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The Case Against Email Strengthens

March 22nd, 2016 · 28 comments


A Modest Proposal

Last month, I wrote an intentionally provocative article for the Harvard Business Review’s website. It was titled, “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.”

The article starts by conceding that email, as a technology, is not intrinsically bad. The weed that’s currently strangling knowledge work is instead the workflow enabled and prodded by the presence of this tool.

As I expanded:

Accompanying the rise of this technology was a new, unstructured workflow in which all tasks — be it a small request from HR or collaboration on a key strategy — are now handled in the same manner: you dive in and start sending quick messages which arrive in a single undifferentiated inbox at their recipients. These tasks unfold in an ad hoc manner with informal messages sent back and forth on demand as needed to push things forward.

This workflow, I argued, leads inevitably to a state where constant email checking, during work hours and beyond, become necessary to keep the wheels of progress turning. And this state, in turn, is transforming knowledge workers into exhausted human network routers who are producing at a fraction of their cognitive capacity.

I concluded:

Given the tangled relationship between email and our current approach to work, however, it’s also clear that [a transformation to a better workflow] is almost certainly going to require a radical first step: to eliminate email.

Revealing Responses

What’s interesting to me about this discussion is less the details of my argument, but instead readers’ reactions.

The following quote from a commenter summarizes well a standard response:

I agree with the article about the evils of email. However, to attempt to outlaw email now is like trying to bolt the barn door after the horse has bolted – it’s just not gonna work.

Implicit in this observation is the belief that knowledge work depends on a large amount of digital communication. Indeed, for many, it’s hard to even conceive a concept of their “work” which doesn’t center on an inbox.

But then I read this article, which summarizes a recent research study conducted by the fabulous Gloria Mark (whom I recently met during an NPR taping), Stephen Voida, and Armand Cordello.

The study took 13 employees at a government research facility, each working for a different team, including both managers and non-managers, and asked them to quit email for a full week.

Spoiler: nothing bad happened.

Indeed, not only did they avoid bad outcomes, the employees felt happier, achieved more deep work states, experienced less stress, and moved a lot more.

This study is important because it underscores a point that was once obvious but has become less so recently: there is a difference between your work and communicating about your work.

You can make drastic changes to the latter without impeding the former.

Put another way, just because we’re used to spending most of our day communicating about our work, doesn’t mean that all this communication is really that vital.

The employees in the above experiment not only still accomplished their work without constant messaging, but actually did the work better and enjoyed it more.

This is just one study and a small sample at that. But even still, it builds my confidence that perhaps my Harvard Business Review proposal is less modest than I at first thought, and is instead one that’s growing inevitably toward a status of unavoidable.

(Photo by Amanda Tetrault)

28 thoughts on “The Case Against Email Strengthens

  1. Andreas says:

    Interesting study. However, I think my colleges would interrupt me way more than they already do if I said I wouldn’t do e-mail anymore. Which means I wouldn’t get any deep work done anyway. This way at least I can decide when to empty my inbox.

    Although, I work with communications and I imagine it might be easier in other fields of work.


    1. Jeff Geisler says:

      I think you might be surprised by your colleagues reaction. I recently worked with a person that pretty much lived off the email grid. It took me a while to realize he did not respond to 90% of the emails I sent so I learned to batch my questions, etc., for when he and I would meet. Two things happened: 1) I learned to dig for my own answers (something that actually helped me), and 2) most things I thought were “STOP the presses” issues fizzled into little mole hills when deprived of email oxygen.

      1. Andrew Samtoy says:

        “Email oxygen” is an incredible phrase!

  2. Study Hacks says:

    The researchers studied exactly this question. By using monitoring software on the subjects computers and in their offices they could calculate the durations of deep work sessions before and after the email quitting. During the week without email they were distracted less and worked with less interruption than the week before.

    I think we underestimate how much email fractures our schedule (it’s easy to say you’ll check it infrequently, but both our biology and workplace cultures make this very hard), and overestimate how much people really urgently need to talk to us in its absence.

  3. Matt says:

    Hi Cal, how do you feel about workflow management web software like Asana, Trello, Basecamp, etc? I’ve never had the opportunity to use any in a professional setting, but my sense is they are able to replace maybe 90% of emails. However, one still needs to refer constantly to the software, add comments, and so on. What do you envision replacing email as a workflow management solution? I don’t think you really covered this in Deep Work.

  4. Tim Goree says:

    I totally agree with this. It’s not the email as a technology, it is how humans tend to behave when using email that is the problem. Personal email makes everyone available to everyone, and while that might seem like a good thing, it can be crushing to those who tend to be hubs in the organization, especially large organizations. Over time, people have gotten into the habit of using email to make the most insignificant requests to others, simply because it’s easy to do. Then, it becomes the receiver’s responsibility to sift through what is important and what isn’t, with the fear in the back of their mind that they might miss one critical thing that is important – the needle in the haystack. I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that email is really only good for informational memos that need to be sent to a mass audience and filed for later lookup.

    1. Joe Milan says:

      On the surface level, yes, availability makes people more prone to bother each other. However I think the finer point, and the more important one to the discussion of building and developing our focus, is this cultural expectation of a reply. Fifty years ago a closed door meant, “I’m busy, leave me alone,” and most people would leave you alone and at most eave a message in the box. There was no expectation of an immediate reply unless that message was truly urgent, ex.) the building is burning down. Only then they would bang on the door–and even then I’d imagine that you’d answer the door with a bit of annoyance or concern that something urgent and threatening was truly happening. With the cultural expectation that each and every communication merits a reply, immediately–right now or you’ll have to apologize!–there’s little to no filtering, no difference between the cry to get out of the burning building or ‘hey, look at my nuked pizza.’

      How do we reverse this cultural norm? Cal’s suggestion of going cold turkey may be the only way for us to remember how to filter a message. Otherwise we’ll be popcorn brained addicts who are always jonesing for just ‘a few more minutes.’ And to me, that’s far deeper than simply being available.

  5. Steven Davis says:

    I supported a project that used Lotus Notes as its work flow tool. It had gotten so bloated that it took a year to get anything through the system.

    I analyzed the actual process that we were trying to get done and we reduced the time to one month.

    The tool had essentially degenerated into email.

    We created a short real process with real tracking and all of a sudden work got done.

    For most people, it isn’t even about deep work, email is simply an uncontrolled ping-pong game moving things along without any sense of a process.

  6. I have to agree with this as my email addiction surely affects my work quality.

    I like the point where you mentioned communicating about work & doing real work are two different things. The modern society now thinks sending emails = doing real work.

    It is going to take tremendous amount of effort to get rid of email during work day but the fact is when it happens most organization will see increased productivity as a side effect.

    Thanks Cal for the write up.

  7. Gayatri says:

    It is radical, yes, but I support it fully. My work day starts by checking my mails, and ends with the same. If for some reason the office wifi is not working, I find it difficult to concentrate on my work because I haven’t checked my mails yet. What if I have missed something important (almost never happens, though)
    It seems I will need to take some drastic steps to overcome this email addiction. (Never thought I’d say this!)

    Thanks for bringing this issue to the masses, Cal.

  8. Jonathan H says:

    I’m proposing a solution within my current team that achieves similar goals (putting the burden back on the sender) – give anyone on the team the opportunity to reject an email from anyone else. We will provide a series of templates (akin to the email protocols you’ve written about before Cal) to help the sender understand why their email was rejected and offer samples as to how the email should be structured to achieve the goal, whether that is communicating a status update, prompting a decision, or scheduling a meeting.

    The beauty of the system is that it doesn’t require change management or loads of process work – just an ok from leadership and a few early adopters. The social cost associated with having your emails sent back multiple times should take care of the rest. It forms a tight feedback loop, and hopefully the benefits of increased clarity and purpose in communication will spill over outside of our team.

    1. Gunnar says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      a very interesting approach!

      I believe that one of the problems is the lack of feedback. How often did you call a colleague to say: Look, I don’t think this e-mail was necessary?

      I read an article (in German) lately where researchers gave people in an organisation an e-mail budget – you could only send so many e-mails a day. (Their system was tied into the organisation’s mail servers.) The important twist was that each recipient could click a button saying: This e-mail was not useful for me. In that case, the sender would have double the mail budget subtracted from his/her account. The feedback is not as detailed as in your case, but, at least, there is feedback.


  9. Geraldine says:

    Really an interesting study (despite the small sample), it would be interesting to see the variance in the difference of before and after, and compare it to the position the person holds in the organisation.
    I once fell over a nice trick to handle mails. First thing I do when checking my inbox is that I move everything to the trash bin. Then I go to the trash bin and quickly screen the subject and sender, if it sounds relevant or interesting I open the mail, evtl. write a quick response, and then store it away according to which action to take on it. Doing this has made it possible to process 50-60 mails in just around 10-15 minutes. The trick is that because mails are already in the trash bin, you don’t need to decide for every single mail what to do with it. And as I’m a really lazy person, I think twice before I open one to take some action on it, meaning I’m much more selective. If one mail slips through the net, you’ll get it again if it was really important. If not it probably didn’t matter anyway.

    By the way, receiving this post by mail first, there was a button at the bottom ‘Email this’. A bit ironic 😉

  10. Duncan Smith says:

    The more radical of the proposals in the HBR article is not the elimination of email, but the idea that office workers should only talk to each other at predefined times. (“Outside of someone’s stated office hours, however, you cannot command their attention.”)

    I work in a group of people who write software, an activity which requires focused attention, but no one thinks twice about interrupting a colleague if they need a question answered.

    If we did implement the office hours concept, I would question whether we would need to come in to work in the first place. It would certainly make the commute more efficient if we could pick a non-peak time to all meet at the office. People already “work from home” when they need to wait for a delivery or take care of a sick kid. If the group had a no-interruption policy, it would be hard to justify the cost of sitting in traffic at 8:30 AM with all of the other office workers.

  11. Moussa Amrani says:


    The research team you mention did it again, in the same conference of this year’s edition: “Email Duration, Batching and Self-interruption: Patterns of Email Use on Productivity and Stress”, CHI 2016.

    As a teaser, here is a copy-pase of the abstract:

    “While email provides numerous benefits in the workplace, it is unclear how patterns of email use might affect key workplace indicators of productivity and stress. We investigate how three email use patterns: duration, interruption habit, and batching, relate to perceived workplace productivity and stress. We tracked email usage with computer logging, biosensors and daily surveys for 40 information workers in their in situ workplace environments for 12 workdays.

    We found that the longer daily time spent on email, the lower was perceived productivity and the higher the measured stress. People who primarily check email through self-interruptions report higher productivity with longer email duration compared to those who rely on notifications. Batching email is associated with higher rated productivity with longer email duration, but despite widespread claims, we found no evidence that batching email leads to lower stress. We discuss the implications of our results for improving organizational email practices.”

  12. Brian Fues says:

    E-mail is a communication tool… and nothing more. Too much communication and too frequent e-mails are often a guise for over-analyzing and “under-deciding”.

    We can never let e-mail distract us from Thinking, Leading, Making Decisions and Acting!

  13. I am about a month into my own email experiment inspired by this blog. While I would love to give up email entirely, the compromise I am trying in my consulting work is to treat it like actual mail – something that you deal with once a day. LIke the government workers in the article mentioned, I have found it is much easier to triage the email in one batch.

    Outlook has a wonderful Offline feature which even let me search through old emails that I often need to reference without being tempted by seeing the titles of what’s come in.

    I can confirm many other observation in this (and related posts). I have found that both sending and receiving email only once a day has forced me to be more thoughtful about my communications. I have also greatly benefited from taking a few hours before sending an email that I compose. Several times this issue that I was composing the email for got resolved before I sent it. Other times I refined the email with additional information and thus sent one email that was better edited instead of two or three.

    So far the worst consequence is that a cake that was dropped off in the breakroom was demolished before I checked my email – and it’s debatable if that’s actually a bad thing. No one

  14. Ben Lima says:

    Don’t know if you already covered this bit, from the life of Seymour Cray (Wikipedia):

    “During this period Cray had become increasingly annoyed at what he saw as interference from CDC management. Cray always demanded an absolutely quiet work environment with a minimum of management overhead, but as the company grew he found himself constantly interrupted by middle managers who — according to Cray — did little but gawk and use him as a sales tool by introducing him to prospective customers.

    “Cray decided that in order to continue development he would have to move from St. Paul, far enough that it would be too long a drive for a “quick visit” and long distance telephone charges would be just enough to deter most calls, yet close enough that real visits or board meetings could be attended without too much difficulty. After some debate, Norris backed him and set up a new laboratory on land Cray owned in his hometown of Chippewa Falls. “

  15. Raj says:

    I am a senior in high school and until this point I only thought that people who do math problems in their heads are like ET or something. But all that changed when I listened to the podcast Cal did with College info geek, where he mentions that he writes the entire chapter of his book in his head!
    If anyone of you have trained in increasing your working memory type of thing, I would appreciate if you could respond here.
    (Cal, if your are reading this: I did manage to memorize a deck of cards under 2 minutes and I reread Deep Work especially the “Meditate Productively” portion)

  16. Francis Wade says:

    I’d argue that too many of us are stuck in habits that worked just fine when the number of email messages was small – the 1990’s era of “You’ve Got Mail”.
    Now, we need different workflow processes – but we have not been taught how to scale our personal practices to handle 200 messages vs. 10 messages.

    Also, our organizations have not adapted themselves to the increase. A single executive who demands that employees reply to _his_ email messages within the hour can easily ruin the productivity of hundreds of others at a time by compelling them (through fear) to keep checking incessantly… just in case he happens to send something urgent.

    I tackled some of these organizational questions in an article advocating email budgets… allocated to each employee according to their specific needs. My hope is that exceeding your budget would trigger a useful conversation with your manager about the need to occupy so much of your colleague’s Inbox time.

  17. Andrew Samtoy says:

    I suspect we won’t get rid of email, but I think changes in how we communicate using it would help. One I think should come into widespread practice: “NRN” or “No Reply Necessary” at the end, to signal that the sender believes that the particular email communication has come to its final point before real-world action occurs, and no further replies – even an acknowledgement of “OK!” – are necessary. If the recipient disagrees, they can reply, and the sender shouldn’t be annoyed. Similarly, the recipient shouldn’t feel slighted that the sender doesn’t ask for a response.

  18. Bob says:

    Elon Musk says he uses email constantly. When asked about how he manages his time and manages to run SpaceX and Tesla, he says that he emails a lot, he jokes that he’s got “mad email skills” in this interview

    Email is distracting, but maybe, it’s not a blanket no email/less email thing and it just comes down to the person

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