The Switching Cost
I want to close my recent series of posts on email with a practical observation that’s often missed:
The main productivity cost of email is not the time you spend reading and replying to messages, but instead the abrupt context shift caused when you switch your attention from the task at hand to the cognitive cacophony of an inbox.
As I write about in Deep Work (see also: this excerpt), when you shift your attention from one target to another, the first target leaves behind an attention residue that can linger for at least 10 to 20 minutes reducing your cognitive capacity.
(One oft-cited study found the impact of these shifts on your mental ability to be comparable to being stoned.)
The neural damage, in other words, is caused during the first moments of firing up your inbox. Whether you then go on to spend just a couple of minutes or a half hour wrangling your message doesn’t much change this impact.
The Power of Process
The obvious conclusion to this observation is that you should batch your email checking to a small number of sessions per day; i.e., the now famous, “I check my email twice a day, at 10 and 2” aspiration.
But there’s a more subtle and often more effective conclusion lurking here as well. As I argue in Rule #4 of Deep Work: write longer emails.
In more detail, I promote a technique called process-centric email. It works as follows:
- When sending or replying to an email, identify the goal this emerging email thread is trying to achieve. For example, perhaps its goal is to synchronize a plan for an upcoming meeting with a collaborator or to agree on a time to grab coffee.
- Next, come up with a process that gets you and your correspondent to this goal while minimizing the number of back and forth messages required.
- Explain this process in the email so that you and your recipient are on the same page.
For example, assume a friend sends you a note that reads:
Do you want to grab coffee sometime soon?
Resist the urge to reply: “okay, what works for you?”
Sure, that message would be quick to write, but it does not outline a clear process that minimizes back and forth messages. Indeed, it is likely consigning you to a long, attention zapping thread.
Here, by contrast, is a process-centric reply:
Sounds great. I propose we meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I have listed four dates and times over the next two weeks. If any of these work for you, let me know and I will consider your reply confirmation that the meeting is set. If none of these times work, then call me or text me on my cell (<number>) during one of my upcoming office hours (Tue/Thur from 12:30 to 1:30), when I’m sure to be around, and we’ll find something that works.
We can first agree that the process-centric reply will take more time to write. If you respond to all relevant messages in this manner, the minutes required to clean your inbox will definitely increase.
But this doesn’t matter.
What you’re minimizing with process-centric emailing is not the time you spend in your inbox, but the number of times you have to open it.
Put another way: if you respond in this manner, your occasional inbox visits might take more time, but in-between these sessions, you’ll be left blissfully and productively free of the necessity to continually check back in to keep non-process centric threads proceeding at a socially acceptable pace.
I’ll admit that I sometimes struggle with this technique because the urge to get out of the inbox fast is so powerful. But I’m always happy when I persevere.
(Image by Bryan Alexander)
30 thoughts on “Write Longer Emails”
I agree wholeheartedly that a slightly more thoughtful and disciplined approach can really cut down on the back and forth. As Cal has pointed out in previous postings, there’s too little friction or opportunity cost to hitting that send button and passing it over to the next party. All too frequently, it bounces right back.
I’ve been trying a technique very similar to this since I read your book. I look at email more as a part of my daily routine instead of something I have to constantly check. I haven’t gotten to the two times a day you have, but I am working on it.
I’ve also started “crafting” my emails more. The example you have above is something that I keep in mind. I’ve seen a noticeable drop in my emails since I started this.
You challenge us Cal to consider how potentially frivolous our use of e-mail and technology can be. But I’d also love to see something even deeper explored and elucidated.
Basically many of us are addicted to a false sense of self–feeling like we are somebody because we have a people wanting us on e-mail, text etc. We need to examine and discern that this falseness is running as a background program.
Perhaps when this discernment occurs, frivolous technology usage will drop as well.
I’ve heard your advice couched in terms of information theory: maximize the amount of information you communicate in the email (within reason).
So “Monday at 10” is one data point, but “any morning next week between 9-11” is many data points.
Not sure where I read this, it’s probably been read/repeated a few times by misc authors, and might have even been in your material before.
Also, nit picking, I’d copy edit your response to something like:
Sounds great. I propose we meet at the Starbucks on campus. (new paragraph)
Below I have listed four dates and times over the next two weeks. If any of these work for you, let me know and I will consider your reply confirmation that the meeting is set. (new paragraph)
If none of these times work, then call me or text me on my cell () during one of my upcoming office hours (Tue/Thur from 12:30 to 1:30), when I’m sure to be around, and we’ll find something that works.
Which actually matches the information grouping/copy editing of your blog posts (basically small, logical paragraphs). You likely already apply this your own email, but I point it out on your example just because I don’t think most people copy edit emails like they would, say, blog posts/larger documents, etc.
And, per your point about process-centric practices, I think taking some time to copy-edit emails can go a long way towards improving the efficiency of the overall communication.
This is a great post and a great idea. One misconception that people might develop about your attitude to email (or maybe they’re correct), is that email is intrinsically bad. I don’t think you’re saying this at all.
This post highlights to me that email, if treated like any other cognitively demanding task, can be satisfying and productive. If our emails are comprehensive and thoughtful we’re going to find better overall outcomes from them in the long run. Rather than being a barrier to hard focus, they become another venue for it.
To tie this in with your post yesterday also. By improving the quality of emails, you’re also implicitly committing to the importance of the email itself.
If it’s not worth writing a process-centric email, then it’s probably not that important. If everyone applied this method, then I think this would impose a similar effect as some of the proposed methods from yesterday’s post. It would probably receive a little less backlash compared to some of the methods proposed yesterday also.
Not ‘yesterdays’ post. I read it yesterday.
Your previous post.
Cal, I agree that this approach can really minimize the time you need to send multiple emails back and forth to get a simple idea across to the recipient. By doing so, I can save tons of time and use it for running my blog and my daily writing ritual. This way also improves the effectiveness of the overall communication!
“As I write about in Deep Work (see also: this excerpt), when you shift your attention from one target to another, the first target leaves behind an attention residue that can linger for at least 10 to 20 minutes reducing your cognitive capacity.”
Cal’s phrase “schedule shutdown, complete” (https://calnewport.com/blog/2009/06/08/drastically-reduce-stress-with-a-work-shutdown-ritual/) comes to mind.
I am experiencing the residue problem too, but I recalled Cal’s phrase “schedule shutdown, complete” and decided to apply it in modified form to individual sessions of working. For this, I have an index card on my desk that reads:
“I have now completed this task / this segment of working. I will now rest for a minute, and then I will fully devote myself to the next task.”
Ideally, I read this after completing a task. Since I write down in a work log exact times when I did what, it’s easier to add this small task to it.
I’m still experimenting with this (also with a short note before beginning each task).
Bottom line: If the boundaries of each activity are clearly defined, then it should be easier to go from one activity to the next, reducing the attention residue and the decreased productivity associated with it.
Thanks for these thoughts. I tried putting them into practice yesterday and did find that it was helpful to think through what the purpose of the email thread was in order to minimize the number of emails, before hitting “send”.
However, this morning as I checked my email, I realized that the recipients were not so thoughtful. I actually got a reply that suggested the person had not even processed the information I sent, to such an extent that the first email was almost a waste because I had to repeat what I said earlier.
I’ll take some of the blame here, recognizing my first email could have been more succinct upon later review.
But what do we do when the recipient is so nonchalant about firing off missives? Suggestions? My work is highly relationship-focused and I don’t want to alienate clients, but I also do best when I block out times to work deeply, as you suggest.
It’s funny that you suggest writing a longer email to a friend who wants to grab coffee. Perhaps a first filter should be; if a short call can solve it, avoid using email. We tend to avoid calling to save time on short talk, but building relationships is also deep work (i.e. for salesmen) and it sometimes shorter than email exchange.
On the other hand, I happened to read this post after a chapter from Theodore Zeldin’s book “The hidden pleasures of life”, where he claims that business and culture are too separated. What if we write longer emails, making the effort of writing beautifully, include poetry or quotes related to the subject of the email?
Cal, I believe you might like this post. Subject and context may seem weird, but it surely does remind me of “deep work” and focus. https://www.facebook.com/thenotoriousmma/posts/1260441947357435?fref=nf&pnref=story
I’ve found that life can be boiled down to a series of creative situations. A respectful, carefully worded, crafted email whether short or long, is worth the effort since the goal is to stimulate the creative thought of recipient. This is especially helpful when serious problems arise and expectations are high.
The quality of the thought put into print often will result in shorter chains, enthusiastic participants, and friendly cooperation in future correspondence.
While I love this idea of the effective and time saving email, it should be used in the proper context. Imagine sending an email off like this to a busy CEO or individual of whom you want their time (they hold the power) – how are you supposed to ask them to call you back in a narrow time window that may not work for them?
That being said, I’m sure there’s a way to create a process-centric longer email considering these power dynamics.
Thanks for all that you do and this wonderful blog.