Rethinking email: could you give up your digital addiction?

By Kat Knights writer, tutor and mentor at Professional Academy

Can you imagine a world without email? Maybe you think your job would be impossible without it. But if I told you that you would feel happier without it, have greater mental focus and lower levels of stress. Would you be prepared to rethink email?

If there’s one person who knows how to master a system like email it’s Cal Newport. Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and he specialises in the theory of distributed systems. This year Newport released a book called, A World Without Email, where he presents the case for a world without email. He asserts that our current approach to work is broken and then lays out a series of principles and guidelines for fixing it.

The problem with email

Newport believes the modern work ecosystem is melting our brains and burning us out. If you are an office worker who currently relies on email you are likely to agree with this.

Our workplace behaviour often sees us grabbing people as needed, having unstructured ad hoc back and forth conversations with co-workers and spending lots of time moving from one emergency to the next. Newport terms this way of working as a ‘hyperactive hivemind’. This behaviour spills across into the way we use email, with many of us constantly dipping into our inboxes to scan for the latest emergency.

Even if you work in an office with email free Fridays you are really only scratching at the surface of the problem. We need something that goes beyond a ‘hack’ or ‘tip’.

Focusing on workflow

According to Newport, we need to rethink our workflow to create one that respects our brains and stops it from melting.

People need to be given the head space to do their best (deep) work. It’s not email that’s the root cause of the problem, but how we manage our fundamental flow of work and communication.

Life without email

According to research carried out by most people check their email every six minutes. This type of behaviour results in lower productivity, being more distracted (and working longer hours) and higher levels of stress.

In 2012 researchers Gloria Mark, Stephen Voida and Armand Cordello set out to discover what would happen when email was taken away from people.

They took 13 employees and cut off email their usage for five working days.

The outcome?

Nothing bad happened.

The results of their study indicated that without email, people multitasked less, had greater focus and lower levels of stress.

Newport has reflected on the above study, commenting that the study is important because it demonstrates: ‘there is a difference between your work and communicating about your work.’ Removing unnecessary communication is vital in winning the productivity and mental health battle.

The evidence goes beyond just the study cited above.

One person has written on Newport’s blog:

‘I recently worked with a person that pretty much lived off the email grid. It took me a while to realise he did not respond to 90% of the emails I sent so I learned to batch my questions…two things happened…I learned to dig for my own answers…and…most things I thought were “STOP the presses” issues fizzled into little mole hills when deprived of email oxygen.’

What else can you do?

If eliminating email or re-designing your organisation’s workflow is a stretch too far then, what else can you do?

Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness teaches us to be in the present moment. In the workplace it will help you stay focused on your work and reduce the likelihood of your mind wandering off onto other things.

It is a skill you will need to practice consistently but in time you will find that your mind becomes quieter and less active. You will task switch less, resulting in less cognitive load being placed on you. This will, in turn, give you more mental energy and focus.

Newport’s approach might feel drastic but it’s certainly an aspiration worth having and through regular mindfulness practice you can begin to give yourself the head space to rethink email.