April 15, 2021
If you’re a productivity nerd like us, you’re about to be in for a TREAT with today’s episodeeee!!! We have the honor of talking to one of our favorite authors today – a man who’s transformed our views on productivity and technology – Cal Newport.
Cal is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, where he specializes in the theory of distributed systems, as well as a New York Times bestselling author who writes for a broader audience about the intersection of technology and culture. He’s the author of seven books, including Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, which have been published in over thirty languages. He’s also a regular contributor on these topics to national publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Wired, and is a frequent guest on NPR.
Soooo basically, Cal’s a genius and we’re so excited to have today’s conversation with him.
In today’s episode, we dive into the topic of Cal’s latest book, A World Without Email. You’re gonna get a nice kick in the pants today on how you’re spending your time with the tech in your business (or rather, how you’re likely wasting a lot of it) and how to change that. We talk about how you might be feeling “productive” by checking email every 6 minutes during a workday, but how that is destroying your productivity. Cal breaks down what he calls the “hyperactive hive mind workflow” and how it’s detrimental to the bottom line in your business. He gives you tangible tools, steps, and examples for you to take home and begin to implement.
SO if you’re the person who is spending their entire workday bouncing from emails to social media to slack channels back to emails constantly checking and responding to people…. Cal is about to blow your mind. Get ready to stop wasting your time with needless emails and other tech distractions and MOVE the needle in your business.
Cal’s day job is as a computer science professor so he studies technology from an academic perspective but also writes on the impact of this tech on culture and our lives. He has been writing longer than he has been in academics, as he started writing books as an undergraduate. But it was Deep Work, that came out in 2016, where he pivoted and tried to understand some of these unintentional consequences on our life and work and how to make sense of them. There is a trio in that directional shift with Deep Work which is talking about tech in the workplace, Digital Minimalism looking at tech in our personal lives, looking at our phones too much, social media, and then the new book A World Without Email which goes back to looking at tech in work. Those three books are all in that space, where he covers tech in our personal lives and our professional lives.
It was not the academics that brought Cal to the topic but it did flavor how he approached the topic. The very first books that he wrote as a student were aimed at students and how to be more successful as a student. The first one came out when he was in college, the second one when he started grad school, and the third one during grad school. They were advice guides for students and why he wrote those were because when he was in high school in the late 1990’s he had a company, was running a logo web development consulting firm. Cal was reading business books as a teenager, so he was used to business books and advice books. When he got to college and was spending a lot of money to be there and taking on a lot of loans, he wondered “How do I do this well?”.
There weren’t good advice guides for college students, most of them were trying to be cookey or fun. There was this idea in the world of New York publishing that if a book was too serious the kids would say it’s not cool and they wouldn’t read it. As a student, he thought this was ridiculous. They had it all wrong, college students take themselves too seriously. So he came up with the idea of writing college advice books like business books. No nonsense. His first book was talking to road scholars and asking them about their habits. The very best students in the world, here is how they take notes, and here is how they study for tests.
Cal was brought into this world of formal thinking of productivity because he was writing the student guides that should exist. To get him to tech, what happened was there was a connector book, he wrote this book in 2012, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Which was about careers, trying to understand how people get passionate about their work, and believed that following your passion advice was way too simplistic. One of the ideas that came out of that book was getting good at something rare and valuable is often the foundation of building a really cool job and that you’re passionate about. So then there is this follow-up question, “How do I get really good at something rare and valuable?”. Then while he was writing Deep Work, while you want to be able to focus on the same thing over time, you need to work on things without distraction, that’s what threw him to the world of tech. Because that’s what is stopping us from doing that- technologies.
It was after Deep Work came out, it was an underground hit, and he realized the technology piece was really interesting. He began to look around and realized this is was what he wanted to focus his attention on. It was more as his academic position helped shape how he wrote about technology once he started doing it, but how he got there was way more serendipitous than expected.
Cal set out trying to understand why do we check inboxes once every six minutes. Who thought this was a good idea? What’s the negative impact? What’s the positive impact of it? Why do we work this way? Should we work this way? To him, it was such a profound change that had happened and what it meant to work, which used to be a very sequential thing. You’re working on this, now you are done, now you are going to call someone, now done and now you’re going to go to lunch.
It has now become this frenzy improvisational, checking inbox, slack, email, social media and constantly communicating with people all the time. This felt like a very profound shift that we just took for granted. That this is what work is in a modern world. Cal wanted to understand why we started working this way, whether it is a good idea we are working this way and if it is not a good idea what we should do instead.
If you go back and do the excavation on the history of tools like email, in the early 1990’s you see that email takes off and it begins to spread to offices all around the world. And for a very rare, rational, and pragmatic reason, it was a better version of existing communication tools that people were using in the office. It was a better version of the fax machine, of voicemail, and those memos that we used to send around. It spread very quickly, it was a niche market in the late ’80s and became a half-million-dollar market by 1995. Makes complete sense that it would spread.
In its wake, however, as it would move through these offices replacing fax machines and memos, it brought with it a new way of collaboration that Cal calls the hyperactive hive mind workflow. It is very natural because it is how we communicate with each other if we are in the same room. It is also easy, flexible, and convenient. The problem is if you are communicating with a lot of people this way you now have a ton of these ongoing conversations going on. Think of metaphorical ping pong tables and you are hitting these digital message balls and when they come back across the net you are having to hit them back again and you are having 20-30 of these conversations happening at a time. This necessitates that you have to check those channels all the time. So many things of unscheduled ad-hawk that you have to keep checking because with some of these things when the balls come back you gotta hit it back.
Now we have to constantly check these channels and it is very natural if there are two of us, but it doesn’t scale very well when there are 30 of those because what we get is 126 email checks a day. We get checking our email every six minutes. We get no more than 76 minutes total in a centered workday where you have not gone without being near an inbox check. It is all we do.
That is the problem with the hyperactive hive mind, if we do all of our coordination this way it is too much and then all we do is check these channels. Why is that a problem? Because context switching is cognitive poison. We cannot quickly change our mental context to what’s going on in that inbox and then change it back to the thing we were working on without consequence. That creates a huge neurochemical cascade that normally would take 10 or 15 minutes to complete. We initiate it as we glance at our inbox every six minutes and then wrench it back to what we were working on before. These changes collapse into each other. We get exhausted, our ability to think clearly goes down, we get anxious and we also get fatigued. We have accidentally created this way of working that is terrible for our brains.
This hyperactive hive mind followed email changed the way we work and it felt very natural but is destroying our brains.
This is why it is so important to have a name for this workflow. So yes if you use the hyperactive hive mind workflow to collaborate then you have to check your emails. That’s how things get done.
It’s why if you or your company/organization uses the hyperactive hive mind wants to fix this problem by checking your email less or have better norms, or turn off your notifications. This fails because the emails are not superfluous, this is the main thing that you are organizing and you have to keep checking, and if you don’t check and don’t respond to the ping pong balls. Bad things happen. That’s why we fail time and time again to fix email overload just in the inbox. The problem however is collaborating in this way is going to cause long-term problems of all this context shifting.
If you ask, “Well how can I not check my email if I use the hyperactive hive mind?”, the answer is you can’t. The bigger question is, “Is this the right way to work?”. And Cal says no, we have to replace the hive mind with alternatives. That is why it will keep coming back to you, the solution here has nothing to do with your inbox habits, it’s about actually replacing the hive mind. Thing after thing, process after process that you are regularly involved in your business, figuring out ways to do that, that doesn’t require back and forth unscheduled messaging.
We need to reduce the pressure in the inbox itself so we feel very little compulsion to check it all the time. That is going to be the answer but until we make those lower down changes, you gotta keep checking as long as the hive mind is going to reign supreme as the way that you collaborate with.
That is true and here is an example from Cal’s book. There was a really interesting experiment that was done with a large East coast company that does research and development type of stuff. It was Gloria Mark from the University of Irvine and others, that did this experiment where they came in and took a dozen people and took them off email for a week and they were going to see what happens. One of the experimental subjects had to set up a lab regularly which took hours and was a pain and he was always complaining because his boss would send him these emails. Real urgent. He was frustrated because he was trying to set up the lab and it distracted him. During the week without email his boss started to stop bothering him, what was interesting was his bosses office was two doors down from where he was setting up the lab, so just that little extra friction of having to walk down that hallway seven extra feet and lean in the door and say “Hey”, was enough to make all of those requests go away.
When you get rid of all the friction and go to zero friction, systems go out of control. If you have a little bit of friction systems can regulate themselves a little bit better. So that boss was thinking “I don’t really want to walk down the hall and have to interrupt him, it’s not that important I guess I can do this myself”. A little bit of friction and systems work well. Email has no friction.
There are different types of jobs, but all of the jobs that Cal covers with being able to work on things one at a time and being at a stopping point before moving onto the next without distraction in between is much more effective. It’s true whether you are writing a novel or if you are an executive assistant. It is convenient at the moment to send a quick message. After all, we want a quick answer because then we don’t have to keep track of it in our heads. We want accessibility because we just don’t know if it is going to get done and once you hear back, you can forget about it.
Regardless of the position, being able to get away from the hive mind is going to make that position better executed.
One is it is unrelenting. It feels bad to do incomplete context shifts. We feel better when we can work on something until we are done. That is very human. To be working on something to then shift the context and then shift the context and come back to it is a little bit like knowledge work water torture. It just feels bad.
Then there is the whole social aspect. We are not wired as social beings to be very comfortable with the idea that at every and any moment when we are doing something else there is a request from other people we know piling up and we are not getting back to them. That stresses us out because we have evolved to take the maintenance of our social one-on-one connections seriously. There is also this stressful component of, “Oh my all these people need me and I am not getting back to them”.
All of those things add up and email makes us miserable but at the same time, we have an affection for it because it is better than the fax machine. At the same time, we have an affection for it because that is how we work. We have a hard time imagining that if we turned it off tomorrow we would be screwed. We have this weird love-hate relationship with it. We hate this, but we can’t imagine our lives without it. It puts us in this really weird mental space concerning this tool.
You have to be doing something rare and valuable to get a substantial amount of money back in return. And so the question to always ask yourself is “Is what I am doing right now, is that rare and valuable?”. And if what you are doing is answering emails, then no! No one ever built an empire based on their email response times, no one ever built an empire because they were on slack once every two minutes, no one ever built an empire of how often they were able to like posts on social media. People create empires out of building things that are rare and valuable. Building up skills and applying them that have monstrous value.
If you have been answering emails all day that is something an unskilled 21 year old could do, that’s a lot of time you could have been building a skill or applying a skill to create something valuable. Ultimately that is all that the market cares about. No one is going to come in and say congratulations we just got the report from Gmail you did five thousand emails a week here is $20,000.
It’s a seductive thing because honestly developing skills and applying them at high levels is very difficult. It’s stressful. There can be fear of failure. There are a lot of complexities to it and it feels nicer to do stuff. But again it doesn’t move the needle. You can’t get rid of shallow work but it’s not going to move the needle.
Here is the big picture idea, it is process-oriented thinking. This is both relevant and easily actionable if you are an entrepreneur. It’s all about process engineering. Our job is not to answer email, our job is actually to have these various process’s that we come back to again and again and are all necessary to create value in our business. We don’t often name them, we don’t often write them down, but we should. One way to identify them is to take a typical day and look at every email you answer that day and for every email ask yourself the question. What is the underlying process that this email is helping to move along? What do you do again and again that this email is helping advance? You get a whole list and most people if you are an entrepreneur there are 7-17. Then you go through and figure out how to implement these as processes.
What are the rules that you use to implement these processes? For most people in most cases, they are just defaulting to the hyperactive hive mind. How do you set up client appointments?- email. How do you answer clients’ questions?- email. It is usually the hyperactive hive mind as default.
Go process to process and ask yourself what alternative and or rule can you put in place here that would reduce unscheduled messaging. Not what is going to make this the fastest or the most convenient. Not what is going to guarantee that nothing bad happens. That is not the goal. How do you minimize unscheduled messaging? Then you put in place rules and systems for these processes, one by one that minimize.
As you engineer these processes to get away from unscheduled messages the pressure in your inbox dissipates. And your inbox becomes the old fashion inbox from 25 years ago. You check it once a day because your accountant sends an invoice but that is not where your work is happening.
Sometimes it is a simple technological fix. Not always but sometimes it is. For scheduling, you could use Calendly. Sometimes you could just throw a tool at it that can minimize the messaging.
Sometimes what you are doing is atomization, this is by term if something happens again and again. The steps are always the same. You can set up this process to unfold where you don’t have to send any messages. You can set up an automated process so no one has hyperactive messages or receive them in their inbox to move things along.
All of these are examples of process re-engineering that gets you away from the hive mind and therefore away from a lot of unscheduled messages. It is often a pain upfront, but long run it saves a lot of cognitive energy and it is all about, “Do I have to keep checking an inbox waiting for a message to come back or not?”. Almost any amount of upfront annoyance is going to be worth it from a cognitive standpoint to avoid checking your inbox or slack because you are waiting to hear back. That has such a big impact on your ability and your mood that almost any amount of annoyance with these process are worth it. Work by definition is applying resistance, convenience should be hard, it should not be the metric. The metric should be effective of this.
The right meme should be this should have been a process. A lot of people are not super organized, just internally how they keep track of what’s going on. So when something comes on their plate, progress has to be made, they get nervous. If there is a meeting on their calendar they go to it. That is something they trust themselves to do. This is meetings as a proxy for productivity. This of course does not scale either. This is going to happen in a hyperactive mind because again if everything is informally out on the fly, no systems or processes then let’s have a meeting so you don’t have to worry about it.
Once you start to move away from the hive mindset you don’t have this issue of being worried about how to do this, or progress won’t get made. You don’t have that issue because you already have a process for how that work will happen. That process is maybe going to include meetings because synchronizing conversation can be very efficient but meetings that are a part of a process are intentionally and highly structured.
Meetings in the absence of these processes are a proxy for productivity. By fixing the email problem you fix the meeting problem as well.
List everything out first. Let your inbox guide you, let your Slack guide you. What are all the different repeated processes that make up your business?
Then start small. It is all about getting the taste of this. Often the best process to optimize first is meeting scheduling. If you don’t already use a tool like Calendly, do that one first. It is pretty straightforward but has a surprisingly big upside.
Then just go and take your time at first. You go process by process and be easy with yourself, it is hard to get this right. Be flexible, if something doesn’t work, admit that and change it. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
Then you are just going, one after another.
It goes back to the book that Cal wrote in 2012, about how people end up loving their work. It was this idea that was based on a Steve Martin quote, and his advice for entertainers, “Be so good they can’t ignore you and everything else will follow”. That has become a bedrock for Cal to understand the world of business. Ultimately you need to do something too good to be ignored, that is valuable and there are no shortcuts to that. No amount of checking, posting, or responding can take the place of producing something too good to be ignored.
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WASSUP FRIENDS. We’re Evie + Lindsey, co-founders of this wild partayyy called The Heart University. Our goal is to empower entrepreneurs to kick freaking BUTT in their businesses, dive down into the heart of their why and how, and serve you with all possible tools you’ll need to up-level your business game and CRUSH those goals of yours.
Whether you’re coming to an in-person workshop, joining our online course, or soaking up all the strategies via this blog or our podcast, we’re STOKED you’re here + can’t wait to see you out there kicking butt.
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