You must be careful and how you publicize changes to your personal work habits. Over the years of observing many different attempts by individuals to push back against or change their dependence on the hyperactive hivemind, and having attempted more than a few such changes myself, I've come to believe that these experiments are best executed quietly. Don't share the details of your new approach to work, unless someone specifically asked you out of genuine interest. A better strategy for shifting others' expectations about your work is to consistently deliver what you promise instead of consistently explaining how you're working. Become known as someone who never drops the ball, not someone who thinks a lot about their own productivity. If a request comes your way, be it an email or hallway chat, make sure it's handled. Don't let things fall through the cracks, and if you commit to doing something by a certain time, hit the deadline, or explain why you need to shift it. If people trust you to handle the work they send your way, then they're generally fine with not hearing back from you right away. On the other hand, if you're flaky, others will demand fast responses, as they feel they have to stay on you to ensure things get done. The professor and business writer Adam Grant uses the phrase idiosyncrasy credits to describe this reality. The better you are at what you do, he explains, the more freedom you earn to be idiosyncrasies and how we deliver – no explanation required. (pg. 129)


Other Key Ideas:​

One study estimates that by 2019 the average worker was sending and receiving 126 business emails per day, which works out to about one message every 4 minutes. A software company recently measured this behavior using time tracking software and calculated that its users were checking email or instant messenger tools like Slack once every 6 minutes on average. A survey conducted by Adobe revealed that knowledge workers  self-report spending more than 3 hours a day sending and receiving business email. (pg. xvi)

The telephone represents what communication specialists call synchronous messaging, which requires all parties in the interaction to participate at the same time. If you're not at your desk when I dial your extension, or if your line is busy, then the attempted interaction is a bust. In large businesses, the overhead of arranging synchronous communication becomes onerous, leading to drawn-out games of secretarial phone tag and pile of missed call message slips. An alternative form of interaction that avoids the overhead problem is asynchronous messaging, which doesn't require a receiver to be present when a message is sent. The inner-office mail cart is a classic example of this communication type. If I want to send you a note, I can drop it in my outgoing mail tray when it's convenient for me, and once it's delivered to your incoming mail tray, you can pick it up and read it when convenient for you – all with no coordination between us required. (pg. 64)

Synchrony might be expensive to arrange - both in the office setting and in computer systems – but trying to coordinate in its absence is also expensive. This reality summarizes well what many experienced as office communication shifted to email: they traded the pain of phone tag, scribbled notes, and endless meetings for the pain of a surprisingly large volume of ambiguous electronic messages passed back and forth throughout the day. Asynchrony instead introduces its own difficulties. A problem that might have been solved in a few minutes a real-time interaction in a meeting room or on the phone might now generate dozens of messages, and even then might still fail to converge on a satisfactory conclusion. (pg. 81)

Text message threads can be good for a couple purposes. The first is to celebrate wins: if someone accomplishes something important, either professionally or personally, they might share it on the group text thread. This is a chance to virtually high-five one another; a chance for some social interaction. The other use of a text message thread is to schedule the meetings in which most actual work interaction occurs. (pg. 149)

There's really no reason why anyone should still have to waste cognitive cycles and dragged-out scheduling conversations when you have an administrative assistant. You might think that the gains here are small – how hard is it to send some emails? – but if you are like me, you'll likely be surprised by the feeling of burden being lifted when you eliminate all these ongoing scheduling conversations, which have a way of nibbling at the borders of your concentration. (pg. 193)

There's a confusing cognitive dissonance many people feel about digital communication tools like email. Emotionally, we know email is a better way to deliver messages compared to the technologies it's superseded: It's universal, it's fast, it's essentially free. For anyone old enough to remember clearing jammed fax machines or struggling to open the red thread ties of those worn member folders, there's no debate that email elegantly solves real problems that once made office life really annoying. At the same time, we're fed up with our inboxes, which seem to be as much a source of stress and overwork as they are a productivity boon. (pg. 258)

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