Health & Productivity Benefits of Changing How You Use Email

28 January 2022

Is 2022 the year to change how you use email in your organisation?

If you or your team are looking for ways to improve communication, get more work done and feel less overwhelmed by your inbox, then read on. This article provides insights into the benefits of changing how you use email. It includes high-level tips from one of the most insightful books I have read in a long time; A World Without Email by Cal Newport.

“Most modern knowledge work organisations treat individuals as general-purpose computers that execute a turbulent mixture of valued-producing and administrative tasks – often unequally distributed and not at all optimised for any particular big-picture objective.”

Can you relate to this description? If you weren’t weighed-down with email and other online interruptions before COVID, chances are the last two years have left you feeling overwhelmed.

Once you understand Newport’s three main premises, you’ll be pleased to read his many suggestions for how to remove a lot of email from your worklife. Here they are:

  • As a specialist worker (hired for your particular skills in marketing, computer programing or accounting, for example) you are also doing a lot of administrative or support work. This includes organising meetings and communicating with clients (whether external or within your organisation).
  • Jumping between specialist and support work (context switching) interrupts your cognitive cycles. This is where you lose productivity and the joy your specialist work provides you. This can lead to burnout in the long term.
  • Communication overload – the feeling that you can never keep up with all the different incoming requests for your time – can be tamed by better workflows.

Cognitive cost of switching focus

Newport explains there’s a cognitive cost to switching your attention from one thing to another. Minimizing these topic switches and communication overload are the key to improving your experience at work and outcomes for your organisation.

Are you checking your email every 6 minutes?

On average, workers are checking their emails every 6 minutes. No surprise then that work is very fragmented. If you want to understand where you spend your time at the computer, you can use RescueTime. It records how much time you spend using various applications and websites. See if you come in about average or have fewer interruptions.

Newport’s principles for a world without email

Attention capital – this refers to optimising workflows to make the most of our brain’s wiring for singular attention. Setting up projects on project management tools like Trello can house all the information and communication around that project in one place. This encourages single-tasking.

Process principle – use processes and minimise communication associated with the agreed process. Newport gives an example where a worker drafts a report and has it available at a given time on the same day each week. The boss knows to check it before an agreed time the next day. No email is sent to say the report is ready and none sent to remind the boss to do the review.

Protocol principle – is about designing rules that optimise when and how co-ordination occurs in the workplace. For example, a meeting scheduling protocol. When arranging a meeting time for multiple people, Newport suggests using Doodle to help find an agreed time. This saves a lot of email interruption. A calendar app like Calendly also means people can book in a time with you, without needing to send you an email. Another suggestion is to keep to short messages – five sentences or fewer…I have written about this before.

Specialisation 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. Not just that, it also fills your cup.

Top suggestions

Aside from the tips in the principles section above, my favourite simple suggestions from Newport are:

  • Use your first three hours for deep work – no emails, no interruptions.
  • Work on one thing until done. Only then move on to the next task.
  • If you can’t find support staff to free up or shield your specialist workers, have staff design their days to pretend to be two different types of worker. Newport suggests, for example between 12 and 1pm and 3 and 5pm they do their support work and the rest of the time uninterrupted specialist work.

You can also listen to an interview with Cal Newport on the How I Work podcast: Cal Newport on how to eliminate 80% of emails in your organisation – Dec 23 2021