Oct 15, 2021

Email: The Enemy of Deep Work

Reading for Lifelong Learning and Leadership: A PICPA Blog Series

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload by Cal Newport

James Caruso, CPABy James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA

Three years ago, I wrote the column “Deep Work in a Distracted World” for the summer 2018 Pennsylvania CPA Journal. My article drew from the work of various authors, but it was Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World that inspired me to study these ideas. I read several of Newport’s other books, becoming a disciple of his thought leadership on productivity, craft, learning, and living a “deep” life. His latest book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, explores the brutal reality that all knowledge workers share: email has taken over our work lives, and it is making us miserable and unproductive.

Book Cover - A World Without Email by Cal NewportNewport captures what we all experience but can’t always articulate. We can spend hours – or even days – in our email inboxes, feeling busy but having little to show for our efforts. Jumping from email to email in a never-ending, unstructured manner, work becomes reactive and haphazard, fragmenting our attention among multiple topics and projects. Instead of scheduling time to work sequentially on specific things, we may find ourselves “endlessly bouncing small tasks back and forth” with colleagues in a game of “email ping-pong.” To keep projects moving, we work in a “shattered rhythm of quick checks of inboxes” all day long. Every email is a potential new rabbit hole. Even if we choose to ignore it, our concentration has already broken.

This is the antithesis of deep work, which Newport defined in his earlier writing as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Forget deep work altogether: email keeps us from working on any one thing for a sustained period; it is a “turbulent mixture” of value-producing and administrative tasks. Today’s work environment prizes responsiveness at the expense of thoughtful, uninterrupted concentration on bigger-picture matters. Instead of planning our work, we react in a chaotic, ad hoc manner that is dictated by the flow of emails. Brain science proves that this frequent “context switching” ruins our concentration; time is lost as our minds overcome the “attention residue” of the previous task or interruption, destroying our productivity.

Newport notes that management guru Peter Drucker popularized the idea that knowledge workers should have autonomy in how they do their work. As a result, we lack defined processes and workflows; we all just jump into our inboxes and “rock and roll,” as Newport laments in his podcast, Deep Questions. He observes that we are relatively early in the era of technology-enabled knowledge work. It would be shortsighted and arrogant to believe that we have already optimized it. “The way we work today, with our dependence on email, may one day seem as archaic as the pre-email days seem to us,” he explains. Drawing historical parallels with manufacturing and its adoption of the assembly line, Newport sees knowledge work following a similar evolution toward greater coordination. Acknowledging that assembly lines have a dehumanizing connotation, Newport suggests that Drucker’s concept of knowledge worker autonomy should continue to apply to how individuals execute tasks and create content, but within a more structured process and workflow that manages the capacity of individual workers. As potential models, Newport offers kanban/task boards used to coordinate projects in software companies or help desk ticketing systems used in IT departments. It took decades to learn how to best deploy traditional capital, and it will be the same for what Newport calls “attention capital.”

Until the business world catches up to Newport’s vision, what can we do? The following advice comes not just from Newport’s latest book, but also from his podcast and other writings:

  • Follow Newport’s “capture, configure, and control” productivity methodology. Capture your obligations and configure them in an organized task-management system instead of working out of your inbox. Then use time-blocking to control your schedule. Work blocks should include time for “deep work” or other projects that require sustained concentration; administrative blocks for the batching of “shallow” tasks; and specific time blocks for email. Avoid scheduling meetings that fracture your day, leaving residual blocks of time too short to accomplish anything of substance.
  • Turn off notification of new emails, and stay out of your inbox when not in specific prescheduled time blocks. Cognitive ability declines from the distraction, context switching, and attention residue of newly arriving emails, even if you see them but do not open them.
  • Whenever there are multiple emails on a matter, figure out the underlying process and collaborate with your colleagues to design a workflow to replace ad hoc emails. Here is an example: for our weekly cash flow forecasting process, our team puts questions and comments on a tab in the Excel workbook. The preparer addresses those items when it is time to work on the next version of the forecast rather than having to react to multiple unplanned emails.

Control your work instead of letting email control you. Protect time for deep work, and don’t let email destroy your concentration. As Newport advises, do not advertise your rebellion against email, because your co-workers will understandably worry that your productivity techniques will inconvenience them. Let the results speak for themselves, and your colleagues will come to see you as someone who is organized and gets things done. Collaborate with your colleagues to design better processes and workflows. We may never achieve a world without email, but we can work in a much smarter and more satisfying way than we do today.

James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is CFO of J. Knipper and Company | KnippeRx in Somerset, N.J., and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at james.caruso@knipper.com.

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.