Cal Newport doesn’t like the distractions of technology. In fact, Newport thinks that our focus on technology and how it dominates modern business is holding us back. The titles of popular books released by the celebrated New Yorker writer – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focus Life in a Noisy World – will tell you that. But his latest book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, looks to take a sledgehammer to how technology runs modern enterprise and, ultimately, our lives.
Newport, 38, is an interesting voice on technology, with an outlook that often runs contrary to prevailing opinion, but one who makes persuasive arguments, nevertheless. He is worth reading – he also has a fantastic podcast – even if you don’t agree with all of his ideas. The key to his value as a thinker is that he makes you think about ideas that you would normally dismiss. Similar to how fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell reimagines the social sciences, Newport takes an alternative view of study, workflows and technology. As he puts it himself, he looks at how “digital technology intersects with culture”, with a particular focus on “our struggles to deploy these tools in ways that support instead of subvert”.
In his new book, which is just about to hit the shelves, Newport makes the case for a world without email. As you might imagine with such a celebrated writer – and a book that is making waves within the business and tech community – the argument is a lot more complex and compelling than just saying: “Email is bad: don’t use it”. Newport analyses the communication overload in our work lives and reasons that it is ultimately holding us back.
Newport highlights worrying stats on email use
The first thing to say is that Newport has a point. If you take a step back and consider how much we use multiple communication tools, you can see why words like “misery”, “drowning”, and “tyranny of the inbox” are attached to the book. It shines a light on how much we use email – 126 business emails a day for the average worker, according to one study. If every email were important, that might be okay. But we are conditioned to think that the unimportant stuff has merit, when it only serves to distract and confuse.
But the book also takes aim at the way we use multiple communication tools – Outlook, Gmail, WhatsApp, Slack, Teams, Messenger, and so on. Newport talks about the back and forth not only distracting us, but actually being detrimental to our cognitive abilities. Again, you might think that you can’t survive, both at work and socially, without these tools, but Newport makes seductive arguments that will make you rethink your use of them.
It’s worth saying that some solutions to the problems Newport highlights already exist. For example, Spike, arguably the best email app for transforming workflows, has been championed by several major companies keen to revolutionize how employees communicate. The idea is not to jettison email, but to make it smarter. Instead of the back and forth, you get collaborative tools that have the best elements of Gmail, Slack, iMessage, etc., in an individual app.
Not all Newport’s ideas could be feasibly implemented
While we maintain that Newport’s arguments are compelling, you can imagine that business owners might be somewhat more skeptical as to how his solutions are implemented. For example, he speaks of an attention capital ombudsman and specific hours when workers can be interrupted by emails and other messages. The problem is that these ideas might be fine for a cash-rich software development company with a beanbag-laden office in Brooklyn, but they seem impractical for the average business.
Then again, as we mentioned, you don’t need to completely agree with Newport to enjoy the book. Indeed, you don’t even need to be a business owner or work in tech to have some of the messaging resonate with you, and stay with you long after you have finished. As a reader of Computing for Geeks, it’s more than probable that you use a lot of tools for communication. A World Without Email invites you to scrutinize how useful these tools are in your life. You can be sure that many readers of the book will be reflecting on the subject, even if they aren’t ready to delete their email account.