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Christopher Nolan Doesn’t Use E-mail (and Why This Matters to You)

January 13th, 2015 · 27 comments

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The Disconnected Director

Ben Casnocha recently sent me a Hollywood Reporter interview with the director Christopher Nolan. About halfway through the transcript, the journalist asks Nolan if it’s true that he doesn’t have an e-mail address.

“It is true,” Nolan responds.

He then elaborates:

Well, I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing. I just couldn’t be bothered about it.

What interests me about Nolan’s answer is not the details of his technology choices (his ability to avoid e-mail is specific to his incredibly esoteric job), but instead the thought process he applied in making them.

It would be easy to list dozens of benefits that Nolan would reap if he used e-mail. But his decision process is not focused on whether the technology can offer any benefit.

He’s clearly instead mono-focused on the impact of the technology on the thing he’s trying to do better than anyone else in the world: direct successful movies.

For this goal, e-mail is largely irrelevant — so Nolan doesn’t bother. This diligent discarding of anything not substantially connected to his major professional goals, we can conjecture, goes a long way toward explaining his success.

Each year, Silicon Valley investors are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into companies whose sole purpose is to try to  capture our attention long enough to sell ads. Given this onslaught of shiny digital addictiveness, we could all probably use a dose of Nolan’s sang froid response to such entreaties: if you’re not helping me become world class, then get the hell out of my way.

(Photo by Conmunity)

27 thoughts on “Christopher Nolan Doesn’t Use E-mail (and Why This Matters to You)

  1. Tomas says:

    I suspect that the real reason that he is able to productively live without email is that he is surrounded by an entourage of people who do routine tasks for him, using email to do so. That is, he has an assistant and team of people who handle his work and social life, and arrange his calendar and his communication.

    This is actually rather common among important and senior people. If you want to contact, say, the president of a country or the head of a Fortune 100 company, you’re unlikely to get very far by emailing them, and even if you do succeed in getting in touch you are unlikely to get an email reply directly from that individual. Rather, you would need to go through one of their team and gatekeepers to arrange to meet them or get their attention. Indeed, for people like that, using email would actually be rather impractical for them because they would get too many people trying to contact them.

    I would suggest that the real productivity tip here is to hire an assistant to do your email, calendar, and routine tasks, so that you can concentrate with laser like focus on whatever your real tasks are. Getting an assistant and using them effectively can be very productive – provided you can afford it!

    1. Alessandro says:

      Let’s not forget that hiring an assistant cost a lot of money, something that people that are just starting off don’t have. When you are just starting you have to do all kinds of things

    2. MattW says:

      Tomas, you’re right, and I think Nolan implicitly states that he has constant access to digital communication when he says that he’s never more than 10 ft. from a phone. And personal assistants are necessarily as expensive as you might think: Tim Ferris et al. advocate for outsourcing a lot of mundane tasks of this sort to a virtual assistant.

    3. Brooke. says:

      Thank you Tomas.
      Your comments bring me
      back to remembering
      that when something
      looks and sounds so
      bloody perfect, and in
      my mind I say to
      myself, “I should do
      that…,”
      there’s usually a reason.

      Perfection just don’t exist, man.

  2. Shane says:

    also from the interview:
    I actually really like not having one because it gives me time to think. You know, when you have a smartphone and you have 10 minutes to spare, you go on it and you start looking at stuff.

  3. Carl says:

    Interesting. I’m now at the point where I make a great deal of appointments with e mail, from my desk top computer. So why this matters to me is that I feel harassed spending excessive time on my cell phone. I can also feel the physical detriment on my body, especially on my head, using a cell phone as well.

  4. amit says:

    Just to add to the above blog, Christopher Nolan does not even use a mobile phone. Another Eg is Mr warren buffet no mobile phone no emails.

    May be they think its too superficial or a waste of time

  5. Andre says:

    Werner Herzog also lives without a cell phone. No sure about whether or not he uses email though.

    1. Sophie says:

      Yep – Werner Herzog has an email address (he’s a friend of my last boss). Whether he checks it himself or whether he has an assistant who does that, I don’t know!

  6. Jim says:

    information like this causes me to examine whether or not I’m “laser focused” on my purpose. Contrarian thinking or running with the pack?

  7. AC says:

    Warren Buffett is 84. That and the fact he’s rich and powerful and can avoid assitants is probably why he doesn’t use email.

    But Christopher Nolan is 44. He would have been 24 when the internet started to get big and by 2000 he would have been 30, which is still young enough to get into email. Even in 2005, when email was definitely a big deal he would have still only been 35.

    It’s impressive in a way that someone that young (in the grand scheme of things) has opted out of email.

    If he was 60 then you could play the age card, perhaps, but he’s still young.

    I do think that Tomas has it right though. When you’re so rich you can do what you want, you can pay someone else to go shopping for you, respond to fan (e)mail and book your flights and hotels online.

    I think I’ve struck a good balance though. I don’t use email or the internet on my smart phone and only look at email once every 48 hours on my laptop at home. When I do look I can usually deal with it in 10 minutes or less. If there are no new emails, which is often the case, I log out immediately, meaning that I’ve been “in” my inbox for about 5 seconds.

    A lot of the time it’s not the replying that uses up time (that can be batched) it’s the near constant checking. Yes it only takes 10 seconds or less to check email on a smart phone, but when that 10 seconds is happening every 5 minutes, it’s not healthy or productive, not because it’s about the “cost” of the 10 seconds checking, it’s about the cost of the other 4 minutes and 50 seconds spent thinking about checking your email again.

    I know because I have been that person.

  8. AC says:

    I meant to say AFFORD assistants, not avoid them. Assistants though are what allow you to avoid email.

  9. W.P Uduk says:

    I love the conclusion of this post!

    :-). I have adopted this philosophy into my life over the past month. The progress it brings is gradual, steady and very worth it.

  10. W.P Uduk says:

    I love the conclusion of this post!

    if you’re not helping me become world class, then get the hell out of my way. .

    I have adopted this philosophy into my life over the past month. The progress it brings is gradual, steady and very worth it.

  11. Linda says:

    Email is just a tool. With all technology we have, some have forgotten that these devices and applications are just tools with which to do things. They’re not THE thing. They get us to THE thing, whatever that is for you. THE thing is movie making for Christopher Nolan.

    For some other people’s job–Nolan’s assistants, for example–emails are essential for them to do their job.

    If that tool doesn’t work for you or gets in the way of what you’re trying to do, then don’t use it.

  12. Study Hacks says:

    Two points for those who are really trying to understand the details of how Nolan avoids e-mail:

    (1) My understanding is that he never used it. This includes when he was a young and starving filmmaker (before the big budget assistants).

    (2) The fact that he might have assistants help him with e-mail still emphasizes the point: that’s an annoying way to handle communication; simply having a smartphone with an e-mail account would be easier on a moment to moment basis (imagine, for example, all the moments he’s away from his assistants, like when he’s holed up writing or editing). But he doesn’t care about easy. He cares about making good films.

    1. Sophie says:

      Having worked for Nolan-calibre individuals as a PA, I’d like to shed a little light on both points.

      First, when Nolan was a young starving filmmaker, email wouldn’t have helped much because no one useful would have had it either. Living in our web-enabled bubble, we bright digerati tend to forget that in many circles an email address was still a novelty in 2005. As an example, when I started working as a PA in 2005 (for a high-powered designer in his 40s who shall remain nameless), we had four fax lines into the office to handle the communication volume. And no email. Ten years later, I have my own PA, but we still have a fax line for communicating with a handful of money folk – the vast majority of whom are under 50. If Nolan grew his career without knowing how to use a fax machine, I’d be much more impressed…

      Second, though we like to think of someone like Nolan as a creative genius who spends hours every day holed up alone thinking or creating, the reality (I’m sorry to say) is much more banal. My current boss, another internationally-recognised designer, has a team of six PAs who work shifts from eight am to midnight, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. She’s rarely more than ten feet from at least one PA and the team is almost never out of shouting distance. They even go on holiday with her. I don’t know Nolan personally, so I can’t say for certain, but I’d be willing to bet his arrangement is not much different.

      And anyone who thinks an assistant is a cumbersome way to handle your email simply hasn’t experienced a good one (yet). A great PA is an extension of your workflow, skipping and dancing over your schedule, your messages, your to-do list, your goals, and your inbox to put exactly the right query or piece of information in front of you at exactly the right moment – finding a five minute email to fill a five minute traffic jam, or profferring an interesting article to kick-start your next deep work session. Even a moderately good PA, once you get used to working with one, can triple your productivity by batching or taking over your mundane tasks and making more uninterrupted time for deep work. Most of us are never fortunate enough to work with a Nolan-calibre PA, but I can say with confidence that behind any prolific designer, filmmaker, business mogul, or otherwise awe-inspiring deep-thinker you can probably lay even odds on finding at least one talented assistant.

  13. Great reminder that less is often more. I think this concept is way undervalued or overlooked by most people.

  14. denkspuren says:

    Linus Torvalds on why he isn’t nice: “I don’t care about you”
    “I care about the technology and the kernel—that’s what’s important to me.”
    see, http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/01/linus-torvalds-on-why-he-isnt-nice-i-dont-care-about-you/

    That’s a rude form of focus — but possibly an effective one.

    Thought that might nicely add to your collection of “successful, focussed people”.

    Cheers,

    Dominikus

  15. Lu-Hai Liang says:

    Just a contrary example: Douglas Hofstadter apparently spends FOUR HOURS every day writing emails. According to this great profile of him in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/11/the-man-who-would-teach-machines-to-think/309529/

    ““To me,” he has said, “an e?mail is identical to a letter, every bit as formal, as refined, as carefully written … I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite all of my e?mails, always.”) He lives his mental life there, and it shows. Wall-to-wall there are books and drawings and notebooks and files, thoughts fossilized and splayed all over the room. It’s like a museum for his binges, a scene out of a brainy episode of Hoarders”.

  16. James says:

    Giving up email may be a little to much, but I appreciate seeing how successful people control their communication choices.

    Like other comments said, he probably has other people close to him who take care of most of his communication needs.

    Considering this is the same person who refused to watch “Gravity” before finishing “Interstellar”, it’s reasonable to say he’s very careful about outside influences in his movies.

    Cutting out email won’t help most people – such as the majority of people everywhere who aren’t concerned about their artistic abilities being influenced.

  17. Bjorn Fox says:

    Mr. Newport, you seem to be kind of Luddite. But I am too and I’ve noticed it does help a lot with productivity. I really liked your post on facebook saying that it didn’t solve any problem.

    My question is, are not into using the latest technology besides not using facebook or using email a lot less?

  18. AC says:

    Not having an email address is great for a headline, but I bet if you looked at Christopher Nolan’s life in detail, you’d see that it’s not just email that he shuns, but almost any form of electronic distraction. These days electronic distraction can be summarised simply as

    1. Television
    2. Any device that connects to the internet.

    Not a long list, but thanks to the second point it covers everything. That’s the main source of procrastination these days.

  19. Eric says:

    I was intrigued by the post made on Cal’s blog about Christopher Nolan not using email. It seems strange to me that in today’s world that there would be someone as successful at their career as Christopher Nolan that would not use email to somehow be of benefit to their profession. However, I somewhat admired Nolan’s logic in seeing no reason to use email if it ultimately doesn’t help him in directing movies. I am sure he still uses email occasionally, but I imagine that its use is not a high priority at all to him. From Nolan’s example, we learn that not all things need to be a priority or of use in order for us to successfully accomplish the work we are engaged in.

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