Four takeaways from "A World Without Email”







November 23, 2022

Author Cal Newport is best known for his book Deep Work, published in 2016. (My review of that title here.)

I've heard much less about his more recent book, A World Without Email. His ideas in that title are as important for knowledge workers—and their managers—as those in Deep Work.

The cover of A World Without Email

Here are the book's four most important takeaways. (Emphasis in bold mine.)

1) There's no innovation in how we do our work.

"We still talk about 'innovation,' but this term now applies almost exclusively to the products and services we offer, not the means by which we produce them. When it comes to the latter topic, business thinkers tend to focus on secondary factors, like better leadership or clearer objectives to help stimulate productivity. Little attention is dedicated to the actual mechanics of how work is assigned, executed, and reviewed."

2) We've made our work environments less suitable for high-value output.

"Knowledge workers with highly trained skills, and the ability to produce high-value output with their brains, spend much of their time wrangling with computer systems, scheduling meetings, filling out forms, fighting with word processors, struggling with PowerPoint, and of course, above all, sending and receiving digital messages from everyone about everything at all times. We think we’ve advanced because we no longer need secretaries or typing pools, but we don’t factor in how much less bottom-line-boosting work we actually accomplish."

3) Frictionless workflows are suboptimal workflows.

"Imagine that I frequently need you to sign a certain type of requisition form. With low-friction communication tools like email, I might simply shoot you copies of the forms to sign whenever I need them, as this gets the responsibility off my plate with minimal effort. Without email, however, the pain of having to come physically find you for every signature will motivate me to develop a better system."

4) We need organizational instead of personal productivity.

"The intricacies of how the myriad demanding tasks that define modern office work are accomplished remain largely beyond the scope of management. They’re pushed instead into the hazy realm of personal productivity. Want to know how to get things done? Buy a book on how to better organize your tasks… or use a new planner, or, as is more commonly suggested in our culture of “crushing it,” simply work harder."

Workflows… should not be left to individuals to figure out on their own, as the most effective systems are unlikely to arise naturally. They need instead to be explicitly identified as part of an organization’s operating procedures."

This book is less useful as a personal productivity book than Deep Work. But A World Without Email is a must-read if you manage knowledge workers. It gives you a new perspective on your role as a leader and how to manage productivity at the team or company level.

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