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The biggest problem with email? It’s way too convenient

AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool, File
So many emails, so little time.
  • Cal Newport
By Cal Newport

Assistant professor of Computer Science, Georgetown University

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The average business user sent and received 122 business emails per day in 2015. This stat, perhaps more than any other, captures the reality of work in the 21st century—and this is a problem.

It’s increasingly clear that this incessant barrage of workplace messages is making us miserable. For one thing, it expands the scope of our jobs well beyond the standard 9-to-5 day. Now, whether at the dinner table or on vacation, digital communication enforces a constant tether to the office, impatiently demanding our energy and attention. And when we do try to buckle down and produce things that matter, the constant interruptions mute our ability to apply our craft at a high level.

Is this really the heralded future of work? Are we doomed to live out our office lives as human network routers, ceaselessly moving information in and out of our inboxes while vainly hoping this busyness will somehow alchemize into productivity?

It’s hard not to feel fatalistic. The ability to reach anyone quickly and easily is incredibly convenient; we cannot go back.

Or can we?

In order to understand the solution to our current email dilemma, it may be helpful to examine a few historical examples of communication overload. During the Revolutionary War, general George Washington had a great foe who sometimes seemed “more daunting than British arms,” as described by the Pulitzer-winning Washington biographer Ron Chernow. What was this opponent? Washington’s correspondence.

It’s increasingly clear that this incessant barrage of workplace messages is making us miserable.

“Washington devoted far more time to the onerous task of drafting letters than to leading men into battle,” Chernow explains, and “at times he appeared overwhelmed by the bureaucratic demands.”

Essentially, all departments relevant to the war effort reported to Washington and required his personal response. He was also responsible for keeping Congress up to speed—a nearly untenable burden that once led Washington to write in protest that he and his staff “are confined from morn till evening hearing and answering the applications and letters of one and another.”

Fast forwarding to the early days of World War II, we find another George in command of America’s military: George C. Marshall, Franklin Roosevelt’s hand-picked Army chief of staff. Marshall quickly found himself in the middle of a bureaucratic mess reminiscent of Washington’s struggles. But Marshall refused to suffer the same fate as the elder George.

Marshall instituted a sweeping reorganization that minimized staff and radically reduced paperwork.

Soon after accepting this position, Marshall instituted a rapid and sweeping reorganization that minimized the staff and radically reduced paperwork. He put into place more rigid communication structures (including a strict process for when and how to deliver a brief) and started to emphasize delegation. As an army report on his leadership style explains: “[Marshall] expected his staff to act decisively within their authority…[to] do their assigned jobs with a minimum of supervision and make decisions without waiting to be told.”

Marshall used this system to maintain his habit of leaving work each day at 5:30pm—protecting his evenings for burnout-repelling leisure time. This was far different from the wartime life of Washington, who once specifically complained to Congress that his burdensome correspondence left him “no hours for recreation.”

Marshall summarized his motivating management principle with typical concision: “A man who worked himself to tatters on minor details had no ability to handle the more vital issues of war.”

I’m telling the story of these two generals because they are a reminder that workplace inefficiency is not a modern problem. But they also both highlight an issue too often ignored in our discussion of work in the 21st century: the difference between convenience and effectiveness.

An issue ignored in our discussion of work is the difference between convenience and effectiveness.

George Washington’s management style was undoubtedly convenient. For all matters, the procedure couldn’t be simpler: Send a letter to Washington and see what happens.

George Marshall’s management style, by contrast, was much less convenient. Rigid processes, structured communication, an atmosphere of delegated responsibility—all of this introduced roadblocks and complexities into the flow of everyday business.

And yet, most agree that Marshall’s approach is far superior. His goal was not to make everyone’s life easier. It was to be maximally effective at winning World War II.

We readily accept the idea that effectiveness trumps convenience in many areas. Indeed, this prioritization is often treated as common sense, which is why it’s all the more surprising when we step back and recognize the one segment of our culture where it’s routinely ignored: knowledge work.

The culture of constant communication persists because it’s convenient.

The culture of constant communication described in this article’s opening persists not because it’s somehow fundamental to business in the modern world, but instead because it’s become incredibly convenient. This distinction is crucial.

Put another way, we’re running our knowledge work organizations—be it a marketing firm, tech start-up, or education non-profit—like George Washington managed his army: in a manner that’s easy to understand and implement, but also disastrously overwhelming and draining. The fact that living out of an inbox makes our professional lives easier is not relevant; the goal should be to win the proverbial war.

I don’t know exactly what the world of knowledge work would look like if we followed George Marshall’s approach and begin to ruthlessly prioritize effectiveness over convenience, but here are some thought-provoking guesses:

  • •We would no longer assign people individual email addresses ( through which all communication would flows. There would instead be different types of communication channels for different types of work, and each channel would have its own set of carefully optimized rules and expectations. This approach not only structures workflows more deliberately, it also provides an easy way to eliminate types of communication that aren’t relevant to your core responsibilities. The contact page on my author web site, which defies convention by failing to list a general-purpose email address, provides a good example of this philosophy in action.
  • •We would prioritize synchrony. There would be long periods of time scheduled for uninterrupted work interspersed with well-defined shorter periods scheduled for real-time interaction. Teams that run the Scrum project management methodology already embrace this concept, but it’s an idea poised to spread much wider than the technology circles where it’s currently popular.
  • •We would engineer more sophisticated processes for core work tasks that eliminate the need for ad hoc interaction to make progress. This transformation is seen in the growing popularity of tools like Asana, which provide all members of a team a transparent view regarding who is working on what—greatly reducing the need to coordinate and check up on work through attention-fragmenting email conversations.
  • •We would increasingly split out processing, communicating, and coordinating activities into separate jobs. A computer programmer, for example, would mainly just program, while there might be someone else on their team who does nothing but communicate with the client, and someone else who handles most of the inevitable bureaucratic logistics on the team’s behalf. When divided these activities can be executed much more effectively than when we try to mush them together within a single job. With the rapid improvement of AI solutions such as—an eerily human-like all-digital assistant—the more logistical roles might be adopted most effectively by computers, leaving humans to do what they do best.

Changes of this type would all be terribly inconvenient—especially at first. There would be more frustration (“we missed this opportunity because I couldn’t reach you in time to act on it!”), and the simplicity of universal accessibility might be initially missed.

But I believe that once we made peace with these inconveniences we would begin to operate significantly more effectively and feel better about ourselves in the process.

There’s a lot to be gained, in other words, when we revolt against the “tyranny of convenience” and ask instead: “what’s the best way to get this done?”

After all, both George Washington and George Marshall helped defeat global tyrants. But only one of those leaders ended his workday by 5:30.

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