Book Notes #12: “A World Without Email” (By Cal Newport)

by | Sep 26, 2022

A thought-provoking treatise on modern work. In an effort to be more efficient, we’ve adopted tools such as email which has come to represent work itself.

But this phenomenon is a race-to-the bottom, as we now live in a hyper busy, hive mind society where checking your inbox has become an addiction. It interferes with actual, real work.

I enjoyed the book especially the last part where the author Cal Newport presents solutions on how to reinvent work sans email or with less reliance on it. BTW, Cal and I went to college together, and he profiled me in his How to Win At College.

A World Without Email
By Cal Newport

Here are a few takeaways:

  • The Paradox of Email
    Newport contends that overreliance on email can negatively impact work. The paradox is that we think email makes us better, more connected and efficient communicators. But the opposite may be the case. And therefore, the dearth of email can lead to an increase in productivity and meaningful work.He opens the book with a story about a government department which had a technical malfunction in which email stopped working for a while. This created an opening to do actual real, meaningful work.

    The lack of an inbox to check between these meetings opened up cognitive downtime…to dive more deeply into the research literature and legislation relevant to the topics handled by his office.


  • Hyperactive Hive Mind
    Newport claims that knowledge workers largely suffer from this. He defines it as “A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.”

    One study that he cites finds that employees switched their attention to a new task once per every three minutes. We’re constantly switching, which creates a burdensome cognitive load. “Every time you switch your attention from one task to another, you’re basically asking your brain to switch all of these cognitive resources,” says on individual in the book.Another 2016 study found that workers checked email 77x per day. Managing our always-on communications has become a core function of knowledge work.

    Turns out there has been a stagnation of productivity over the last two decades. And that’s a phenomenon that Newport ascribes in part to email. In a world which we’re more connected than ever, why aren’t we more productive?

    “What if email didn’t save knowledge work but instead accidently traded minor conveniences for a major drag on real productivity (not frantic busyness, but actual results) leading to slower economic growth over the past two decades?”


  • Responsiveness > Thoughtfulness
    Newport mentions Maya Angelou who wrote in a hotel room all day so she wouldn’t be distracted. And drinking some sherry after (or during) her work.

    Imagine taking several hours a day and actually doing work without being interrupted. That doesn’t compute with modern knowledge work. Being quick to respond is now a hallmark of managers and emails. But what gets lost is the deep and thoughtful aspects of work.

    Not checking or responding to email can give us a serious sense of FOMO. But there’s more to it.

    To your entrenched social circuitry, evolved over millennia of food shortages mitigated through strategic alliances, these unanswered messages become the psychological equivalent of ignoring a tribe member who might later prove key to surviving the next drought. From this perspective, the crowded email inbox is not just frustrating—it’s a matter of life or death.

  • Knowledge Work Design
    Newport examines the origins of knowledge work with great (IMHO sometimes too much) detail. Comparatively, there was a lot of thought around how to optimize the daily workflow of those in the Industrial Age. Think Frederick Winslow Taylor and how he tinkered with the design of factories and production lines to boost output.

    But the same thing hasn’t happened with knowledge workers because everyone has presumably been granted autonomy to structure their own days for the most part. So the knowledge work has become a tragedy of the commons, in which everyone acts in their best interests to the detriment of the whole.

    It’s hard to fix a broken workflow when i’s no one’s job to make sure the workflow functions.


  • 4 Principles
    Newport details four principles which he uses to explain how we can rethink and redesign the knowledge worker workflow.

    Attention Capital Principle – The productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify workflows that better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information.


    The Process Principle – Introducing smart production processes to knowledge work can dramatically increase performance and make the work much less draining.


    The Protocol Principle – Designing rules that optimize when and how coordination occurs in the workplace is a pain in the short term but can result in significantly more productive operation in the long term.


    The Specialization Principle – In the knowledge sector, working on fewer things, but doing each thing with more quality and accountability, can be the foundation for significantly more productivity.


  • The Solutions
    Newport steps through a solutions on how to wean ourselves off email addiction. And instead to deeper more meaningful work.

    1. Five hour work day – Do the essential things without distractions. He cites a German entrepreneur who has had success with this model.

    2. Lean from XP developers – Extreme Programmers (XP) go days without checking emails. Two programmers share one computer, so you can instantly check your code (and also not be prone to surf the internet). There’s a business manager who manages incoming requests for the XP team.3. Use Trello boards to structure your communications about projects. You can have buckets like “Research and Notes” and “Backlog” to track the status of various items. There’s no “general-purpose inbox where you encounter messages about one project while trying to work on another.”

    Instead of rummaging through your email inbox, you can keep conversations structured and on topic. There are several project management systems that you could also use like Asana and Basecamp.

    4. Single tasking – Make your work sequential. Have a spreadsheet and track an activity. Once that activity is done, another team can check the same spreadsheet and then perform their task. So you don’t have to send emails saying that something is done etc.

    5. Automate tasks. Use Calendly or other meeting scheduling tools to automate certain tasks. Fewer emails and interruptions.

    6. Office hours – Professors and Venture Capitalists use office hours when you can stop by and communicate. If you need to chat with someone after their office hours – tough. Wait. Or if it’s truly urgent, then call/text the person.

    7. Client work – Indicate when/how you’ll be available to clients in your work description. And then have them sign the document so they know when they can contact you.

    8. Create non-personal email accounts such as When people think they’re emailing a department and non an individual, they don’t expect an immediate reply.

    9. Budget attention – make a quota for how much you’ll spend on certain outside activities. For example, if you’re being asked to serve on boards, you could respond by saying “I’ve reached my quota for the quarter, year, etc.” Have an attention capital ombudsman that tracks how many random requests are coming into your department, as a way to track, manage, and push back on requests.


  • Quotables
    Some noteworthy lines.

    Sisyphean battles against their inboxes.


    we cannot tame it with minor hacks — we need to replace it with a better workflow


    You must, in other words, become accountable for what you produce if you want the freedom to improve how you do so.


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