I preordered Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email, months ago — in both Kindle and hardback format, because I’m a total Cal Newport junkie. I devoured the book as soon as it arrived, and it didn’t disappoint.
In it, Newport challenges the notion that email is beneficial in the workflows of knowledge workers, and that email (or asynchronous communication in general) is even needed at all. He makes a compelling case. But my biggest question going in was, If we don’t use email, how do people like me, who need focused stretches of time to get our work done, communicate without having to be in meetings with people all day long?
I want to believe in a world without email, because email is incredibly distracting. Like a lot of knowledge workers (according to the studies Newport cites), even when I try to stay out of my inbox and respond to emails only at certain times during my workday, I feel this low-level anxiety about what’s building up when I’m not checking email. It’s this tug at the back of my mind compelling me to just check it really quickly, clear it out so I can clear my mind and get my work done. I’ve deployed tools like Mailman (which I love) to control what lands in my inbox and when, and it helps a lot — but it’s not a cure-all.
Newport gives some great suggestions for moving communication away from email — and sure enough, one of them is to schedule calls for more in-depth conversations. At first I was resistant to this. Phone calls and video calls come with high context-switching costs. One hour-long Zoom meeting can easily eat two hours of my day as I struggle to get my brain focused back on my writing work.
The next morning after I read that part of the book, I ended up having a long email back-and-forth conversation with a client’s admin assistant. I thought it was going to be a quick question-and-answer email conversation, but it expanded into two days of emailing, culminating in 15 emails. I realized that this conversation had taken up way more of my bandwidth as an email than it would have as a phone call.
The biggest a-ha for me, though, was the concept of office hours: dedicated time each day for open communication. It makes perfect sense in an academic environment — but I was curious how it would work in my business.
So I began an experiment.
For the last two weeks, I’ve had set office hours in the morning and at the end of the day for my Horizon Peak Consulting team to communicate with me. They can ping me in Slack or ask to jump on a Zoom call with me to talk something through, and feel confident knowing they’re not interrupting my focused writing time. And I am delivering any messages to them in those dedicated hours as well — so no more ad-hoc messages from me during the day interrupting their workflow. This latter bit has forced me to keep a running log of things I need to talk to my team about during the day, so I communicate only during those office hours. It’s been interesting in that it’s caused me to get more intentional about how I’m communicating, and I feel like my conversations are higher-value to my team members.
Admittedly, it’s been hard to break the habit of ad-hoc communication with my team. I still find myself opening Slack when something pops into my head, only to remember it’s not my office hour yet, close it down, then open my running list to add it there. But so far, everyone seems to appreciate it. They know when they see a notification that I’ve messaged them in Slack, it’s something important and not just me noodling out loud. And so far, it hasn’t caused any project delays. (If there was a chance this would negatively affect my clients, the experiment would be over in a heartbeat.)
Good communication is one of my most deeply held values, and it was scary to think about communicating less. But as I continue to experiment with it, I realize that in many cases, less is more. The more intentional I am in my communication, the higher value it is — and the less interruptive it is to both sides.