A World Without Email
8 min read

A World Without Email


Author: [[Cal Newport]]
Topics: [[Communication]] [[Business]] [[Knowledge Work]]
Tags: #productivity #workflow #readingnotes #efficiency #email #book
Related: [[Let my people go surfing (book)]] [[Yin and Yang]]

Three big things

  1. I have a lot more control over how people communicate with me than I might have thought. Protocols may take a lot of effort to build and put in place, but if they significantly reduce my average communications workload over time they will be incredibly valuable.
  2. Who not how takes on a new importance when thinking about ways of communicating. Communication in a business context is about getting shit done and instead of focusing on how much I communicate I should focus on giving the right people the tools/communications/information they need to do their job with as little direct engagement with me as possible. Who will do this? How can I ensure they have what they need? How do I provide that to them and then stay out of their way?
  3. The value of support staff is far greater than I thought. Time is money, but to take that a bit further is to say that time is focus and focus is value. Support team members are the ones who give KW the space to focus and create value. There is a direct line between their efforts to make space and those efforts by KW to create high-value outputs.


  • p51 We often overestimate the ability of the people we're corresponding with to understand our messages. Context isn't always clear. Tone isn't always clear. It's like trying to hum or tap a song for someone - we hear all the instruments in our heads, but the listener doesn't and that makes it hard to fully understand what we're getting at.
  • p90 Peter Drucker preached the idea of knowledge worker autonomy: Knowledge work demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge workers have to manage themselse. They have to have autonomy._
  • The trick then becomes marrying the idea of knowledge worker autonomy with process. How can you blend autonomy with more rigid processes?
  • p103 Knowledge work is capital. Just like materials and equipment are the capital being deployed in industrial pursuits, knowledge work is capital to be deployed. How does that knowledge get deployed? Through attention capital. Our attention and ability to add value to information is how we leverage our brain bits.
  • p111 Innovate #workflow but leave the details of work execution up to the skilled knowledge workers. How work is communicated, requested, updated, finished and accepted can all be built into processes and workflows. Doing the work, or how the work gets done, is still left up to KWs - in other words, through processes and workflows, KWs know what they need to accomplish and are left to decide how best to accomplish it, AND they also know what to do with their work once finished. They are a part of the workflow, but one that is not prescribed beyond inputs and outputs. The process for doing their job is up to the KW.
  • p112 Constraints create freedom for KW to remain autonomous and creative. Instead of using mental capacity to do administrative or lower-value work, KW can focus on high-value work.
  • p130 A strategy for shifting expectations about your work and how quickly you'll communicate/respond is to deliver what you said you would, when you said you would. Do your fucking job and don't give people a reason to doubt that you'll do it again next time.
  • p143 The Process Principle increases performance and makes work less draining by introducing smart production processes to knowledge work. The idea is that knowledge work does well with autonomy when it comes to executing the work, not when it comes to deciding how to find, accept, and share the what, why, and how of it. This is not about reducing knowledge work to step-by-step processes but is instead about taking the administrative cognitive load off the KW and placing it somewhere else so the KW can focus on autonomously doing their best work to solve the problems given them.
  • p186 The protocol with the best average cost is what we should aim for. Taking the time to build the protocol with best average cost over time will save us tons of time, money, and effort. The protocol with the best average cost is most likely not the most natural option in the moment. What does this mean? This means that long-term performance gains can be huge if we determine which protocols cost the least on average over time. For example, one meeting scheduling protocol is to trade emails back and forth until all parties agree on a time and place. Another meeting scheduling protocol is to setup a tool like Calendly or Doodle to minimize the average cost of scheduling meetings. Setting up a scheduling tool may feel like a huge effort at first, but if you average that level of effort out over months or years of scheduling meetings you'll likely find that the average cost of scheduling meetings has gone down a lot.
  • p197 Client Protocols -- identifying client protocols early on can save a lot of communication headaches down the road. A few ways to setup client protocols include:
  • Client portals where they can go for updates without having to "ping" you all the time for status updates
  • Client-specific emails that are not directly linked to (or at least not obviously linked to) specific people at your company. Even if an email address like companyname@yourbusinessdomain.com is seen by one person, the lack of a name and direct link to a person can break the expectation that a message will get an immediate response.
  • Weekly scheduled updates followed by detailed meeting minutes, including actions and maybe even directions on how to get updates (remind them early and often about how they can get updates without bothering you ;)
  • Include clear guidance in any contracts or agreements on how communications happen. Do this from the start and set clear expectations.
  • Give clients an emergency out - is there an emergency phone number they can call or SMS when they need to reach you immediatly? Give them the option, but make it clear what is and what is not an emergency.
  • The goal is to make communication easy for both side, but consider also how much these communication changes or proposals cost your clients. I think making it easier on clients is the first order, second is making it as frictionless as possible inside the company without sacrificing the client experience.
  • p207 Short message protocols -- It may make sense to, in addition to deciding how communications will work, determine which channels will be used for what kind of communication? For example, if an email is longer than five sentences then you should either shorten it or schedule a meeting.
  • p228 Outsource what you don't do well but also outsource the things that take time away from performing high-dollar value work. The first step, I think, towards outsourcing the right things is to identify the high value work you do. Also identify the work you don't do well and can get help with. The idea that support staff are there to do menial, low-value work is wrong. Support team members are there to enable the high-value work to happen as often and as much as possible. By virtue of making space for high-value KW, support staff should be seen as enabling valuable work to happen and making space for such work. Despite how efficient an HR portal or meeting scheduling Saas might be, an aide or EA probably adds more value than they take by allowing a KWer to do the value-add work. Imagine if a $200/hr billable employee currently spends 10 hours per week doing administrative work. It's ridiculous to expect anyone to be 100% utilized, but for the sake of demonstrating value in support staff let's assume this 10-hour admin timesink results in $2000 fewer billings each week. Let's then assume she works 48 weeks of the year, resulting in $96,000 less billings. How much does an EA cost who could give her back even 5 hours each week? And let's also consider that fewer interruptions and context switching fot the KWer results in even more output per hour -- a $50,000/year EA role would more than pay for itself.
  • p234 Trading accountability for autonomy at work is another way of gaining the freedom to do more valuable work with fewer distracting communications. The trick here is to not only be good at what you do, but commit to action and deliver on it when you say you will. This goes back to earlier notes about not giving people a reason to feel like they need to contact you through email or slack messages - front load the communications with easy-to-access portals or status pages and do the work when you say you will, to the quality you committed to.
  • p234 The Sprint, Don't Wander section is a reminder that sprints can work outside of development teams. The big takeaways I get from this section are:
  • Sprints should be periods of focused work, not just a time when we work on specific things. Yes, sprints should focus on specific accomplishments. But they are also a defined period of limited outside interaction. #Sprint
  • My experience with sprints has been that they're merely planning and execution periods. There have been no limits to communications during these sprints. To make sprints effective, you must also shield the KWers from distracting communications that pull them away from the focus of the sprint. In other words, a sprint is a period of intensely focused work with as little communication and disruption as possible.
  • My days are usually a mix of both focus time and specific work. Most of my tasks aren't things I can finish on my own, nor do I have a specific team who I work with on everything. In fact, my work is often as a director/coordinator of multiple teams' efforts towards a single outcome. For example, to migrate ThinkTilt.com to WAC pages I need to coordinate with SEO, Content Design, Legal, Community, and maybe even more teams. Sprints don't work for this kind of work because it's async and spread across multiple teams who will not/should not coordinate their work that way. So how can I make sprints work for me personally if not across multiple teams within a big org?
  • Personal sprints can be shorter and varied in length. I know what I need to accomplish and my higher level targets can be broken into smaller segmented work that I can include in micro-sprints. Even daily sprints may be a way to look at two hours of focus time on my calendar. It could be a cycle of What's Important Now (WIN) decisions followed by short micro-sprints when I turn off comms and get shit done.
  • p246 Specialized organizations build a bimodal workforce with one group focused on high-value KW output and another group focused on handling logitistical work needed to keep the organization running and the KWers operating at peak performance.
  • Specialized organizations means that all work is specialized. Support roles are specialized just like KW is.
  • This boils down to systems and processes that people follow to get their work done with minimal need to operate in the hyperactive hive mind.
  • p251 Support should not be seen as lesser, but support teams are there to enable KW obligations.
  • A goal of support work should be to have as small an impact as possible on the specialists' main work obligations
  • Support work may need to focus more on minimizing its impact (or time/attention demands) on KWers than on building efficiencies. In other words, support work may need to be less efficient in order to be less intrusive on KW
  • p253 The goal of all of this is to help your organization produce as much value as possible instead of being as efficient as possible.
  • Support teams are critical to the work of the organization and as such are not to be seen as lesser important than KW
  • Efficiency can actually incur costs when not considered as a part of the whole. The example Cal uses is a collection of University departments that each optimize their work to meet their own goals, including how they need to communicate with all staff in order to march towards those goals. In making their communications as efficient as possible for them and operating blind or ignorant to how many other departments are communicating to the same staff pool, they are making a collective mess for the staff. Perhaps the support department should coordinate their efforts (which would be less efficient on a department-by-department basis), thus reducing the load on the staff (the KW who are trying to spend more time on high-value work and less on administrative tasks)
  • p260 It's important to remember that we are still very yound into our knowledge work journey as humans. Digital-era KW is still a very recent phenomenon and we should not assume that we've already figured out the best ways to work in it. The hyperactive hive mind has taken over for now, but it is not the only way to work and we should allow ourselves the freedom to experiment and improve how we work.

Other readings

-- [ ] Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
-- [ ] [[Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days]] by Knapp, Zeratsky, and Kowitz