Pilita Clark: The scourge of work email is far worse than you think

Revolutionary fix needed to address the tyranny of the bloated inbox

The average worker now sends and receives about 126 business emails a day. Photograph: iStock

Whenever I check my emails, a number appears in the top right-hand corner of my computer screen that used to fill me with a horrible sense of despair.

It shows how many emails are in my inbox and, as I type, I can see there are many thousands of them. Another number on the top left-hand side shows something that once caused even more misery: the emails that are unread. There are thousands of them too.

For a while I did what people tell you to do to deal with a bloated inbox. Set up filters. File stuff to folders. Set aside time to mass delete. But the scale of the digital bilge was overwhelming. So then I did something far more effective. I gave up.

I have never looked back from the liberating strategy of letting the mess wash in. Yet I was pleased to see one email arrive the other day with news that Cal Newport, a US academic, had written a new book called A World Without Email. It promised to free workers from the tyranny of the inbox and I immediately tracked down a copy.


Smarter work

Newport has become an authority on smarter ways to work. At 38, the computer science professor has knocked out seven books in the past 16 years, including a 2016 hit, Deep Work, whose title has become a catchphrase for achieving focus in a frantically distracted world.

He also has a podcast, a blog, a newsletter and three sons under the age of nine. He typically does not work past 5.30pm on weeknights and keeps most of his weekends free.

I am guessing he knows how to work productively. Whether he knows how to end the scourge of too much email is another thing.

What I like best about his book is that it shows the email problem is far worse than thought. What might have been a mild nuisance 10 years ago has turned into a serious productivity sap.

The average worker now sends and receives about 126 business emails a day, Newport reports, and a lot of white-collar workers devote more than three hours a day to the Sisyphean task of dealing with them. They do this knowing many messages are irrelevant and few require instant answers.

Why? In part because our ancient brains are hard-wired to fret about ignoring social obligations. That made evolutionary sense when we lived in interdependent tribes. Today, it explains the distress that erupts at the sight of a screen of unanswered emails.

The trouble is, email is so cheap and easy that it has given rise to what Newport calls the “hyperactive hive mind” – a new way of office working that revolves around an ongoing conversation of unscheduled messages.

Email and its more fevered cousin, Slack, no longer simply interrupt important tasks. They fuel an endless, attention-draining digital discussion about those tasks that we have come to regard as both normal and unavoidable.

Structural overhaul

In other words, the scourge of email is part of a wider, systemic problem that cannot be solved with one-off productivity "hacks", such as writing better subject headings or using Gmail's autocomplete function. It requires a much bigger structural overhaul, akin to the way Henry Ford revolutionised car-making with the assembly line.

This is, I think, a profound insight. I am less convinced by some of Newport’s ideas for what can be done about it. That is partly because organisations differ so much that there are few one-size-fits-all answers. Also, some of his suggested solutions require online project management tools such as Trello that drive more focused work on specific tasks. For a computer scientist like Newport they may be more familiar than they are to others.

Many firms would baulk at testing some of his other ideas – set hours when a worker cannot be interrupted; hiring an “attention capital ombudsman”; supercharging administrative support in workplaces.

Such changes, Newport admits, can be “a pain in the short term”, though he is confident the long-term productivity gains are worth it. I think he is right.

One day, a new Henry Ford will be rewarded for fixing the imperfect working world that was unwittingly forged through tech breakthroughs such as email. Meanwhile, Newport has defined the scale of a problem too few of us knew existed.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021