- Published: 2 March 2021
- ISBN: 9780241341414
- Imprint: Portfolio
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $35.00
A World Without Email
Find Focus and Transform the Way You Work Forever (from the NYT bestselling productivity expert)
The Hyperactive Hive Mind
In late 2010, Nish Acharya arrived in Washington, DC, ready to work. President Barack Obama had appointed Acharya to be his director of innovation and entrepreneurship, and a senior adviser to the secretary of commerce. Acharya was asked to coordinate with twenty- six different federal agencies and over five hundred universities to dispense $100 million in funding, meaning that he was about to become the prototypical DC power player: smartphone always in hand, messages flying back and forth at all hours. But then the network broke.
On a Tuesday morning, just a couple of months into his new role, Acharya received an email from his CTO explaining that they had to temporarily shut down their office’s network due to a computer virus. “We all expected that this would be fixed in a couple of days,” Acharya told me when I later interviewed him about the incident. But this prediction proved wildly optimistic. Th e following week, an undersecretary of commerce convened a meeting. She explained that they suspected the virus infecting their network had come from a foreign power, and that Homeland Security was recommending that the network stay down while they traced the attack. Just to be safe, they were also going to destroy all the computers, laptops, printers— anything with a chip— in the office.
One of the biggest impacts of this network shutdown was that the office lost the ability to send or receive emails. For security purposes, it was difficult for them to use personal email addresses to perform their government work, and bureaucratic hurdles kept them from setting up temporary accounts using other agencies’ networks. Acharya and his team were effectively cut off from the frenetic ping-pong of digital chatter that defines most high-level work within the federal government. The blackout lasted six weeks. With a touch of gallows humor, they took to calling the fateful day when it all began “Dark Tuesday.”
Not surprisingly, the sudden and unexpected loss of email made certain parts of Acharya’s work “quite hellish.” Because the rest of the government continued to rely heavily on this tool, he often worried about missing important meetings or requests. “There was an existing information pipeline,” he explained, “and I was out of the loop.” Another hardship was logistics. Acharya’s job required him to set up many meetings, and this task was substantially more annoying without the ability to coordinate over email.
Perhaps less expected, however, was that Acharya’s work didn’t grind to a halt during these six weeks. He instead began to notice that he was actually getting better at his job. Lacking the ability to simply send a quick email when he had a question, he took to leaving his office to meet with people in person. Because these appointments were a pain to arrange, he scheduled longer blocks of time, allowing him to really get to know the people he was meeting and understand the nuances of their issues. As Acharya explained, these extended sessions proved “very valuable” for a new political appointee trying to learn the subtle dynamics of the federal government.
The lack of an inbox to check between these meetings opened up cognitive downtime— what Acharya took to calling “whitespace”— to dive more deeply into the research literature and legislation relevant to the topics handled by his office. This slower and more thoughtful approach to thinking yielded a pair of breakthrough ideas that ended up setting the agenda for Acharya’s agency for the entire year that followed. “In the Washington political environment, no one gives themselves that space,” he told me. “It’s all neurotic looking at your phone, checking email— it hurts ingenuity.”
As I talked to Acharya about Dark Tuesday and its aftermath, it occurred to me that many of the hardships that made the blackout “hellish” seemed solvable. Acharya admitted, for example, that his concern about being out of the loop was largely alleviated by the simple habit of calling the White House each day to learn if there were any meetings he needed to know about. Presumably, a dedicated assistant or junior team member could handle this call. T e other issue was the annoyance of scheduling meetings, but this could also be handled by an assistant or some sort of automated scheduling system. It seemed, in other words, that it might be possible to preserve the profound benefits of the email blackout while avoiding many of the accompanying annoyances. “What would you think of this way of working?” I asked after explaining my proposed fixes. The phone line went silent for a moment. I had pitched an idea so preposterous— permanently working without email— that Acharya’s mind had temporarily frozen.
Acharya’s reaction was not surprising. A widely accepted premise of modern knowledge work is that email saved us: transforming stodgy, old-fashioned offices, filled with secretaries scribbling phone messages and paper memos delivered from mail carts, into something sleeker and more efficient. According to this premise, if you feel overwhelmed by tools like email or instant messenger, it’s because your personal habits are sloppy: you need to batch your inbox checks, and turn off your notifications, and write clearer subject lines! If inbox overload gets really bad, then maybe your organization as a whole needs to tweak their “norms” around issues like response time expectations. The underlying value of the constant electronic communication that defines modern work, however, is never questioned, as this would be hopelessly reactionary and nostalgic, like pining for the lost days of horse transport or the romance of candlelight.
From this perspective, Acharya’s Dark Tuesday experience was a disaster. But what if we have this exactly backward? What if email didn’t save knowledge work but instead accidentally traded minor conveniences for a major drag on real productivity (not frantic busyness, but actual results), leading to slower economic growth over the past two decades? What if our problems with these tools don’t come from easily fixable bad habits and loose norms, but instead from the way they dramatically and unexpectedly changed the very nature of how we work? What if Dark Tuesday, in other words, was not a disaster, but instead a preview of how the most innovative executives and entrepreneurs will be organizing their work in the very near future?
I’ve been obsessed with studying how email broke work for at least the past half decade. An important inflection point in this journey was in 2016, when I published a book titled Deep Work, which went on to become a surprise hit. This book argued that the knowledge sector was undervaluing concentration. While the ability to rapidly communicate using digital messages is useful, the frequent disruptions created by this behavior also make it hard to focus, which has a bigger impact on our ability to produce valuable output than we may have realized. I didn’t spend much time in Deep Work trying to understand how we ended up drowning in our inboxes, or suggesting systemic changes. I thought this problem was largely one of insufficient information. Once organizations realized the importance of focus, I reasoned, they could easily correct their operations to make it a priority.
I discovered that I was overly optimistic. As I toured the country talking about my book, meeting with both executives and employees, and writing more about these topics on my blog, as well as in the pages of publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker, I encountered a grimmer and more nuanced understanding of the current state of the knowledge sector. Constant communication is not something that gets in the way of real work; it has instead become totally intertwined in how this work actually gets done— preventing easy efforts to reduce distractions through better habits or short-lived management stunts like email-free Fridays. Real improvement, it became clear, would require fundamental change to how we organize our professional efforts. It also became clear that these changes can’t come too soon: whereas email overload emerged as a fashionable annoyance in the early 2000s, it has recently advanced into a much more serious problem, reaching a saturation point for many in which their actual productive output gets squeezed into the early morning, or evenings and weekends, while their workdays devolve into Sisyphean battles against their inboxes— a uniquely misery-inducing approach to getting things done.
This book is my attempt to tackle this crisis. To pull together— for the first time— everything we now know about how we ended up in a culture of constant communication, and the effects it’s having on both our productivity and our mental health, as well as to explore our most compelling visions for what alternative forms of work might look like. The idea of a world without email was radical enough to catch Nish Acharya off guard. But I’ve come to believe it’s not only possible, but actually inevitable, and my goal with this book is to provide a blueprint for this coming revolution. Before I can better summarize what to expect in the pages ahead, we must start with a clearer understanding of the problem we currently face.
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