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A World Without Email

Cal Newport’s new book goes well with David Graber’s Bullshit Jobs (about which more to come). Newport may have in fact provide a good, if partial, answer to one of Graber’s main questions — why have jobs that workers themselves see as useless proliferated in the last 50 years? No, it isn’t just email, but rather this: supporting structures of large institutions (think IT, HR, accounting, etc) have taken a life of their own and behave as if their own performance metrics — rather than the instituion’s primary reason for being — are all that matters. Enter thousands of survey requests, daily updates, weekly newsletters, calls for feedback… from dozens of departments all shouting about their contribution to the “core mission”.

So one way to get out of email hell is to work at a smaller place, having anyone completely dedicated to human resources being a good surrogate for being too large. But even that won’t completely save you: as long as you work in a team there will be need for internal communication, and as long as the primary mode of that communication is via email, the hyperactive hivemind — Newport’s preferred phrase — will ensue. Much of the book talks about how this came to be, and how to avoid it. While none of it is revolutionary (some of it even covered on this very blog, twice!), it did point me to Asana, Trello, and other collaborative task/project management apps with file storage and messaging capabilities as good alternatives that I tended to disregard.

As for external communication, well, if the email is longer than five sentences, better make it into a call, preferably the old-fashioned kind.

A World Without Email could easily have fit into the blog post in book form category but for the need to persuade key people that too much email is in fact a bad thing, said people being ones with power to save their employees from email hell yet not being aware that their employees need saving, as they themselves tend to be protected form the onslaught with layers and layers of administrative assistants1. Judging from the reception in the types of newspapers “key people” tend to read, he has their attention.

  1. On-demand administrative assistants for the regular schmoes being another one of Newport’s proposed solutions. I remain sceptical. 

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