Email is easy, cheap, and flexible.1 Those factors make it a persuasive default for how coordination happens in knowledge work.
The only problem is that these same factors sometimes make email even more a liability than it is an asset. But the fact that email creates such liabilities doesn’t mean there aren’t clear ways to reduce them.
Preferring Systematization to Spontaneity
Cal Newport has discussed these problems extensively and suggested an intriguing solution.2 As a tool for facilitating the flow of knowledge work, email falters badly because it’s too easy, too cheap, and too flexible. It facilitates high volumes of messages that then require similarly high levels of time and attention to process.
Instead, for any email-driven knowledge work process, Newport recommends identifying
- the specific functions email performs and then identifying
- more structured ways of accomplishing those same functions.
For example, if you routinely
- have 5–10-message threads to schedule meetings, use a phone call to avoid drawing out the scheduling process or use a poll to assess what time(s) work for most of the needed attendees all at once;
- receive individual messages whose responses are pertinent to a larger group with whom you meet, address the questions those messages raise in your regular meeting; or
- work on collaborative projects, explicitly work with your collaborators to establish a workflow for each project that eliminates the need for ad hoc emailing.
Questions to Prompt Systematic Processes
These examples implicitly encourage you to ask two fundamental questions. For a given email received to which you’re going to respond,
- Is the most effective way to respond also in an email? That may be the easiest way to respond. But if it isn’t also the most effective, then respond in an alternative way that will prove more effective (e.g., the phone call, the regular meeting).
- Would clearer expectations or conventions eliminate a future need for both an email you’ve received and your response to it? The clearer expectations and conventions are, the less need there is to use email as a stopgap to cover areas of ambiguity (e.g., the regular meeting, the collaborative project).
In short, both you and your correspondents will be better served by non-email-based processes in some areas. You just need to take a step back, identify the work that you’re creating for yourself and your correspondents by defaulting to email, and deliberately establish an alternative workflow. The more you build into the workflow, the less you’ll need email to pick up the slack.
Cal Newport, A World without Email: Find Focus and Transform the Way You Work Forever (affiliate disclosure; New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2021). ↩