April 7th, 2021 · 16 comments
Seven years ago, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang was a typical overworked, multitasking, slave to the hyperactive hive mind, Silicon Valley consultant. Feeling the symptoms of burnout intensify, he arranged a three-month sabbatical at Microsoft Research Cambridge. Here’s how he later described this period:
“I got an enormous amount of stuff done and did an awful lot of really serious thinking, which was a great luxury, but I also had what felt like an amazingly leisurely life. I didn’t feel the constant pressure to look busy or the stress that I had when I was consulting. And it made me think that maybe we had this idea about the relationship between working hours and productivity backward. And [we should] make more time in our lives for leisure in the classic Greek sense.”
The experience led him to ultimately publish a book titled, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. I remember this book because it came out the same year as Deep Work, and the two volumes were often paired as variations on a common emerging anti-busyness theme.
In the half-decade that has since transpired, an increasing number of new books have taken aim at our accelerating slide toward overload in both our work and our personal lives. Many of these new titles, somewhat in contrast to my writing, or that of Pang, have adopted a more strident and polemical tone — not only underscoring the issues, but also pointing a defiant finger at the forces which are supposedly to blame. Clearly the overwhelmed and overscheduled manner in which we currently operate isn’t working.
Which brings me to a question that more and more has been capturing my attention: What can we do about this unfortunate state of affairs?
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March 31st, 2021 · 40 comments
I recently came across a Hemingway quote that caught my attention:
“My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.”
It reminded me of a time I used to spend each spring as a young professor, back when my schedule allowed it, giving short talks at so-called “dissertation bootcamp” events. The point of these multi-day affairs was to help graduate students gain some momentum on their doctoral theses. I would stop by to talk about productivity and focus, and when possible, grab a free lunch.
Attending these bootcamps, I was often struck by how much the conversation centered on “writing.” The informal advice passed around was about “getting in your writing hours,” or making sure “to write every day,” or committing to “hit your target word count.”
I always found this somewhat confusing, as my experience with writing — both popular and academic — matched Hemingway’s self-description, in that the actual act of putting words on the page came only after many more hours spent thinking through what I wanted to say. This contemplation was where the real intellectual action was to be found.
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March 23rd, 2021 · 7 comments
A reader recently pointed me toward a fascinating post on Kevin Kelly’s CT2 blog. It concerned the fan mail received by the famed science fiction author Robert Heinlein. Unable to keep up with the deluge of incoming correspondence, Heinlein devised a form letter (pictured above), which included responses to twenty-one common questions and requests.
These canned replies include, for example, a pointer to the book Writer’s Market for more information on how to prepare manuscripts for submission, and an apologetic note explaining that Heinlein is unable to participate in class assignments. (I empathize with this last one. I’m honored by the surprisingly large number of classes that assign my books or articles, but to my regret, I rarely have enough time to participate in evaluating this work.) To answer fan mail, Heinlein would simply check the box on the form letter next to the most appropriate response.
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March 18th, 2021 · 8 comments
In a recent episode of my podcast, I dove deep on the topic of meeting overload during our current moment of pandemic-induced remote work. I want to expand here on one of the more radical (but intriguing) solutions I mentioned: the reverse meeting.
First, a little background. Why are we suddenly spending so much more time in meetings now that we’re working from home? There are multiple factors involved.
For example, the sudden shift out of the office created a lot of unexpected new questions that had to be answered. In the moment, scheduling a meeting is an easy way to relieve the anxiety of having these new and pressing demands on your plate.
(Remember: the one productivity system that is universally trusted is the calendar, so if a meeting related to a new issue is scheduled, you can trust that it won’t be forgotten, and you therefore no longer have to keep track of it in your head. This grants immediate relief.)
Another factor is a reduction in the energy and social capital expended when organizing online gatherings. Pre-pandemic, setting up a meeting meant reserving a conference room and requiring your colleagues to physically relocate themselves at your request. There’s enough of a cost here that you might think twice before casually convening these conversations.
In a remote setting, however, we’re all just on our laptops all day anyway, so the cost of shooting off a digital calendar invite for a Zoom discussion is much lower. It takes only a couple clicks and the social consequences seem minimal. The result: we setup many more meetings.
This brings us to the question of how to reduce this overload, and therefore back to the idea of reverse meetings. Here’s the concept:
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March 15th, 2021 · 10 comments
My new book, A World Without Email, was released two weeks ago. I’m pleased to announce that it was an immediate New York Times bestseller, so I want to thank you, my long time readers, for supporting this launch.
I thought before I return to my regularly scheduled programming (trust me, I’m eager to start writing on topic others than just email), it might be useful to round up a few of the more interesting articles and interviews about the book from the launch week.
So here we go…
Featured Articles Written By Me
- “Email is Making Us Miserable,” The New Yorker
- “Email and Slack Have Locked Us in a Productivity Paradox ,” WIRED
- “Had It With Email? Give Personal Office Hours a Try,” Fast Company
- “Stop Giving Clients Your Personal Email. Here’s Why,” Entrepreneur
- “The Battle with the Inbox,” Wall Street Journal
- “Email Broke the Office. Here’s how to Fix It.” GQ
- “Technology has Turned Back the Clock on Productivity,” The Financial Times
- “The Scourge of Work Email is Far Worse Than You Think,” The Financial Times
- “Can we really banish email from the workplace? Author Cal Newport says yes,” Fortune
- “How to drastically reduced the time you spend on emails,” Fast Company
- “The Man Who Thinks We Should Ignore Our Email,” The Sunday Times
- “A World Without Email by Cal Newport review — overthrowing the tyranny of email,” The Times of London
March 1st, 2021 · 15 comments
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…
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.
February 24th, 2021 · 6 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…
February 21st, 2021 · 23 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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