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Email is Making Us Miserable

March 1st, 2021 · Be the first to comment

On Friday, the New Yorker ran an excerpt from the second chapter of my new book, A World Without Email. This chapter focuses on an aspect of the email revolution that’s often overlooked in our discussion of this tool: the ways in which it makes us miserable.

I open the piece by reviewing studies that quantify what many of us have learned through personal experience, which is that the more time we spend emailing, the less happy and more stressed we become.

As I then elaborate:

“Given these stakes, it’s all the more surprising that we spend so little time trying to understand the source of this discontent. Many in the business community tend to dismiss the psychological toll from e-mail as an incidental side effect caused by bad in-box habits or a weak constitution. I’ve come to believe, however, that much deeper forces are at play in generating our mismatch with this tool, including some that get at the very core of what drives us as humans.”

These deeper forces include a fundamental mismatch between the social circuits etched in our brains through evolution and the artificial communication environment cultivated by email. As I detail, our brains take one-on-one interaction extremely seriously, as maintaining strong tribal bonds was critical to Paleolithic survival.

Email, by contrast, creates a setting in which these conversations arrive faster than we can keep up, as demonstrated by our ever-growing inboxes. To our ancient social circuits this is an emergency, leading to a gnawing sense of impending, amorphous danger.

You can, of course, tell yourself that emails are not life and death, but according to research I cite, it’s hard to convince the rest of your brain that this is really true:

“When you skip a meal, telling your rumbling stomach that food is coming later in the day, and therefore that it has no reason to fear starvation, doesn’t alleviate the powerful sensation of hunger. Similarly, explaining to your brain that the neglected interactions reflected by your overfilled in-box have little to do with the health of your relationships doesn’t seem to prevent a corresponding sense of background anxiety.”

We shouldn’t ignore the psychological impacts of the way we work. A successful professional environment is one in which not only do we get things done, but we’re able to do so in a manner that’s sustainable to the human brains involved.

“We’re miserable,” I conclude, “because we’ve accidentally deployed a literally inhumane way to collaborate.”

The solution here is clear, we have to build specific alternatives to the hyperactive hive mind workflow that conquered the knowledge sector once tools like email and Slack arrived.

Now if only someone had written a whole book about what that might look like…

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Speaking of A World Without Email, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more time that if you order the book today (Monday) or tomorrow (Tuesday), you’ll gain access to my Email Academy video series that walks you through how to put the main ideas of the book into immediate action (see here for details on how to register your order). We even made the video clips sharable, so you can use them to try to convert your colleagues into a more enlightened way to work.

More importantly, of course, these early orders really help a book gain momentum, so the even larger “bonus” here is my sincere thanks.

Jason Fried and I Explore A World Without Email

February 24th, 2021 · 4 comments

A Deep Discussion

Jason Fried is one my favorite thinkers about workplace innovation. Basecamp, the company he co-founded, has been an inspiring incubator for knowledge work experimentation, from reduced work weeks, to office hours, to remote work, to the development of custom-built communication tools. Fried has documented these ideas in the bestselling books he co-authored, including Rework and (the suddenly timely) Remote, and on the famed Signal v. Noise blog. I featured Jason in Deep Work, and he’s featured again in A World Without Email.

Which all underscores my excitement to announce that to celebrate the launch of my new book, A World Without Email, the Politics and Prose bookstore here in Washington DC will be hosting a live virtual conversation between me and Jason at 6:00pm ET on March 4th.

Tickets are free but you have to register in advance here.

We will be discussing our current moment of overload and what might be required to solve it. We’ll dive deeper into my book, learn from Jason’s real world experiments, and even get into some friendly debates on the areas where our visions’ differ. Should be an exciting conversation.

To help support Politics and Prose, if you order A World Without Email directly from their store, you can get a copy signed by me (while supplies last). Details are on the event registration page. 

A Request for Help

I would also be remiss if I didn’t remind you of the pre-order campaign I’m currently running. If you pre-order a copy of the book (in any format, from any retailer) by March 2nd, and register it here, you’ll be immediately sent a long excerpt from the book and access to the Email Academy video series I recorded exclusively to thank my longtime readers for supporting this title.

(Putting aside the “bonuses” for a moment, the main reason I’m emphasizing pre-orders is that it really helps the book launch by indicating to book buyers, bestseller lists, etc., that there are people out there who are interested in these types of ideas. So you have my deep personal appreciation as well if you’re willing to help out in this way.)

You can find out more about the pre-order campaign here…

Steinbeck’s Productive Inactivity

February 21st, 2021 · 20 comments

Good news: if you have $17.9 million available, John Steinbeck’s 1.8 acre waterfront retreat is now for sale. It’s tucked onto a grassy peninsula in Upper Sag Harbor Cove, and features a pool, a long pier,  and two cozy guest cottages. Arguably most important is the hexagonal, 100-square-foot “writer’s house” overlooking the water.

Encountering this real estate listing sent me down a brief but entertaining Steinbeck-at-Sag-Harbor rabbit hole. He bought the house in 1955, I discovered, 16 years after The Grapes of Wrath. He subsequently split his time between his apartment on the Upper East Side and his Sag Harbor retreat, which he inhabited mainly in the summer, and eventually dubbed “my little fishing place.”

Steinbeck would write in the morning, often in his waterside hexagonal shed, but as revealed in letters, he’d sometimes instead escape out into the harbor in his fishing boat. “I can move out and anchor and have a little table and yellow pad and some pencils,” he wrote a friend. “Nothing else can intervene.”

With his writing done, Steinbeck would then relax:

“Afternoons were spent fishing or hobnobbing at Sal and Joes or Baron’s Cove resort, or with Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, and other writers at The Black Buoy, his beloved standard poodle in tow.”

Another source talked of how he would wander over to the docks in rubber boots to chat up the local fishermen.

Though it’s easy to be distracted by the more gaudy elements of Steinbeck’s summers, like his deep work on an anchored boat, it’s actually these final details — the languid afternoons — that stuck with me. Steinbeck represents the tail end of a period during which many intellectual types embraced a sort of heroic inactivity. They understood overload to be the foe of inspiration, and put their non-professional lives into an uneasy but necessary alliance with productive output.

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Announcing The Email Academy

February 10th, 2021 · 13 comments

My new book, A World Without Email, which comes out on March 2nd, is available for pre-order.

For multiple reasons, pre-orders are much more useful than normal sales, so if you were already thinking about buying my new book, I want to humbly nudge you toward considering a pre-order.

To demonstrate my sincere thanks to those who take the time to help my book in this manner, I wanted to put together the coolest possible incentive. This is how I came up with the idea of creating a brand new online course, available only to readers who pre-order the book, that features me breaking down the main ideas of the book and giving concrete advice on how to put them into action.

I call this course The Email Academy. It features a collection of short video lessons, taught by me, that summarize the big ideas of my book, and then walk you through a step-by-step game plan for putting the ideas into action right away.

The game plan I outline lasts two weeks and aims to immediately reduce the amount of email you receive by 50%, with even bigger reductions to follow. I further break out and customize the advice for employees, small business owner/team leaders, and executives of bigger organizations.

I’m making this course available only to people who pre-order the book. On registering your pre-order using the form below, you will be given the website address and special access code needed to access The Email Academy starting March 2nd.

To further thank you for your purchase, you’ll also be immediately given a long excerpt from the book that outlines the main ideas, allowing you to get started moving toward a world without email while waiting for your copy of the book to arrive in March.

Instructions for Accessing these Bonuses

Step #1: Pre-Order the Book.

If you live in the US, you can pre-order from AmazonBarnes & Noble, or a local bookstore (as well as many other retailers). If you live in the UK, you can pre-order the UK edition at Amazon UK.  (The book is also being translated into many other languages, but these will come out later.)

All formats of the book qualify for the pre-order promotion, though all things being equal, buying the physical book is the most helpful.

Step #2: Register Your Pre-Order.

Fill in your contact information and order number from your digital receipt using THIS FORM. Once your order has been verified, you’ll be provided access to a PDF that contains the information you need to access The Email Academy (starting March 2nd) and the bonus excerpt from the book.

(Questions or technical issues can be sent to CalNewport@penguinrandomhouse.com.)

On Beethoven and the Gifts of Silence

February 5th, 2021 · 52 comments

Writing in 1801, at the age of 30, Ludwig van Beethoven complained about his diminishing hearing: “from a distance I do not hear the high notes of the instruments and the singers’ voices.”

As Arthur C. Brooks recounts in a 2019 op-ed, published in the Washington Post, Beethoven “raged” against his decline, insisting on performing, pounding pianos to ruin in a futile attempt to hear his own notes. By the age 45, he was completely deaf. He considered suicide, one friend reported, but was held back only by the force of “moral rectitude.”

It’s here that Beethoven’s story veers toward legend. Cut off from the world of sound around him, working only with musical structures dancing through his imagination, at times holding a pencil in his mouth against his piano’s soundboard to feel the consonance of his chords, Beethoven produced the best music of his career, culminating in his incomparable Ninth Symphony, a composition so daringly new that it reinvented classical musical altogether.

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Michael Lewis Doesn’t “Do” Social Media

January 26th, 2021 · 16 comments

Last May, Tim Ferriss interviewed the writer Michael Lewis. Early in the episode, Lewis said that people often describe him as “one of the happiest people they know.” Toward the end, we encounter one of the reasons why this is true.

As the podcast wraps up, Ferriss asks the standard question: “are there any other websites, or any other resources, social media handles, anything you would like to mention if people want to learn more about what you are up to?”

Lewis’s response is refreshing:

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David Mellinkoff’s Productive Lack of Productivity

January 21st, 2021 · 11 comments

A reader recently pointed me toward the 1999 obituary of the respected legal scholar David Mellinkoff. He flagged, in particular, this passage:

“After the war, David developed a successful law practice in Beverly Hills. He early discovered, however, that, in his words, “the law thrived on gobbledygook.” He wanted to learn how this had happened, but after searching for answers in standard sources, he concluded, ‘there wasn’t a single book that wove it all together.’ David decided to write that book. He closed his law office, sold his house, and moved to the woods of Marin County. Seven years later he published The Language of the Law (1963), the book by which he will be chiefly remembered.”

In 1956, at the moment when Mellinkoff decided to retreat into the woods, his decision to trade all the busyness, urgency, and, of course, remuneration of running a Beverly Hills law firm for the monasticism of Marin must have seemed shockingly unproductive. And yet, when considered through the distance of history, Mellinkoff’s nurturing of what became The Language of the Law  becomes self-evidently the most productive use of his talents.

I don’t think everyone should retreat to a quiet cabin. Probably most people would find such a commitment to intellectual minimalism intolerable. But I’m convinced that this option should be more common, especially among those with Melinkoff’s cognitive gifts. When you expand the time horizon for what you mean by “productive,” the options for crafting a deep life similarly expand.

A World Without Email

January 11th, 2021 · 34 comments

I’m pleased to officially announce my new book: A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. It comes out March 2nd in the US (and March 4th in the UK).

I started working on this book in 2016, almost immediately after Deep Work was released. At some point, I put the manuscript on pause to write Digital Minimalism, then returned my attention to grappling with its central ideas.

In many ways, this book is my magnum opus on the topic of technology and the workplace. If you’ve been following my articles for the New Yorker over the past year or so, or listening to my podcast, you’ve encountered a sampling of the rigorous new thinking at the core of this effort.

I’ve divided A World Without Email into two parts.

  • The first part, which is titled “The Case Against Email,” provides the definitive treatment on how the world of work transformed after the introduction of digital communication tools, and what unintended consequences these changes created.
  • The second part, which is titled “Principles for A World Without Email,” introduces a framework I call attention capital theory that can be deployed to radically rethink how we work, pushing us toward a vision in which ceaseless, ad hoc messaging is replaced with much more sustainable and structured approaches to producing valuable output with our brains.

The advice in this book is designed to be relevant for several different audiences, including employees, entrepreneurs, and executives. This breadth is captured in the endorsements, which include:

  • Dropbox cofounder Drew Houston, who says “A World Without Email crystallizes what so many of us feel intuitively but haven’t been able to explain: the way we’re working isn’t working.”
  • Kevin Kelly, who says “Cal Newport is on a quest to uncover better ways for knowledge workers to collaborate.”
  • Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow, who says “This book is a call to action”
  • Greg McKeown, who calls the book ” bold, visionary, almost prophetic.”

I will, of course, be talking about the book more as we approach the publication date. If you preorder the book, hold on to your email receipt, as I’ll be announcing soon a way for you to redeem it to receive a pre-order bonus.

But until then, I’m just excited to finally be talking publicly about something I’ve been working on for so long on my own…

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Speaking of my books: if you live in the UK, the kindle version of Digital Minimalism is currently on sale for only 0.99p…if you haven’t read my latest yet, this is the absolute best time to do so!