A clear path to reducing emails at work

With 10,000 showing on your email app and a constant barrage of time-sucking meetings, how do you go about reducing emails at work? It’s not just you. Emails are out of control. The coolest tech companies on earth use me for PR/comms and email overload is a big hindrance to their performance. That’s why I asked New York Times best-selling author Cal Newport how to help them (and you!)

On The Justin Brady Show, Newport drilled down on the problems and solutions, even for people with kids or bosses (who act like kids). Email overload is overwhelming people. In fact, it’s one major reason why colleagues ghost you, and it obliterates productivity.

The corporate hive-mind.

Unlike most normal people, I went right from college into entrepreneurship. It was an extremely stressful choice I wouldn’t recommend. As an entrepreneur, I didn’t experience the chaos-ridden hyperactive hive-mind workflow until my company, Test of Time Design, died after ten years (the irony isn’t lost on me). I was hired to head up communications at an emerging tech manufacturing company, and that’s when I saw the “hive-mind” first hand. Let’s see if this sounds familiar to you…

Symptoms of hyperactive hive-mind workplaces:

  • Inbox’s full of unread emails, most of which are irrelevant or too late for you to act on.
  • Constant meeting requests from people you don’t know about topics that don’t involve you.
  • Meetings… so. many. meetings.
  • Email forwards from people adding the word “Thoughts?” with zero context.
  • Full calendars and “70-hour workweeks” (nope, not a thing) are status symbols.

I was horrified. Being the head of communications, I launched an all-out assault against inefficiency. The focus, at first, was on how to reduce emails at work and improve communication. By reducing email in the workplace, I theorized remaining communication would be more impactful and quickly read. Newport’s and past guest Nir Eyal, author of Undistractible, prove this, of course, but little did I know work cultures actually crave chaos and distraction (foreshadowing!)

Deep Work: How to eliminate disruption at work

Deep Work by Cal Newport
Deep Work by Cal Newport. Buy here »

In his New York Times best-selling book, Deep Work, Cal Newport lays out the case for eliminating as much disruption as possible. He expertly proves how shallow work negatively impacts our companies and us. The science of working deeply is fascinating, and he unpacks why deep workers feel more fulfilled. He even explains how to convince your boss to give you focus and shield yourself from interruption.

Newport challenges readers to simply go to their boss, explain the difference between deep work and shallow work, then ask what they want you focusing on. No one encourages shallow work, so they will likely want over 50% of your work to be “deep.” #Winning. Getting them on board happens to reduce emails at work, but it only takes you so far.

Reducing email in the workplace

When you reduce emails at work and focus on deep work, you inevitably run into a cap. “There is a limit to just you personally having a better relationship with these tools,” Newport said to me in the interview. “This is where The World Without Email follow-up book [comes in]. We get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is this hyperactive hive-mind workflow.”

A World Without Email, by Cal Newport
A World Without Email, by Cal Newport Buy here »

“It minimizes energy expenditure in the moment. It’s very easy in the moment to send you an ambiguous email, hit send; it’s off my plate. But the reason why this is such a disaster when we zoom out, is that it requires you to have to continually service these back and forth conversations,” Newport said. “If there’s going [sic] to be 15 emails that go back and forth before we can figure out the agenda with a client that’s visiting tomorrow, I have to see all those emails and respond to get to a conclusion.”

Assuming it’s five inboxes checks for fifteen back-and-forths, you’ve now generated seventy-five inbox checks just for that one meeting. “That’s the killer,” he said. “When you leave the hyperactive hive-mind buzz when everyone else is using it, everything else grinds to a halt.”

Ultimately, you cannot fix the problem of email overload by just having better personal habits or inbox etiquette. You have to get rid of the hive mind to reduce emails at work. This is where the really hard work comes in.

The Central Message In A World Without Email

The core message in A World Without Email and the key to getting more done in your organization is to stop the hive mind by deep working together. The book details how to do this. The central idea, though, is to understand the goals of your organization, what projects matter most, set timelines and develop systems that support staff in these efforts.

Be warned, though. If you focus on projects and quality of work, staff will likely resist. It’s quite a shocking bi-product of deep work.

Does “hive mind” and email overload mask irresponsibility?

“There’s definitely value people extract from the obfuscation of the hyperactive hive mind,” Newport said on the show. “Where work is back and forth emails, and busyness, and you’re on Slack, and you’re responding to threads, there’s [sic] a bunch of meetings, it’s hard to figure out who exactly is working on! Did they actually do what they said what they’d do? A lot of people leverage that obfuscation.”

Newport analyzed companies who fixed this problem by switching to a Results Only Work Environemnt, or ROWE structure. The company he profiled for a piece in The New Yorker said they lost 20% of their employees right off the bat. They also lost 20% of their management. Overall, 20% of the company couldn’t handle that level of transparency and responsibility.

Previous podcast guest Laura Vanderkam has also spoken about the need to focus on work and results, not just time spent in the office. Is this because those people knew they weren’t getting work done and don’t want the spotlight or transparency? Newport has a clear answer. “Yes”


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