LET'S REMINISCE: Try to remember a world without email

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

The blizzard of 2021 reminded us that when we take some innovation for granted, it soon becomes virtually impossible to remember how we lived without it. The loss of electric power and clean water that many of us experienced during the Blizzard of 2021 drove home the point. In a new book entitled “A World Without Email,” Cal Newport gives us a brief history of email and tells us how quickly it has changed the way people work, for good and ill.

According to Newport, just a few decades ago (when I entered the teaching profession), communication was—to modern sensibilities— comically clunky. You could play phone tag all day. Grimy interoffice memo folders fell apart with constant use. Then email swept through corporate life because people could suddenly send and read messages whenever they liked. It introduced what Newport calls “low-friction communication at scale.”

When people collaborate in person, they tend to banter—talking back and forth quickly. To do this in email is a recipe for inefficiency, since multiple chains stack up on top of each other. There is no time to focus on any one topic before new messages come in on another. This dynamic style feeds on itself as people find themselves sending more messages just to grab someone else’s attention.

The volume of email messages grows; sending and receiving more than 100 business emails a day is not unusual. Many people, Newport writes, have found that “their actual productive output gets squeezed into the early morning, or evenings and weekends.” Meanwhile, their workdays become battles against their inboxes.”

Even worse, Mr. Newport argues, email makes us miserable. Because our brains have evolved for small-group give and take, failing to respond feels risky and antisocial. Unanswered messages become the psychological equivalent of ignoring a tribe member who might later prove key to surviving the next drought. Anxiety is the result, and it leads, predictably, to half of users checking email and instant-messaging systems every six minutes or less (as one 2018 study found).

About email’s flaws, Newport is persuasive, though less so when it comes to finding an alternative. He suggests that daily short meetings can help teams identify obstacles and keep people accountable without long message chains. But even the companies that use workflow alternatives still use email to some degree, especially for dealing with the outside world. That is because, Newport concedes, there’s no question that email elegantly solves real problems that once made office life really annoying—such as someone finally calling you back the second you start a conversation with someone else.

So perhaps a better title for Newport’s book would be “A World With Less Email.” With that more modest goal in mind, he has a few smart recommendations for individuals and organizations. For example, trying to compose shorter emails will allow you to see right away which matters deserve a phone call instead. Managers and support staff should view their mission, partly, as protecting employee time for deeper work. Big organizations could designate someone to limit the internal informational emails that waste employee time. Workflows should not be left to individuals to figure out on their own. Yes, workers need some autonomy over how they do their jobs. But when no one has time to do her

job—which is what checking email every six minutes guarantees—then managers should step in.

Newport suggests the life-changing habit of partitioning your time into deep work and interactive work. “An hour dedicated exclusively to a hard project followed by an hour dedicated exclusively to administrative work will produce more total output than if you instead mix these efforts into two hours of fragmented attention.” Chucking email entirely might be impossible, but less drastic adjustments, at least, are doable.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.