A Strategy to Prevent Email From Eating Up Your Workday

Cal Newport’s advice for automating your workflow

Photo: 10,000 Hours/Getty Images

Email is a thief disguised as convenience — and its sneaky energy-sucking threatens to ruin our work lives.

Replying to emails and company message threads never feels like it should count as “real” work. After all, have you ever seen a job posting that lists “quick with tonally appropriate Slack emojis” or “a whiz at inbox zero” among a candidate’s ideal skills? Yet, most of us spend upward of a third of our workdays feeding what the author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport calls “the hyperactive hive mind workflow.” That is, we spend almost as much time talking about what we’re going to do — soliciting and offering feedback, delegating tasks, gathering information, providing updates — as we spend actually doing it.

In his new book, A World Without Email, Newport blames the “hyperactive hive mind” for zapping our “cognitive energy.” We’re wasting precious brainpower on administrative minutiae and logistics, he argues, when we could be problem-solving or executing.

But there’s hope. You can free yourself from much of the back-and-forth communication that has you chained to your inbox and wondering where all your time goes. The trick is to automate your process.

“If there’s a particular outcome or result that you’re individually responsible for producing again and again, there’s probably nothing to lose by trying to come up with a more structured process that specifies when and how you tackle this work,” Newport writes.

For example, let’s say that a part of your job is to create a weekly presentation. Newport suggests setting designated times on your calendar, which you’d treat like recurring meetings with yourself, to put together the parts of the presentation you know you have to get done. If you need feedback from colleagues to get the job done, find a way to minimize back-and-forth by systematizing how you collect that information.

To paraphrase an example from Newport, you might create a shared spreadsheet where your colleagues can enter their notes. A day or two before the presentation is due, you can send your colleagues a gentle reminder to add their feedback before the deadline. And you don’t even need to write it manually every time; Newport points out that most email clients, including Gmail, will let you schedule the same boilerplate reminder email to go out automatically at the same time every week. So will Slack, for that matter.

Automatic processes conserve your cognitive energy by reducing your dependence on the “hyperactive hive mind.” You’ll be mentally clearer and freer as a result. As Newport puts it: “Make automatic what you can reasonably make automatic, and only then worry about what to do with what remains.”

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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