The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Is Email the Problem?

Readers here are no doubt aware of my enjoyment of Cal Newport’s writing. I’ve certainly talked about his latest book and linked to his blog enough times. I’m doing so once more, but this time to voice my disagreement.

Cal’s on a war against email.He’s written a short series of posts on his own site. He was also featured in the Harvard Business Review with a piece titled A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email. It’s obvious that I appreciate Cal’s focus on the important, the deep work. And while I understand his approach to social media in the book (quit it, don’t use it), I think he’s going too far with email itself.

Communication channels always bear the brunt of our complaints

Teams must communicate. This is especially true today with the dispersed nature of our teams. An asynchronous option like email seems best able to allow focus. Where as tools like Slack result in a sense of chaos, distraction, and immediacy, email allows you to get back to people on your time.

Now, in his piece for HBR, Cal summarizes the problem with email:

This unstructured workflow arose from the core properties of email technology — namely, the standard practice of associating addresses with individuals (and not, say, teams, or request type, or project), and the low marginal cost of sending a message. It spread for the simple reason that it’s easier in the moment. It takes significantly less effort to shoot off quick messages, for example, than it is to more carefully plan your work day, figuring out in advance what you need, from whom, and by when.

Agreed. But is eliminating email altogether the best answer to the problem above? I would strongly advocate the approach Cal takes in his book, (and repeats on his blog) that we write longer, more purposeful emails. Write what he calls process-centric emails. Here’s his description:

When sending or replying to an email, identify the goal this emerging email thread is trying to achieve. For example, perhaps its goal is to synchronize a plan for an upcoming meeting with a collaborator or to agree on a time to grab coffee. Next, come up with a process that gets you and your correspondent to this goal while minimizing the number of back and forth messages required. Explain this process in the email so that you and your recipient are on the same page.

If we all took this level of effort, email would be far less of a problem.

Email is a box to check. It does require discipline to not allow this box to be something you flit back to at the first moment of waiting for a web page to load or a thought to form when you're writing. However, I find it far less disturbing than other “tools” like social media or team chat.

Perhaps in academia, eliminating email is more feasible. For most of us, I find it to be a great method of communication. Especially when used well.

Communication channels always bear the brunt of our disgruntlement, but it's our habits that are the true problem, along with our work culture.

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