Book Review: A World Without Email

Summer 2021

Cal Newport has gained quite a following as a guru in the world of personal productivity with his previous books So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, all of which are useful and thought-provoking. In A World Without Email his thinking takes a step up from the personal, and that’s what makes this such a profound and important work.

This book focuses on productivity as a system problem, rather than a personal problem. Newport engages with the most common stumbling block all of us experience when we try to use fashionable productivity systems — the world won’t let us! The idea of personal  productivity is a dangerous red herring, when we should be looking at how we work together at an organisational, or even societal, level.

The hyperactive hive mind

Newport refers to the way most of us work nowadays as the “hyperactive hive mind”:

“The modern knowledge work organization truly does operate like a hive mind — a collective intelligence of many different brains tethered electronically into a dynamic ebb and flow of information and concurrent conversations.”

We’re all constantly interrupting each other, even though it is well known that good quality knowledge work requires sustained attention. Every time we’re distracted our brains incur the costs of task switching, and it takes time for us to return to a state of focused attention on the task at hand. The human brain is simply not built for multitasking.

This is widely accepted when it comes to certain jobs, like coding, but it’s true of all of us, even those that fall into what Newport calls “manager” or “minder” roles, as opposed to “makers”. It’s just not a good way for any of us to work, and the research proves this over and over again.

“In the short term, running your team on a hive mind workflow might seem flexible and convenient, but in the long term, your progress towards what's important will be slowed.”

Email makes us miserable

Email is not the only culprit in this hyperactive hive mind workflow, and simply banning email (as some organisations have done) is unlikely to be the solution. Nonetheless, the rise of email — enabling free, direct, asynchronous communication — does seem to have driven the trend towards this distracted, reactive, way of working. Not only that, the research shows that email makes us miserable and stressed.

“As long as we remain committed to a workflow based on constant, ad-hoc messaging, our Paleolithic brain will remain in a state of low-grade anxiety.”

The emails we send are less clear than we imagine, our ability to correctly interpret the emails we receive is less good than we think, and emails are too easy to send. The result is a blizzard of miscommunication. How many emails back and forth does it take to arrange something as simple as the date and time for a meeting? No wonder we’re stressed.

“As long as we remain committed to a workflow based on constant, ad-hoc messaging, our Paleolithic brain will remain in a state of low-grade anxiety.”

Structured autonomy

Part of the problem is our resistance to the idea that knowledge work can be structured in the same way that a factory production line is. This is an idea that I found myself instinctively rebelling against — I’ve always felt that autonomy is incredibly important for the kind of work that I do.

Newport explains that he is not talking about copying assembly-line methods. Autonomy can be much more productively deployed within a consistent workflow that is designed to maximise what he calls “attention capital” (i.e. our ability to concentrate on useful tasks).

“The productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify workflows that better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information.”

To do this we need to separate out work execution (which is where the autonomy comes in) from workflow. Those workflows should be designed to minimise context switching and communication overload, both of which are characteristic of the hyperactive hive mind model.

Production process thinking

One of the lessons from industrial productivity is that what’s important is not just how you work, but how you coordinate the work. In knowledge work we’ve spent far too much time trying to make individuals faster and more productive, without really addressing processes. We have tended to think that a lack of process creates flexibility…but at what cost?

“Introducing smart production processes to knowledge work can dramatically increase performance and make the work much less draining.”

Just to reiterate, this doesn’t mean that the work itself or its outputs are dictated by process, but that the workflow and coordination of the work should be. In concrete terms, Newport suggests that tools such as task boards (e.g. Kanban, agile, Trello) would help to reduce unnecessary communication and coordination.

“Designing rules that optimize when and how coordination occurs in the workplace is a pain in the short term but can result in significantly more productive operation in the long term.”

Communication versus doing

Part of the problem is that we spend a large proportion of our time on admin, communication, and coordination rather than on producing useful outputs. We need to find ways to preserve periods of sustained attention for doing the work. Tools such as scheduling assistants, “office hours”, and managing client expectations on availability and communication will all help with that.

 “If you design workflows that allow knowledge workers to spend most of their time focusing without distraction on the activities for which they’re trained, you’ll produce much more total value than if you instead require these same workers to diffuse their attention among many different activities.”


It’s been fascinating to follow Newport’s evolving thoughts on the power of managing attention to create valuable work through his books and online. A World Without Email is important precisely because it isn’t a self-help book about personal productivity, it’s a call to arms to unpick the damage that email has done to our ways of working, and to design something that works better.

This book doesn’t necessarily have all the answers (and nor does it pretend to), but it does lay out important fundamental principles that will underpin those answers. It’s up to all of us to find ways to turn those principles into better ways of working within our own organisations.

Stephen Hampshire

Client Manager
TLF Research