Stephen Malina

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Book Review - A World Without Email

A World Without Email (AWWE) is Cal Newport’s new book arguing for an overhaul in our workplace communication and project management style. This topic is a natural follow up to Newport’s previous two books – Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. These books focused on the individual benefits of hard focused effort and deliberate technology reduction respectively. This book applies a similar lens to the modern frenetic knowledge economy workplace. According to Newport, priortizing responsiveness and heavily relying on general purpose communication tools in the workplace is making us miserable and unproductive. Newport instead argues that we should design workflows and processes that maximize knowledge worker productivity by enabling single-tasking and moving communications out of all-purpose, optimized for rapid response tools.

The book has two parts. The first part interleaves a history of how the modern email-filled knowledge workplace arose haphazardly with the beginnings of an argument against this style of work. The second part argues for changing our workplace culture to one in which focus gets prioritized through thoughtfully constructed workflows. In this review, I focused on Newport’s arguments against this style of work and only touch on his proposed solutions as necessary for explaining the arguments. This is not because his recommendations are uninteresting but because I am quite familiar with the practices he recommends, such as agile methodologies, and therefore would find writing about them boring.

I find myself in the strange position of having enjoyed the book while reading it but becoming more critical of it as I wrote this review. As a result, in the rest of this review, I try to give Newport’s main arguments a fair hearing but also critique them quite a bit along the way.

The Case Against Email… And Other General Use Electronic Communication Tools

Let’s get something out of the way. When Cal Newport says he wants a world without email, he really means he wants a world in which much less work communication happens via asynchronous general purpose electronic communication tools such as email, Slack, Discord, and Microsoft Teams. Before we judge him too harshly for trading catchiness for nuance with the title though, we should note that he has said in one of his podcasts that he wanted to call the book A World Without the Hyperactive Hivemind but his publisher wouldn’t let him.

Now, why does Newport want to so dramatically reduce the use of these tools? While the first half of the book spends a lot of time discussing this, if we cut out the anecdotes and social science references, the case ultimately comes down to the following:

  1. Asynchronous, just-in-time communication imposes high context switching costs and context switching is antithetical to deep work.
  2. Anytime communication hacks our evolved social instincts to make us constantly stressed.
  3. Email is not your job, output is.

1. The Cost of Context Switching

Paraphrased, Newport’s argument against context switching goes something like this. While your brain has a lot of things happening at once under the hood, its software architecture is essentially single-threaded due to the bottleneck of your attention. When you multi-task, it may feel like you’re processing multiple things in parallel but what you’re really doing is rapidly thrashing your attention from one to the other. Every switch uses up extra cognitive resources, making it harder for you to focus on any one of the several things you’re switching between. As a result, constantly switching between your email/Slack/Microsoft Teams and whatever task you’re working on slows you down, drains your mental acuity, and leaves you with residual stress.

Newport cites two studies in support of this picture. The first, from 1927, compared subject performance on repeated addition to alternating between addition and subtraction and found that the latter took longer. I personally think this study proves too much insofar as the type of switch it studies could easily fit into a single, focused task like coding, so I don’t count it as strong evidence for Newport’s claim. The second is more relevant. This study seeks to measure how much subjects attention remains on an unfinished or finished task after switching. To measure this, they first had subjects work on a puzzle, dividing subjects into possible and impossible to complete and time pressure and no time pressure groups. After 5 minutes, they forced the subjects to switch their attention to a lexical decision task, which they use to measure how much of the subject’s focus is still stuck on the puzzle. For our purposes, the most important takeaway from this study is that college undergraduates seem to perform worse on a lexical decision task when they fail to finish the prior thing they were working on.

In AWWE, Newport puts a lot of weight on these two studies as justification for context switching being bad. Taken in isolation, I view the studies with more skepticism. On their own, they provide weak evidence for the context switching is bad claim. Instead, I find the anecdotal evidence for context switching having negative effects very convincing. You can easily experience the impact of excessive context switching yourself if you live under a rockhaven’t already.

To do so, you are going to conduct a little experiment. Pick two tasks of comparable difficulty that will take around an hour. Complete one task without getting distracted and notice your level of focus and engagement throughout. While working on the second task, set a repeated timer to go off every 5 minutes. Every time the timer goes off, stop working and spend 1 minute doom-scrolling your favorite distracting app/blog/news site/etc. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that your ability to focus on the second task rapidly decays after a few of the switches and your attention starts to pull you take longer and longer distraction breaks as you go, demonstrating in a more realistic setting the impact of constant context switching.

What this doesn’t address is the question of whether all context switching created equal. That is, if I answer a few Slack messages every hour while otherwise focusing, how bad is that relative to checking Twitter every five minutes? Anecdotally and just logically, even minor switches at the wrong time do impose a cost. If you’re trying to decide whether some code works and get distracted by a notification, whatever was in your working memory gets knocked out and so will have to be reloaded upon switching back from the distraction. On the other hand, most work does involve natural pauses during which I can see checking one’s messages imposing less of a cost. My model of Cal Newport also has him arguing 1) that trying to find the right balance of limited distractions tends to put one on a slippery slope tilted towards more distraction and 2) that it’s hard to predict how involved a message/notification will be before you look at it. Together, I think these arguments provide a good case for being very wary of supposedly minor distractions.

The argument against context switching in the workplace follows naturally if you buy into the above arguments, especially if you’re already familiar with Newport’s general views on deep work. As demonstrated, constant context switching makes deep focus harder. Given that deep focus is an essential component of knowledge work, context switching should be reduced as much as possible to enable deep work.

2. Monkey Chat, Monkey Stress

In addition to reducing your productivity, Newport argues constant communication is making you miserable and stressed. Specifically, he argues that anytime communication tools such as texts, instant messages, and “response required ASAP” emails hack our social instincts, which evolved in an ancestral environment in which social currency could mean life or death.

I’m generally wary of qualitative arguments from evolution in popular science. It’s just too easy to use evolution to justify anything post hoc. Setting aside the evolutionary argument though, I think Newport still has a point, but again better justified by anecdotal evidence combined with common sense. In the section on this topic, Newport writes:

This frenetic approach to professional collaboration generates messages faster than you can keep up—you finish one response only to find three more have arrived in the interim—and while you’re at home at night, or over the weekend, or on vacation, you cannot escape the awareness that the missives in your inbox are piling ever thicker in your absence.

As someone who works with people who recognize and support the need for focus and deep work, I confess I still stress about unread direct messages and routinely check Slack over the weekend despite noone expecting me to do so. And it’s not just me. Many of my friends, especially those who work in finance and therefore often are expected to respond, feel similar obligations and stress over checking and responding to messages as soon as possible. Despite what Sam Altman may say, my overall sense is that this stress negatively impacts our ability to actually get the things we need to done effectively and efficiently.

As Leopold Aschenbrenner pointed out to me, one rebuttal to this is that even if constant communication causes stress and reduces productivity, it’s a worthwhile trade-off because responding quickly enables others to get their work done faster. This applies especially strongly to large organizations because 1) to the degree it’s an O-ring dynamic, it will scale with the number of people required to make a decision and 2) the organization can deal with individual productivity hits by simply hiring more people. This is a good point but I’m skeptical of it. First of all, most organizations don’t have “money printers” that enable them to hire to make up for lost productivity. Second, as Fred Brooks famously pointed out, just adding people to a project rarely magically makes the project get finished faster. I suspect this observation generalizes such that for a given scope of work, hiring more people to recoup lost efficiency ends up decreasing efficiency further.

3. Email is not your job

I suspect a common response to the two above arguments is something like, “yes my email makes me miserable and impacts my focus, but it’s my job! Being productive means responding to my email.” To this Cal Newport says, “no, your job is to drive value for the company and, if you’re a ‘knowledge worker’, doing that involves at least some amount of focused work rather than constant communication.”

Expanding on this, Newport provides two main arguments against rapid communication being an intrinsic rather than incidental component of most jobs. The first argument is that electronic communication is relatively recent in the overall history of the workplace that was intended to solve certain problems and ended up dominating our work lives. The second argument is basicallly argument by anecdote. Newport profiles a few organizations that transitioned from a hive mind style of work to a Newport-approved one and became more productive.

Although I’m very sympathetic to Newport’s argument here, I found myself disappointed by the anecdotes he used. Newport mostly cites examples of consulting firms or companies known for proselytizing about specific practices such as extreme programming. In some sense, this isn’t surprising. If you go out looking for organizations who practice a different way of working, you’re naturally going to encounter the organizations that loudly trumpet their amazing work processes first. Sadly though, as anyone who’s been on the other side of an attempted implementation of the One True Framework That Solves Everything knows, these organizations also tend to be the ones least likely to acknowledge trade-offs and or hiccups in actually implementing whatever their favorite process is.

Instead, I wish Newport had found at least a couple examples of, ideally larger, non-consulting, organizations that quietly struggled but eventually successfully implemented better alternatives to hyperactive hivemind workflows at scale even if this meant writing even more. I suspect this would make his argument more likely to convince skeptics such as my finance friends that his arguments apply to their style of work while making the book more novel to those of us who have already read similar books.

Why Is The Hive Mind So Powerful?

Before I discuss why I belive hive mind culture persists, I want to emphasize how grateful I am that my workplace and coworkers respect the need for focus for doing good work. However, I’m consistently horrified by expectations for responsiveness and required multi-tasking at many of my friends’ workplaces. Similar to Newport, the frenetic, multi-tasked workstyle disgusts me on both aesthetic and efficiency-minded grounds. Unfortunately, outside of identifying convenience as a factor, I think Newport’s argument for the persistence of hive mind dynamics almost entirely fail to explain their persistence.

Either due to ignorance or unwillingness, Newport eschews any discussion of signaling and power dynamics despite these dynamics playing a major role in encouraging hive mind dynamics. Put simply, especially in large organizations in less competitive industries, what makes your boss like you may not align with what’s maximally beneficial for the company in the long term. In terms of signaling, being very responsive is a good, relatively cheap (for you) way to indicate you’re working hard. As an employee, you could ignore this and get more work done but be less responsive out of some virtue ethical obligation to the company, but you might explicitly be doing so at risk to your career prospects. Similarly, while it might be better if a company protected its employees four hours of deep work time every day, managers may prefer to have access to their employees whenever is convenient for them and therefore have limited incentives to unilaterally improve things.

Newport also ignores other, less polite but real factors such as:

  1. Managers having an incentive to exaggerate their team’s productivity and reduce its legibility.
  2. Many organizations not paying for high long-term velocity and productivity but rather ability to deal with short bursts of above average demand. This seems to be especially common in financial institutions.
  3. Decision makers for which service provider to use enjoying the feeling of being responded to quickly leading to less effective but more responsive organizations getting business.

Newport’s unwillingness to confront how power, signaling, and alignment play a role in driving the hyperactive hivemind makes me pessimistic about his book driving real, broad change in our workplaces. In other words, Newport needs to learn about competitive ethics.

Conclusion

Cal Newport has always impressed me because he’s not just a productivity guru. He’s a real theoretical computer science researcher who puts his recommended strategies to the test in his own work. Unfortunately, I worry that this career path left him ill-equipped to find evaluate evidence for and find convincing examples for his claims in this book. And without this, I think his argument won’t convince many who aren’t already sold to make the massive shift he recommends given that their convincingness to me relies so heavily on priors from personal experience.

Despite all my critiques, I strongly agree with Newport’s core argument that we’re leaving a lot of productivity growth on the table by not enabling knowledge workers and managers to work in a way more in line with cognitive realities. Because of that, even if it fails to acknowledge the real incentive structures that maintain the current status quo, I hope that his book can drive awareness of our current inadequate equilibria particularly amongst savvy people with the skills and power to change it.

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