Can we really increase our productivity and work satisfaction by separating from email? In his new book, author Cal Newport, known for his book Deep Work, attempts to show how it is possible. He identifies the problem created by the advent of email and gives it a provocative name: the hyperactive hive mind.
The premise of A World Without Email is simple: email was a game-changing, easy-to-use, and convenient technology that has given rise to a productivity-sucking, misery-inducing workflow called the hyperactive hive mind. It started with email, but has evolved with the introduction of instant messaging, text messaging, the ubiquitous smartphone, and video conferencing platforms. The hyperactive hive mind is characterized by low-friction, unscheduled, and unstructured back-and-forth message exchanges throughout the day. This hyperactive workflow appears convenient and low-cost in the moment, but its short-term benefits create resistance to devising better work flows.
There are costs associated with deploying the hyperactive hive mind workflow. We don’t consciously recognize them, but we are familiar with the effects: job dissatisfaction, burnout, feeling overwhelmed, and lowered productivity and quality of output.
This is Newport’s diagnosis, and I’m convinced that he makes his case, in part because I recognize the toll the hyperactive hive mind has in my own professional life and the sense of misery it can produce by erecting barriers to getting my work done. Newport’s analysis and solutions would be at home in books like The E-Myth, by Michael Gerber.
WHY EMAIL BECAME A PROBLEM
Email was a powerful solution to the problem of asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication, explains Newport, is great for collaboration and works best with small groups of people working together in real time. Asynchronous communication is not good for collaboration, but the benefit it brings is that it doesn’t need to be coordinated in advance. You deliver a message, and you get a response in the future when the recipient receives it. You don’t have to be together in that moment to exchange information.
In the old days, before email, asynchronous communication was achieved through the use of voicemails, faxes, post-it notes that people stuck to their colleagues’ desks when they were out, interoffice memos, and even old-fashioned snail mail. In the book, Newport describes the CIA’s highly complex but beloved message delivery system: a pneumatic tube transport system, which helped deliver asynchronous messages faster than a person with a push cart could carry them. I grew up seeing pneumatic tube transport systems at the bank drive-thru.
Email was a perfect solution to the challenges of asynchronous messaging because delivery was almost instantaneous to anyone in the world who had an inbox and an email address. Instead of having to wait hours or days to receive a reply, email made it possible to reduce this time delay to minutes or even seconds. And it also made it possible to copy in multiple people to a conversation, something that was practically impossible with inter-office post-it note delivery or fax transmissions. It created a new way to interact and discuss our problems and devise solutions in almost real-time in a way impossible if we were having these conversations through voicemail.
Email and instant messaging are also fast and convenient. If some thought or question pops into your head, you can simply fire off an email or Microsoft Teams message to a colleague and expect an immediate answer. This is very convenient for you. But it comes with a cost.
CONSTANT INTERRUPTIONS ARE BAD
Newport gives facts that bring the nature of the problem into stark relief:
- One study he cites said that the average worker sends and receives 126 business emails per day, an average of one every 4 minutes.
- Another study showed that users check their email or instant messenger platforms once every six minutes on average.
- A team from the University of California, Irvine, discovered that workers check their inboxes an average of 77 times a day, with heavy users checking much more often than even that.
In an 8-hour day, therefore, an average worker is checking his inbox once every 6 minutes. “The quick phone call, it turns out, cannot always be replaced with a single quick message, but instead often requires dozens of ambiguous digital notes passed back and forth to replicate the interactive nature of conversation. If you multiply the many formerly real-time exchanges now handled through multitudinous messaging, you get a long way toward understanding why the average knowledge worker sends and receives 126 emails per day.” [p. 78]
Newport covers this data in the book‘s introduction (pp. xvi-xvii). In the next several chapters he discusses the cognitive costs and consequences associated with switching back and forth between tasks. The harder the tasks being switched, the higher the cognitive cost. It takes you longer to complete complex tasks if you are switching back and forth between them than if you complete them sequentially. Newport goes into the implications that the cognitive costs of mid-context task switching have on our productivity–and work satisfaction. The second chapter is titled “Email Makes Us Miserable.”
He explains that a “mid-task context switch is when you have to stop an otherwise self-contained task and switch your attention to something unrelated before returning to the original object of your attention.” [p. 113]
The question that should now be on your mind is this: How in the world can anyone get their work done if they are breaking their concentration every 6 minutes on average to check their inbox or instant messaging channels? What kind of effect does that kind of distraction have on a person’s productivity, the quality of their output, and their job satisfaction?
“In these previous chapters, I argued that there’s a large cognitive cost to switching your attention from one target to another. Any workflow that requires you to constantly tend conversations unfolding in an inbox or chat channel is going to diminish the quality of your brain’s output.” [p. 112]
These interruptions can be in the form of email notifications, audible cues or vibrations from your phone, and even interruptions by co-workers as they walk past your office and stop in for a chat.
Part of the solution is to recognize the problem: “Regardless of the source of these interruptions, when it comes to producing value with your brain, the more you’re able to complete one thing at a time, sticking with a task until done before moving on to the next, the more efficiently and effectively you’ll work.” [p. 113]
SOLUTIONS TO THE HYPERACTIVE HIVE MIND
Newport adopted the correct strategy for his book: a negative-positive approach.
He spends the first part diagnosing the problem, identifying the villain (the hyperactive hive mind), and explaining how it exacts its price from the modern knowledge worker. But it is rarely good enough to simply identify a problem; to have influence, you need to also take positive steps to show how your audience can solve or at least mitigate the worst effects of the problem in their lives.
That’s what the second part of the book does: develops some basic principles for developing new and better workflows to replace the hyperactive hive mind while discussing specific strategies and tools for applying those principles, both within an organization or at the team level and at the personal level. That is because Newport recognizes that entrepreneurs and executives will have greater authority and freedom to apply these new techniques than will an individual employee who has little influence. But he wants even the individual to be able to improve his job satisfaction and increase his productivity by beating back the hyperactive hive mind in the areas of his life that he controls.
THE LONG-TERM IMPACT PREDICTED
Assume an organization internalizes the message of A World Without Email and radically restructures its workflows to eliminate the hyperactive hive mind. What do its leaders stand to gain in the long run? This is a problem that Newport must face if he hopes to have an impact in defeating the hyperactive hive mind. There is always a cost to changing the way we do things. It takes perseverance and an optimistic vision of the future to see ahead far enough to calculate the return such an investment will produce.
Wisely, Newport confronts potential skeptics directly.
First, he reminds us of the vision of knowledge work’s potential articulated by Peter Drucker, the famed 20th century management theorist. “As Peter Drucker argues in a classic 1999 article, this obsession with industrial improvement was enormously successful. As Drucker reminds the reader, since 1900 the productivity of the manual laborer increased by a factor of fifty!” Then, in that same article, Drucker noted “that in terms of productivity thinking, knowledge work was where industrial manufacturing was in 1900–that is, right before the radical experiments that increased productivity by fifty times. We’re poised, in other words, to make similarly massive increases in the economic effectiveness of the knowledge sector, if we’re willing to get serious about questioning how we work.” [pp. 101-103]
If we can devise better workflows to replace the hyperactive hive mind, then we can unleash the untapped potential lurking in our knowledge-work economy, business by business.
EXAMPLES FROM HISTORY
Second, Newport plumbs the history of industrial process engineering and provides a few enlightening case studies to show how we might rediscover old strategies used in different times and in different sectors to develop similar knowledge workflow improvements using analogous tools and methods. He teaches us about key process engineering methods that changed the world. One classic example he gives is of the automotive industry before and after Henry Ford developed and perfected the assembly line. It went from a pool of laborers inefficiently assembling one car at a time, piece by piece, to an assembly line of specialized workers who assembled the same part over and over. Assembly time for one Model T went from 12.5 labor-hours to 93 minutes. [pp. 97-99]
One particularly interesting case study about process improvement comes from a 1916 account involving the Pullman train car company. Pullman’s Chicago brassworks factory supplied components for most of the company’s departments, and the volume of work and requests was so large that it overwhelmed the managers. Everyone had to help everyone else just to keep the volume of work moving through the factory, which was a demoralizing effort. Productivity and prioritization were so broken that to get the part you needed from the factory, you had to show up and nag someone there you knew until the part was completed. Newport describes the situation as a 20th century industrial version of the modern hyperactive hive mind workflow.
In response, the company took drastic action that reduced the production cost of each Pullman train car substantially to greatly increase profits. They made the production process more complex by adding a formal structure to it. They went from seven administrative personnel managing 350 brass workers to 47. Despite this significant increase in overhead cost (administrative salaries), the overall result was still a significant increase in efficiency: lower costs, higher profits. They even went so far as to create a kind of mechanical spreadsheet taskboard system so that the work process and assignments could be visualized. [pp. 135-138, 155]
The primary problem that the Pullman company solved was the demoralizing, draining impact of the constant task-switching required by the workers to both manage their workflow and perform the work itself.
Taking a cue from examples like Pullman, one of the primary tools, or workflow methods, that Newport presents as an alternative to the hyperactive hive mind is the taskboard. He spends many pages in his book describing how the taskboard method generally works, from the agile methodologies deployed in the software industry, to task-card productivity apps like Trello, to more serious project-focused platforms like Asana and Jira.
As Newport points out at the end of his book, what he’s really calling for is not a world without email, but rather a world without the hyperactive hive mind.
The ultimate goal for any individual or organization is to identify the processes that are required to do their work and then begin optimizing them to eliminate their dependence on the hyperactive hive mind. Leaders need to engage in rigorous process re-engineering to bring the kind of efficiency to the knowledge work sector that Henry Ford brought to the automobile industry. Whether this is done with work-tracking tools like virtual taskboards, automating repetitive processes, or by developing alternative communications protocols like establishing office hours, the key is to remember that there is no universal solution. The 21st century knowledge-work leader must identify the processes used in his organization, break them down into steps, analyze them (particularly their dependence on unstructured or unplanned communication), and then rebuild them using a combination of the tools, processes, and protocols mentioned in the book’s second part–and ones not mentioned in the book, whatever they may be.
A World Without Email is provocative and worth the time to read. Anyone burdened by the hyperactive hive mind workflow who recognizes the price it exacts on their productivity and job satisfaction, while also thinking that there must be a better way to structure their work, will benefit from reading this book.
Newport keeps it interesting. He sprinkles interesting case studies, statistics, studies, and examples from history to illustrate his points with memorable stories. He is an academic, but he did not fall victim to the academic’s temptation to write a book full of theory but light on practical application. He does his best to pack in multiple practical suggestions backed up with thoughtful explanation to show how they are consistent with the principles he presents for eliminating the hyperactive hive mind workflow.
The hyperactive hive mind workflow is built around unstructured, unplanned, low-friction communication. It relies on its ability to interrupt the recipient, to break their focus from whatever task they are concentrating on, and to prompt them to switch their attention to whatever problem the sender needs help with. This seems good for the initiator in the short run, but in the long run it enslaves everyone within the hive mind’s reach to troubled days (and evenings and weekends) full of punctuated concentration and mid-context task switching that lowers their productivity, reduces the quality of their output, and makes them miserable in the process.
The key to eliminating the grip of the hyperactive hive mind on the modern knowledge worker in any field and unleashing his potential for productivity gains is to re-engineer the processes by which he does his work. Newport explains that, partly as a consequence of the influence of Peter Drucker’s work and his insistence that knowledge workers be left free to define how they do their work, we have so far failed to distinguish between executing the work (Drucker’s focus) and how that work is processed (workflow). The leadership in any organization should refine and define the workflows so that knowledge workers can focus on executing their work in the ways they see best without having to also constantly manage the workflow and waste cognitive cycles switching back-and-forth between them.
However, there is a potential for a misfire here. Newport points out that any procedure that is refined or created by an organization’s leadership that will affect how employees do their work must have input and buy-in from the people who are affected. Newport explains that “people don’t like changes they can’t control.” [p. 133]
The visionary leader who takes the book’s message seriously will be rewarded with a productivity explosion, significant increases in employee satisfaction and contentment, better service to clients and customers, and ultimately a massive increase in profits and market influence.