[Book Review] A world without email

Today, I want to give a brief reivew of Cal Newport, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload (Penguin 2021, see also the author’s website).

The summary situates the work as follows:

Modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations–a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work. There was a time when tools like email felt cutting edge, but a thorough review of current evidence reveals that the “hyperactive hive mind” workflow they helped create has become a productivity disaster, reducing profitability and perhaps even slowing overall economic growth. Equally worrisome, it makes us miserable. Humans are simply not wired for constant digital communication. (source)

Cal Newport has made a name for himself by challenging prevailing self-help trends as he did in his previous works, including Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Initially, I was skeptical about this book, finding Digital Minimalism somewhat extreme, despite sharing my experiments with it on this blog (The Digital Minimalism Experiment: Conclusion). However, the longer the book went on, the more I was convinced of his call to revolutionize our approaches to knowledge work. It’s not just a manifesto, he also shares some practical strategies towards the end.

Newport critiques the the hyperconnectivity in the age of constant (and instant) communication, calling it the hyperactive hive mind. He references management innovator Peter Drucker and cites Harrison Ford’s revolution of production through the introduction of assembly lines as historical analogies. He discusses the 5-hour workday and delves into management innovation and the costs of (a)synchronicity in computing and self-management. Furthermore, he points out how Drucker’s concept of knowledge work placed the responsibility of managing work and productivity on individuals, who gained freedom on how they complete their work but also burdened them with systemic issues they aren’t equipped to tackle alone (autonomy trap).

Newport advocates for clearer processes, reducing the chaos of aimlessly pingponging instant messages and advocating for going back to more streamlined communication. You shouldn’t feel like you’re accumulating communication debt (messages piling up) if you disconnect for a while to get real/deep work done. He suggests reducing the need for asynchronous communication by establishing office hours and reserving a Slack-like system for absolutely necessary tasks. He advises minimizing mid-task context switches and suggests limiting asynchronous communication. Instead of discussing tasks via email, he recommends using platforms like Trello or ticket systems for communication, advocating for Agile methodologies in personal task management (like Personal Kanban).

I have mixed feelings about the book but I did read it multiple times since its publication in 2021. While I wouldn’t identify as a member of the cult around Newport, with fans trusting him blindly, I do usually find that he brings up thought-provoking ideas. Many have criticized him for speaking from a position of privilege, saying that his advice just isn’t possible for those less privileged, he has addressed that concern in his new book Slow Productivity (2024) which came out in March. I will probably comment on it once I’m done reading 😉

Until then,


Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2024, April 16). [Book Review] A world without email. Epigrammetry. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w865

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