A couple of years ago, I decided to liberate myself from my inbox. My personal Gmail had become unusable. For every email containing something useful, there were six from every place I’d ever swiped my credit card at. So I opened a new account, added my middle initial, and set up an auto-reply on my old Gmail that I intend to leave up until the end of time. Everyone who needs to reach me can and every spam robot can’t; I can rest easy in the serenity of being untethered to those 18,000 unread messages. Unfortunately, this inbox nirvana applies only to my personal email. No such workaround is possible for my professional inbox. There, my strategy is neither Inbox Zero nor pure anarchy, with tens of thousands left unread. I use my work inbox as a pseudo to-do list, which means leaving emails unread (26, as of this writing) and even, diabolically, adding to my own clutter by sending myself emails with reminders in the subject line. It feels like playing tennis against Serena Williams, except there are three of her and instead of tennis balls she has marketing emails.
It seems that I am not the only one who feels overwhelmed. In his new book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work In An Age Of Communication Overload, computer scientist Cal Newport makes the case that the ballooning of our collective inboxes has helped create the perpetually harried state of the modern worker. In the most striking of the studies he cites, researchers found that the average worker had a total of 75 minutes every day that didn’t include a check-in on email or instant messaging – not 75 minutes in a row, just 75 minutes of total uninterrupted work sprinkled throughout the day. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if humans were good at multitasking. But, as Newport lays out in the beginning of his book, we aren’t. The human brain isn’t wired to jump between “executing work tasks” and “managing an always-present, ongoing and overloaded electronic conversation about those tasks.” It’s hard for us to constantly divide our attention between those two tracks. Obviously, we do it, but it leaves our brain operating at reduced capacity – the cognitive equivalent of vaping while running a mile. Newport also argues that even using email presents a different set of problems. We’re social animals, so even when we’re not in our inbox, we experience the psychological distress of knowing that it’s filling up with requests that we’re ignoring, a type of digital FOMO. Email, Newport says, is bad for business for our souls.
This type of tech-inspired skepticism isn’t new for Newport. In 2016, he wrote Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, about the importance of learning how to focus on one task in a world where our attention was becoming increasingly fractured. That book was a hit, especially among tech executives and CEOs and other (less well-paid) people who spend a lot of their time thinking about how to manage their time. (I’m one of them.) It made Newport into something of a thought leader in the tech and personal-productivity world. But when I talk to Newport in mid-February, he says that Deep Work ultimately didn’t go far enough. He says he didn’t show enough interest in why we were so distracted, and that it was “really naive” to think we could just choose to be less so.
“There were these deep systemic reasons why we were so distracted, that could not be easily solved by simply, ‘Oh, we should just try to be better, have better inbox habits, and turn off notifications,’” he says, over the phone. “As I got into it, it just opened these huge, interesting overlapping worlds of research about questions like, why do we spend so much time in emails? Who decided that? What problem is that solving? How fundamental is that? How bad is it, really?”
Turns out that it’s pretty bad. Though, in 2021, it might seem like email is just one of the many (and least nefarious) tools in our well-stocked distraction arsenal, Newport believes it is our inboxes that bear most of the responsibility for creating the extremely busy – and, oftentimes, frustrating – way of working that defines white collar work today. He cites work from Gloria Mark, a UC Irvine professor who studies humancomputer interaction. In studying how time was spent in the workplace from 1965 to 2006, Mark found that as email became more widespread, workers somewhat predictably started spending much less time in meetings and more time at their desks. This shift had an unintended consequence. Whereas communication in a meeting takes place synchronously – employees talk back and forth for however long the meeting lasts – email messaging is asynchronous, and occurs randomly throughout the day. This is more convenient, but it also means that where workers once had uninterrupted stretches of work and uninterrupted stretches of communication, they now have short bursts of both. That staccato pattern of today’s work day – seven minutes of this, four minutes of this, thirteen minutes of that – can create a sense of neverending busyness. If that sounds like your typical schedule, Mark (and Newport) believe you have email to thank.
At the same time, it’s simply undeniable that email is a much more effective communication tool than what came before. (Perhaps you’ve thought “this could have been an email” as a meeting went around in circles.) This leads to what Newport identifies as a particular cognitive dissonance: “Rationally, we know email is a better way to deliver messages than the technologies it superseded: it’s universal, it’s fast, it’s essentially free,” he writes. “For anyone old enough to remember clearing jammed fax machines or struggling to open the red-thread ties of those worn memo folders, there’s no debate that the email elegantly solves real problems that once made office life really annoying. At the same time, however, we’re fed up with our inboxes, which seems to be as much a source of stress and overwork as they are a productivity boon. These dual reactions – admiration and detestation – are confusing and leave many knowledge workers in a state of frustrated resignation.”
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