in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: March 20, 2022

Podcast #689: Email Is Making Us Miserable — Here’s What to Do About It

Each day you begin work with high hopes for productivity and creativity. But each day you instead find yourself bogged down in checking and answering emails and responding to messages on Slack. As frustrating as this is, it just seems like the inevitable, unalterable dynamic of modern jobs.

But my guest today says that another way of working is possible, and it could unleash a tidal way of new productivity. His name is Cal Newport, and he’s a professor of computer science and the author of several books, including his latest, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Information Overload. Cal describes how email and chat channels have created what he calls “the hyperactive hive mind,” and the costs to productivity, well-being, and focus that this hive mind incurs. He then explains why we feel the need to quickly respond to messages, even if rationally we know they’re not urgent. Cal then lays out practical ways to replace the hive mind with a more effective way of working, and why it involves concentrating on processes over messaging, increasing intellectual specialization, a return to hiring support staff, and, counterintuitively, more friction and less convenience. Cal also offers advice on how to make these changes at your office, even if you’re not in a position of authority.

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • What is the hyperactive hivemind?
  • How did email become so unproductive?
  • Why email and Slack make us so miserable 
  • How did we end up in this state of things?
  • Embracing short-term discomfort for the sake of long-term gains
  • How to think of attention as capital 
  • How are companies actually working to implement these big ideas about communication?
  • Why increasing complication reduces complexity 
  • Forging better meetings 
  • Why knowledge works are often responsible for too many tasks 
  • How can an employee do this from the bottom up?

Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast

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Read the Transcript

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here. Welcome to another edition of “The Art of Manliness” podcast. Each day you begin work with high hopes for productivity and creativity, but each day you, instead, find yourself bogged down and checking and answering emails and responding to messages on Slack. As frustrating as this is, it just seems like the inevitable dynamic of modern jobs, it’s just something you have to do. But my guess today says that another way of working is possible, and it can unleash a tidal wave of new productivity. His name is Cal Newport, he’s a professor of computer science and the author of several books, including his latest, “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Information Overload.”

Cal describes how email and chat channels have created what he calls the “hyperactive hive mind,” and the cost of productivity, wellbeing, and focus of this hive mind incurs. He then explains why we feel the need to quickly respond to messages, even if we rationally know they’re not urgent. Calvin lays out practical ways to replace the hive mind with more effective ways of working, and why it involves concentrating on processes over messaging, increasing intellectual specialization, and return to hiring support staff, and counter-intuitively, more friction and less convenience. Cal also offers advice on how to make these changes at your office, even if you’re not a position of authority. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Cal joins me now via

Cal Newport, welcome back to the show.

Cal Newport: Brett, I’m always happy to chat with you.

Brett McKay: Alright, so this is your fourth appearance on the AoM podcast. This is a rarefied group here. I think you might be the only one. Maybe I have one other person that’s been on the podcast four times, but we had you on the podcast first to talk about your book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” That’s episode number 78. Then we had you on to talk about your book “Deep Work,” and that’s episode number 168. And then last time was “Digital Minimalism,” that’s episode number 479. And you got a new book out called “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.” And what I like about your books is that each book seems to be building upon each other. You’re seeing this thought process going on over years. How is this book, “A World Without Email,” a continuation of your previous work that you’ve written about?

Cal Newport: Well, with “Deep Work” in particular, I was talking about the value of focus. And it just seemed to me that we were underestimating how effective it was to just keep your attention on one thing at a time. We’re very distracted with email, and Slack, and our phones, and so I wrote this book that said, “I think we should focus more, and here’s my argument for why. And here’s how to train yourself to focus more.” I naively assumed in that book that, “Okay, once that’s clear, we’ll just spend less time on email.” Okay, once we realize, it’s like, “Okay, great. Maybe we should be less distracted.” And the clear feedback I got was, “Cal, you don’t realize how entrenched this sort of constant distraction, this constant need to be checking inboxes, checking Slack on your phone all the time, that work has become this.”

And so I got interested in that question, “Why? Why has work become this and is it possible that we should be doing something else?” And it blew up, it was like this huge topic that we have completely transformed knowledge work for no really good reason, it’s making people miserable, it’s holding back our national productivity, that’s how much of an issue it is. And then there was this huge countervailing force that’s probably going to completely change the way work happens in the near future, so I felt as if I had stumbled backwards into a massive story, and it took me four years to pull together all the threads, but I’ve been working on it since “Deep Work.”

Brett McKay: You’ve been writing about your thinking about this on your blog, I’ve been following that and it’s been great to see how all this coalesced in this book in a really solid case. So you make this case that with the advent of email and digital communication technology, so Instant Messenger, now we got Slack, things like Discord, whatever. It’s created something that you call the “hyperactive hive mind,” and this is across work cultures around the world. How would you describe the hyperactive hive mind? What is it?

Cal Newport: It’s the dominant workflow, so it’s the dominant process by which we collaborate and coordinate and knowledge work, and it’s where we basically say we can figure things out on the fly with unscheduled, unstructured, back and forth digital messaging. So if we need to deal with this client request, we need to deal with this issue, we need to figure out who’s gonna work on this new proposal, we’ll just send messages back and forth. Just rock and roll in our inbox. Slack came along later as a way to implement the hyperactive hive mind even more smoothly, but it’s doing the same thing. Let’s just rock and roll back and forth on the fly, which by the way, works fine if there’s two of you. There’s two of us that wants to figure something out, let’s just go back and forth, figure it out. That’s very natural. But if you scale this to a whole team, into a whole company with all your vendors and all your clients, it’s entirely unsustainable. So when I say, “A world without email” in the title of my book, what I actually mean is a world without the hyperactive hive mind workflow as the primary way that we collaborate.

Brett McKay: And as you said, it seems like, intuitively, go, “Oh, well, if you can do these things on the fly and send a quick text message, or a Slack, or an email, you get this done really fast. It beats scheduling a meeting or getting on a phone call.” But you in the first chapters of this book, you make this case that, “Well, no, this promise of frictionless, seamless of communication would make work better, and easier, and more productive.” There’s actually a lot of costs that come with this hyperactive hive mind. And so one, as you mentioned, productivity, how has email and digital communication made us less productive when it first was introduced back in the ’80s and ’90s? We thought, “Oh, this is the salvation. This is gonna make us more productive.” What happened?

Cal Newport: Network switching. So this is one of these huge under-emphasized but critical realities of the way our brains operate, is that network switching… And when I’m talking networks here, I mean neural networks, is expensive. So what happens in a typical hyperactive hive mind workflow is you have to keep tending these conversations. If there’s two to three dozen different back and forth asynchronous conversations happening in your inbox, you can’t be away from that inbox too long because the ball is pinging back and forth, you have to hit it back across the net. You have to keep checking it, so you have to constantly be checking these inboxes. Every time you check this inbox, you initiate a context with, your brain is trying to switch its area of focus from the primary thing you were working on to all of these messages from people in your life, all these requests, some urgent, some not, some exciting, some upsetting.

You try to switch over to this context and you glance at this inbox to see, “Hey, did Brett answer me about when we’re meeting?” And then you rinse your attention back to the primary thing you were working on. That rapid network shift there creates a cognitive catastrophe, and we experience as a reduced ability to think, we get fatigued, we get anxiety, we get a sort of frustration and tiredness. We don’t realize that when we check our inbox once every six minutes, we are setting ourselves up into a cognitive environment in which we are terrible at actually working with our brain. So yes, the hive mind was convenient on paper because it’s much easier than figuring out more structured ways of working, it just has this nagging side effect of also making us terrible at doing our work.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So yeah, we’re happy. We’ve talked about network switching with some other guests, but it’s like every time you switch attention, there’s basically left over, it’s called “Attention residue.” So you’re still thinking about the previous task you’re working on or the thing you were thinking about as you’re beginning to think about this other one, and that results in you not being able to focus, essentially.

Cal Newport: Yeah, and it makes you feel frustrated, and it makes you feel tired, and it makes you feel anxious. And we all have that. We all experience it. You’re checking your inbox where you’re trying to write something else, and you eventually just fall back into like, “I’m just gonna sit here and look at messages.” Why? Because your brain can’t do it. I mean it’s like you’re trying to run a 440 faster than your legs are able to do it. We’re asking our brains to do things that they can’t, but we have ignored the psychological reality of how our brains actually operate when we’ve designed our current workplace. And I think it’s a crisis, we just don’t realize, a lot of people don’t realize how much damage is actually being done.

Brett McKay: And you gotta be… People aren’t just dealing with email or Slack, they’re probably also checking Twitter, they’re probably also checking Facebook or Instagram into the mix as well, and so that just makes it even worse.

Cal Newport: Yeah, that just amplifies it, but at least you could decide as an individual, “I’m not gonna check social media while I work.” The insidious nature of the hive mind is this might be how your organization actually gets things done. So you can’t just say… And this is why, by the way, trying to fix these problems in the inbox always fail, to just tell people, “Batch your emails. Have better response time expectations. Use Inbox Zero.” The reason this fails, because the problem is not fixable in the inbox, you gotta fix the underlying workflow, so it’s generating all those messages in the first place. And so that’s what makes this problem so insidious is that I can just say, “I’m not gonna check Twitter during work because it’s trashing my concentration.” It’s much harder for me to say, “I’m not gonna answer my boss’ emails today during work because it’s trashing my concentration.” So we have a much stickier issue, which is why I think it had stuck around as long as it has.

Brett McKay: Have economists done studies on this where they’ve been able to put a number on how much loss productivity we have because of email communication or digital communication?

Cal Newport: It’s hard to get exact numbers, but there’s one hypothesis that I find compelling, is that this shift to the hyperactive hive mind help explain why over the last 10 to 15 years, where so much money was invested in making communication as low-friction, and fast, and easy as possible, non-industrial productivity in this country is stagnated. And in fact, I would go so far as to guess that non-industrial productivity would have probably fallen because this is taking such a toll on our brain, if not for the fact that we just added all of these off the book extra shifts that we do like early in the morning or late at night to actually get worked done when we’re free from all the communication about work. I think we had to add all these off the books hours just to keep the ship level, but if it wasn’t for these extra hours we added, we probably would have seen non-industrial productivity strictly decreasing. So, though it’s hard to pull apart all the variables and say, “This is exactly what the effect is,” I would guess that it is significant.

Brett McKay: And so you’re making this case that one thing we can do, if we can restructure how we do work, we can unleash a bunch of lost productivity that we’re not tapping into right now.

Cal Newport: Yeah. A huge amount, potentially. One thing I site in the book is Peter Drucker, at the end of the 20th century, said, “The story of industrial manufacturing in 20th century was a 50x increase in productivity from 1900 to 2000.” There was a 50x increase because they got very serious about asking the question, “What’s the right way to build things?” Not “What’s the most convenient way?” Not “What’s the easiest way?” What’s the best way to build things? And he said that 50x growth was so phenomenal, that essentially, all of the wealth on which the developed world was built in the 20th century came from that. He then looked back and said, “Okay, right now, in 1999 when I’m writing this, where we are in knowledge work is where the industrial sector was in 1900.” So you say we had basically not even begun, yet, serious thinking about what’s the best way to actually get a bunch of minds together and produce things that are valuable. So if there is a 50x increase in productivity possible here, it is a almost mind-boggling amount of economic growth and prosperity that is latent in this growing sector, and it’s just sitting there because we haven’t really started thinking seriously yet about, “Wait a second, what actually is the best way to get a bunch of brains together and have them collaborate to produce whatever?” Ad copy, computer code, podcast, whatever it is. And so once we start doing that thinking, I think it’s gonna be phenomenal what we can unlock.

Brett McKay: Alright, so the hive mind, it causes productivity because the task switching causes us to not be able to focus, but you also said besides the lost productivity, you mentioned this, that it’s just making us miserable too. You’ve surveyed your readers, and I know other organizations have surveyed workers about digital communication. That’s the one thing they complain about. They just feel like they can never log off. What is it about email and Slack or whatever that cause us to feel like we need to respond and need to always be on, even though we might not have to be?

Cal Newport: Well, so I have this whole chapter called “Email is Making Us Miserable,” and there’s two threads of evidence that I uncover for what I think is making us so miserable about email. Now, first is it just conflicts fundamentally with the way the social circuits in our brain operates. So if you look at the deep history of our species, we really take seriously our one-on-one relationships. It is absolutely crucial to our survival, or at least it used to be absolutely crucial that you very carefully maintained relationships with different tribe members so that you could, for example, get food shared next time there’s a famine or they don’t put a spear in your back, or whatever your concern was. These circuits get very upset when they think about messages from other people piling up. Now, you can tell yourself, “Hey, look, I’m rational. I know that these messages are not urgent. I know that we have norms at our company that says, ‘Don’t expect a response within 24 hours.’ None of this is gonna directly affect my survival.” You can tell yourself that in your rational mind, those deeper social networks don’t care, and they’re anxious, and they’re upset. And you can actually measure this in the lab, you see insidious experiments where they have people hooked up to the heart rate monitors doing some sort of fake task on a computer, and they come over and say, “Look, your phone is causing interference, you’re gonna have to move it.”

And so they move their phone, but while they’re moving it across the room, they turn off the do not disturb mode, and they put the phone across the room, they go back to experiment, and then they call it or send a text message to it while you’re doing the experiment. Now, here’s the thing, rationally speaking, that person doing the experiment, they had put their phone in the do not disturb mode. So rationally, even, like, “I’m not gonna hear from anyone for 30 minutes. I’m fine with it. I’m… During this experiment. I’m completely fine with it. I’m completely happy with that.” And yet, when they hear the phone ring from across the room, all of their stress indicators jump up because they had them all hooked up to these things for the fake experiments. So no matter what your rational mind told you, it doesn’t matter. A tribe member’s tapping you on the shoulder, you’re ignoring them. So this notion that there’s always messages piling up and they’re from people, and they’re from people who want you to respond, and right now you’re not. That makes us really miserable. And then the other thread of things that makes us miserable is that we are not good at communicating linguistically. We lose a ton of information when we reduce communication down to just text that’s sent in an email or a chat, and we’re wildly misunderstood, people get upset, we misinterpret other people, we get upset with them.

So it’s just a really impoverished form of communication. So, yeah, for sending the occasional file to someone, no problem, but when we’re doing most of our workplace collaborations, so our back and forth communication is happening by these text-based messages, we’re constantly misunderstood, we’re constantly misunderstanding other people, and that’s incredibly frustrating. So you put these two things together… Yes, the hive mind is very convenient, it’s very easy, and it’s very cheap, but it also has the side effect of it makes us as human beings, despite our best efforts, just really miserable.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the miscommunication, I think everyone experiences that with email, but I know with Slack, that’s been amplified in some organizations, there’s like Slack drama now in companies, ’cause someone writes something on Slack and they’re joking, but it was completely misinterpreted or someone didn’t understand and there’s like all this drama that HR has to get involved, and that sucks away from productivity as well, so it’s sort of this vicious cycle.

Cal Newport: Yeah, it’s something we don’t understand that if you look at a real interaction between two people in the same room, the transcript of what they are saying is a fraction of the information that is actually being transferred in that room, and we wildly overestimate. I love these experiments I talked about in the book because they’re funny, but the person about to send the email wildly overestimates how much they’re gonna be understood, because in your head, you know what you’re trying to say and you hear all the context and you hear all the nuance, you’re like, “Oh, this is great.” And on the other end, they’re completely misunderstood. The analogy one researcher gave, and this was an actual experiment someone did, you know, if I’m gonna tap on a table with my knuckle… Look, I’m gonna tap out a song on the table, because you hear that song in your head, you’re like, “This couldn’t possibly be clearer. Of course, this is Happy Birthday.” And for the person across the room, and they just hear random knocks, like, “I have no idea what you’re trying to send to me.” That’s a metaphor for an email communication is like.

Brett McKay: So how do we end up here? Why do we communicate the way we do with email and Slack, even though it has all these costs? Why do we have this such… Why do we use this if it’s not effective?

Cal Newport: Well, this is one of the big ideas of the book, is that no one decided this was a good idea. It’s not that anyone sat down some CEO somewhere and said, “Here’s how we’re gonna make more money, if we could communicate more.” There’s never a Harvard Business Review article that said, “The future of productivity is we need more back and forth communication.” It’s actually relatively accidental and emergent. And I try to document this step by step, but basically, email spreads very wide through the early 1990s to the mid-1990s. It has this sort of exponential growth throughout the office sector. It spreads wide for an obvious reason, which is like, oh, it’s a convenient way to some information and files. It’s better than memos, it’s better than voicemail, and it’s better than fax machines. So, okay, so email spreads for… Because it’s a useful tool. Everywhere where it spreads, we almost immediately get this hyperactive hive mind emerge… I actually have a case study in the book of a company, it’s actually IBM and their headquarters, putting an internal email, and within three or four days, the amount of communication at that office had increased by a factor of five. This was way too quick for anyone to actually say, “We’re gonna change the way we work.” Just the presence of this tool seems to bring out the hive mind, and the reason seems to be is because it’s very easy and convenient.

So in the moment, this is how humans will instinctually collaborate: Let me just grab you. I just need something. What about this? That’s the way you and I would work together if we were in the Savanna 100,000 years ago trying to build a fire, we would just go back and forth Ad hoc unstructured. So it’s very natural, very convenient. And so then the question is, why was there not pushed back from management saying, “Yeah, this might be easy and convenient, but guys, it’s making us really unproductive.” The reason that didn’t happened is that in knowledge work, we have a very strong culture of economy, that it is up to the individual worker to figure out how they wanna organize their work, management gives objectives, the knowledge worker on their own figures out how to organize themselves and organize their work. And in that type of environment, what’s easy, and what’s convenient, and what’s flexible, that’s what’s gonna dominate. So we’ve been stuck with this hyperactive hive mind that no one ever really thought was a good idea because we don’t really have an easy mechanism to dislodge it right now.

Brett McKay: No so I thought that was an interesting argument you made. So first off, there’s something about digital communication, the technology, and this goes into the anxiety of technological determinism. There’s something about the technology that, it wants something. We’re saying this… We’re not saying that the technology is sentient, but the way it’s designed, it wants you to communicate more, it encourages that, basically. That’s what we’re naturally going to do, and you noted that with the IBM thing. But the other issue, too, so this emergent thing happened. And then you had Peter Drucker, and we mentioned earlier, that he made that case that in knowledge work, the knowledge worker has to learn to manage themselves. They had to be autonomous and so, yeah, as you said in business management, you hear this idea, give more autonomy to workers because it makes them feel happier ’cause they feel like they’re in control of their work and mastery and the like. And you talk about that and so good they can’t ignore you, right? But this autonomy, because everyone is autonomous and handling on their own, it creates sort of a digital tragedy of the commons. So everyone’s doing what’s in their best interest, but by doing what’s in their best interest, it makes things miserable for everybody else.

Cal Newport: Yes, because no one person can easily say, I’m not using the hive mind anymore. Because everyone else is gonna say, “Well, wait a second. This is the only way we have to coordinate and collaborate with you, so now you are getting in the way of us getting our work done. Also, it’s easier for me if you’re doing the hive mind because that means in the moment, I can get something for you.” So this autonomy trap plays a big role, and here’s my take on it. This is one of these ideas that I hadn’t heard before, so it’s one of the things I’ve really been pushing. There’s a New Yorker article I wrote earlier this year called The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done that really goes deep into this autonomy trap issue as well. So it is something I’ve really been trying to understand publicly in recent months. And I think what happened is, Drucker was correct, that the actual work you do and knowledge work needs to be autonomous. I can’t tell an ad copywriter how to come up with a slogan, and I can’t tell a computer programmer how to write an algorithm. I can’t break that down into a Henry Ford assembly line.

And he was right about that. But the work flows that surrounds that autonomous work, how we identify tasks, how we assign tasks, how we review tasks, and how we get the information people need to execute those tasks communicated, the workflows that surround this autonomous work, that we really need to think about at the team or organizational level. And that’s where we fell into this trap, is that we made all of that autonomous. And I think the way out of the trap is to say, Yes, I’m not gonna tell you as a computer programmer how to write computer code, but you better believe that we are gonna have a really well-constructed project management methodology where we figure out what needs to be coded, who’s working on what, we keep things off their plates, and we call that Agile methodologies and computer programmers do that and has actually been a great win for them. And so that’s what we need to be doing in other parts of knowledge work. I’m not gonna tell you how to do your work, but we better have really good processes in place for how that work actually is organized and that’s where the real wins are.

Brett McKay: Okay, so instead of spending all your time talking about the work through emails and Slack, you’re actually spending time working on the work?

Cal Newport: Yeah, and the thing that kills us, the thing that makes the hyperactive hive mind so bad is the back and forth interaction. Email is fantastic for sending information or files, it is terrible for interaction. And so where we need to get to, and the prescription in the book, is we have to get explicit, what are the different processes that we actually execute regularly in our team or in our business? Alright, for each of these processes, how do we actually wanna organize this process in such a way that it minimizes back and forth unscheduled communication? And you do that process by process, and you can eventually take that pressure off the inbox. That’s the thing we have to get out of the inbox is talking back and forth about work. And it could mean a lot of different things depending on the process.

It might be like we just check in on this Wednesday morning at this time. It might be we have a series of steps in place. You put the podcast episode in this shared drive by Thursday, close of business. The editor picks it up and gives you their notes by Friday morning, whatever. You have some process where this is how we do this without requiring us to go back and forth. But by taking each of the processes that makes up what your team or your individual, your company actually does and saying, How can we actually implement these in such a way that minimizes us having conversations back and forth on email? That defangs the hive mind, that’s replacing the hive mind with more specific processes, and that’s where I think all of the wins will come, looking in the near future.

Brett McKay: And you said you can look at what we did during the Industrial Revolution, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century with Ford and his assembly line work, that’s what… He figured that out. The way they built cars before the assembly line, it was sort of Ad hoc, bringing some craftsmen, they’ll do their thing, and then another group of craftsmen would work on… And cars took forever to make. But then Ford had this idea, “Well, no. We won’t bring the workers to the car. We’ll take the car to the workers and each worker will have their own little one job they do, and we can just start pumping out cars like nobody’s business.” And you say that we can actually use that model or thinking about our communication today in the same way and be more productive.

Cal Newport: Yeah, I think it’s a very useful analogy because the way they built cars pre-Ford’s assembly line, it was literally called the craft method. And it was the hyperactive hive mind of its day because it was convenient and it was natural and it was flexible and was easy to manage. They put the car, the chassis on saw horses so you didn’t have to bend over, but it was, “Okay, we’re building a car here. And if we wanna scale up our factory, we buy some more saw horses and buy some more teams.” It was easy, it was convenient, it was flexible. And the important thing in this analogy is Ford said, “I think there’s better ways to build cars, but those ways are gonna be less convenient, less easy, less flexible. They’re gonna require more management. We’re gonna have to invest more money and it’s gonna cause, in the short term, lots of bad things to happen because hey, it’s pretty hard to calibrate these assembly lines to get them to actually work.”

So it was a pain, but that pain made the model Ts get produced 100 X factor and changed Ford into one of the largest companies in the world. And I think that’s a useful analogy. Not that there’s anything specific about an assembly line that we would replicate in knowledge work, industrial work is completely different than in knowledge work. No, we step up a level. This idea that what’s convenient and flexible might not be the best way to do it. So sometimes going through the pain of coming up with better systems is worth it by far in the long run, and that’s a mindset shift on pitching. And I think it is poetic that it took about 20 years from the beginning of industrial car manufacturing to Ford starting to innovate, how do we actually get past the easy ways of doing this? Well, if we look at email, we’re not too much farther than 20 years from the first sort of widespread adoption of email in the knowledge work sector.

So we’re kind of on track with that existing timeline for, Okay, the tech is here. We’ve done the easy thing. Who’s our knowledge work Henry Ford who’s gonna say, “My company will take the pain of moving past the hive mind even if it’s annoying in the short term, because we’ll be the biggest company in the world a couple of years later.”

Brett McKay: And this is by putting in some structure and thinking about your work processes. This will allow you to do what you call the attention capital principle, which is by thinking about your processes for the long term, you’re actually gonna allow your workers to be able to think on the thing that they’re good at. So if it’s an ad copywriter, they’re gonna be able to spend more time writing good ad copy instead of doing back and forth admin work trying to talk about the work they need to be doing, and that will actually just increase productivity. So you’re taking a hit in the, maybe in the short term, for long-term gains.

Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And I introduced that term, attention capital theory, to try to make this more concrete because I think we got a little bit confused because it’s well, it’s people and it’s fellow people and we’re just talking to other people and let’s keep this convenient and we’re thinking about interpersonal dynamics. Whereas in the industrial sector, we’re like, “Oh, we have capital. We have all this equipment and machinery and sheet metal and tires, and we wanna figure out what’s the best deployment of this to produce cars as fast as possible.” And knowledge work is the same thing except for now, it’s what I call attention capital is delaying potential of all these human brains to add value and information to actually produce value in the knowledge sector. And we should be experimenting with what’s the right configuration, how do we hook up all these brains in the way that’s gonna produce the best value? And when we think about it that way, yeah, we get all these innovations.

Get rid of the hive mind. We should probably have a lot more specializations, another thing that falls out. People should be doing less, they should be focused on what they do best, that’s probably gonna produce more value. And then allowing the HR department and the IT department and the CMO, and all these people that just lay claim to time and attention… When you start seeing this as we’re trying to get a good return on capital, all these innovations fall out. And you’re gonna get a lot of different ways of configuring work, a lot of bespoke processes, a lot more specialization, a lot more protection of time and attention. We just have to have this first fundamental mindset shift that, yeah, it’s human brains instead of factory equipment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t innovate and try radical things and really think outside the box about what’s the right way to actually hook these brains together and have them produce stuff that’s valuable.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about some things, some big picture principles of how people and organizations can structure work so they’re more effective and get more done. And what’s great about your book, you actually found companies who have been experimenting with this stuff. They’ve been experimenting ditching the hyperactive hive mind. And so with all these organizations that have had success with this, what have been like the big principles you see them following to get this attention capital, basically.

Cal Newport: So you certainly see a process-focused approach. So instead of just rock and roll in our inbox, let’s actually name the different processes that we come back to again and again, and so that we can have conversations about how do we actually wanna implement these processes so that we have less of this back and forth communication? You see a couple of different responses to that question emerge. One thing that I saw being very popular in these companies is that they would externalize and make transparent the work that’s actually happening. So tasks and information get out of these inboxes and onto shared systems. They’re on a task board with different columns for different statuses and information amd notes from the clients and files are attached to these virtual cards and who’s working on what is crystal clear. And they have some synchronous way, we get together every morning for 10 minutes, we look at this, who needs what, from whom? Okay, go work. So you see that common. Communication protocols come up a lot. So if there’s something that just involves, I gotta check this. I have to send it back to you. You have to approve my changes, then it needs to go to the producer, or something like this.

Any of these sort of replicate-able processes, you’ll see a lot of protocols emerge where they say, Let’s just figure out how we do this that does not require me to just shoot you a message. And so you get these protocols in place of like, this goes here by this time, I changed the status in a spreadsheet, that’s how you know to grab it. Your notes go here, I approve it. Where suddenly, you automate these processes so they don’t require messaging, that’s also quite common. And then you see, what I think of as just innovations around communication density. So you might have things like office hours. Twice a week, I’m in the Zoom room or I’m in my office if you’re in-person, and a lot of quick coordination and questions just gets moved to you, just grab me in my office hours. So you get these sort of general innovations or you see email addresses get disassociated with individuals. Well, no, we have an email address for this client. That client uses that email address to communicate with us, that email then goes into a system that’s monitored by a lot of people and we have shifts. So you get these kind of… Think of these as these ad hoc communication innovations. So these are the three classes of things you begin to see once you start from the fundamental premise of the hive mind is not the only way to work, we have these underlying processes, what could be better?

Brett McKay: And I think what it sounds like is… This is kind of counter-intuitive but when you start thinking about these processes and putting these protocols in place, you’re actually making communication more complicated. ‘Cause there might be multiple steps and multiple systems you have to set in place, but by increasing complication, you actually decrease complexity. ‘Cause whenever you allow asynchronous communication, anyone can talk… You have all sorts of different people communicating. That’s complex, all these different interactions going on. But if you just inject a bit of friction, a bit of complication, you reduce that complexity and things are actually more streamlined.

Cal Newport: Yeah, we place too much emphasis in this current moment in this particular sector on convenience. Convenience is not a very useful principle for designing an effective business. No one looks at an Elon Musk Tesla assembly line and says, “This is really a pain. We have to invent these robots and program all these robots and have all these just-in-time production systems. Like this isn’t easy. It would be much easier if I could kinda just build a car with my friends or something like this.” And they would say, “Who cares if it’s easy?” Convenience is not a relevant principle. And so that’s a mindset shift that has to happen is that our goal is not to avoid small bad things from happening, our goal is not to try to make things as convenient as possible, and certainly our goal is not as it seems to have been in the tech sector in the last 20 years, to reduce as much friction as possible from communication. ‘Cause our job is not… We don’t get paid by the inbox size, we get paid by producing valuable things. So these are all the wrong metrics to look at.

So, yeah, it does seem counterintuitive at first, some of these processes you use to replace the hive mind. Because you say there’s more upfront cost, there might be more time involved I have to spend in the moment. But once you step back and say, my convenience, even time, friction, none of these things are directly what we’re trying to optimize, and what we’re trying to optimize is producing effective results in a way that is sustainable for the workers, that doesn’t burn them out or make them miserable. And those solutions tend not to be convenient, they tend not to be low-friction, they tend not to be flexible. And we just have to get used to the fact it’s okay, but that’s how most business runs in most other sectors. So the outliers here are really the office worker that says, “I know, but it would be inconvenient if Bob didn’t answer my email right away.” So we’re kind of the outliers. We need to get our act together.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned some things that some of these companies have done, and one thing you make this really strong case for a type of work, and you mentioned it earlier, this sort of Agile development or Scrum or Kanban. For those who aren’t familiar, this is something that computer programmers have used and this is what you do. You’re a professor of computer science, so you’re familiar with this stuff. For those who aren’t familiar with Agile development task board, what does that look like?

Cal Newport: So one of the key things in Agile methodologies is everything that’s being worked on or needs to be worked on is stored in a common, transparent, centralized place. So traditionally, this would be Post-it notes on a white board but obviously, you can do this virtually very easily. So you have this board, I call them task boards, every methodology has their own name, and you have these cards on the board that represent things that have to happen. You have columns that represent statuses, like waiting to work on, in progress, Q&A testing needs to be done, done, etcetera. And everyone sees everything that needs to be done, everything being done, what’s everything’s status. They also then add in, they’re called status meetings. And traditionally, they’re held standing up, they’re every morning and they’re fast.

And during these status meetings, you say, “This is what I worked on. This is what I was working on yesterday and how it went… ” So there’s accountability. “Here’s what I’m working on today, and here’s what I need from people to get that done.” And then you’re basically left to execute. And one of the big concepts, especially in Kanban, is something called the works in progress limit, where they’re explicit about how many things do we want one person to be responsible for at a time. And because this is inspired by industrial manufacturing, they realize that if you significantly cut that down to just one or two things at a time, that’s much more effective than putting 10 things on someone’s plate and having them just try to figure that out over time.

But my big point about these methodologies, which I talk about a lot, is not that in other types of work you should be using Scrum or you should be using Kanban. It’s actually a higher level observation, which is what they did right, is they said, we’re not just going to hive minded. We’re not just gonna rock and roll an email and say, “Knowledge workers are autonomous, let’s just figure out. We’ll just kind of figure things out over Slack how to program this code.” They put in place these really set workflows that allowed people to get more out of these brains and people to be less burnt out. That’s the lesson I wanna pull away for other types of work. Not that you should use Scrum, but you should have whatever your own equivalent of Scrum is, in place. Don’t just settle on, let’s rock and roll.

Brett McKay: And one of the big take-aways, too, is how effective in-person meetings can be. They don’t have… I think most people think, oh, meetings. That’s the bane of any office worker’s existence. But the way you describe how these companies use meetings, they’re like there’s a single purpose, it’s to do the check-in and after that it’s done. You’re not doing any… You’re not reporting like, “Here’s what we’re gonna do, and then how’s everyone doing?” It’s just like, “Here’s what I’ve done. Here’s what I need, and then here’s what I’m gonna do.” And it takes 15 minutes and you’re able to… And you follow that up a week later and you ask the same questions. Here’s what I did, here’s what needs to be done, and here’s what I’m gonna do and things just start flowing once you add that little in-person meeting instead of having to go back and forth and email saying, “Well, I need this file. Can you send me this… ” You don’t do that anymore.

Cal Newport: So I’ve seen and I document in the book other type of work where they pulled in that same highly structured status meeting approach in all sorts of other type of work and it’s been really successful. So I talk about, for example, a UX development firm. They’re not coding. They’re designing user interfaces so it’s a different type of thing. But they have their morning status meeting and then they have another one in the afternoon. Like the morning status meeting is how they figure out what to do during the morning and they just work. There’s no Slack, email’s barely used. Then they check in at 2:00, and then they work until the end of the day. And then they have systems. So they were using Basecamp, a project management system, in this particular example, to keep track of all the information about each client so everything is stored, you see what’s going on. And they don’t use email for anything except for delivering files and private communications. So if I’m gonna talk to you about your salary, I don’t wanna post that on Basecamp or everyone else can see. And so that’s really effective. And it’s because synchronous communication is very effective. Teal-time back and forth is incredibly rich and incredibly effective.

The reason why we hate meetings is because there’s other things people use meetings for, which is pretty terrible. And when people start to use meetings, for example, as a proxy for productivity… Here’s something I need to work on. I’m kind of disorganized. I don’t trust myself to actually make progress on this, so let’s just get a meeting on the calendar. Because the one thing I know I will do is if I see a meeting on my calendar, I’ll attend it, and now I don’t have to worry about this. So we start to use meetings as a way to work around the fact that we’re unorganized and unable to actually schedule and execute work without being forced to do it. And then what you end up with is you end up with days full of meetings where it’s like I don’t… I guess we’re talking about this project. And those are killer. But synchronous communication, if you can structure it and there’s a purpose for it, is way better than trying to take that same conversation and say, “We’ll just work it out on emails. We’ll just work it out back and forth.” Because you don’t realize that five minutes check-in on the status meeting, that turns into a dozen back and forth emails otherwise. And a dozen back and forth emails might turn into a 120-email inbox checks as you’re waiting for each of those messages to come in and to respond. So we should not underestimate the cost of taking synchronous coordination and saying, “Well, we’ll just figure it out on the fly.”

Brett McKay: And also, the other nice thing about organizing your work with these boards, is that you can create multiple boards for different projects, and then that reduces task switching. So you can look at one board for this one project, and then you can say, “Well, I’m moving on to this next board ’cause I’m done with that board,” this and that project, instead of going to your inbox where you see just sort of, it’s basically whoever… It’s chronological, like reverse chronological. So instead of just going down your email list and saying, “Oh, I gotta do this, and that’s one project. And I gotta to go to this next email and that’s a different project,” you’re with the board, organizing by project with these boards. You’re able to reduce task switching.

Cal Newport: Yeah, which is one of the examples I gave was the Vicis marketing firm, and he was so happy after they made this shift and it was just like you were talking about. They use Trello as their particular software, one board per client. And then everything about that client’s on this board like, “Okay, here’s the notes from the last call we had. Here’s from the brainstorming meeting. Here’s the file with the proposal. Everything’s on here.” And the way he explained it to me is, my day is now, let’s load up a board for the project I wanna put my attention on. And then you’re just in that world. Like all you were seeing is information for that client. You’re looking at the updates since you were last there, you get up to speed with what’s going on. You take the thing that you could be most useful on, you work on it for a while, you update the card and attach your results so that you’ve updated the status of the project.

An hour has passed, and then you say, “Okay, now I’m done. I’m gonna work on another client,” and then you shift your context. And he really emphasized, the founder of this company, Davish, really emphasized. He’s like, It just… The positive impact of just being able to do one thing at a time. He didn’t realize how much of a relief that was gonna be. Because otherwise, you’re exactly right. It’s like, “Well, I’m kind of working on this project, but it’s an email. And so I’m gonna see about seven other projects at the same time, I’m gonna kinda try to answer some of those messages and switch back to this message,” and then you’re just exhausted and miserable. And then you start doing the inbox surf, you’re like, “Well, I just wanna find the messages that are easier to respond to.” Everyone knows that.

That’s because you’ve burned out your brain from the context switching, where you start inbox surfing to find the stuff to answer that’s easy so at least I’m busy. And they don’t have any of that anymore. They work on a client for a while, and then they’re done. And then they work on another client for a while, and then they’re done. And it seems like a little thing but it made all the difference in terms of how people at that firm felt. And I even wrote about, he showed me his boards, and I wrote in the book about how it must have been what it felt like if you worked for Buick and the first time you walked in and saw the Henry Ford assembly line, you’re like, “Oh, yes. This is obviously a much better way to do it.” That same sort of a-ha moment for me. I was like, this is obviously better than an inbox. I just had to see it for a second to realize that.

Brett McKay: And this ties in with another thing you’ve written about with time blocking. So you could have a board, like a board for one project. You can actually plan out your week and say, “On Mondays from 10:00 am to 12:00 am, I’m working on X Project.” And all you’re gonna do is look at that board, and then you can say, “Well, on Wednesdays from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM, I’m gonna work on this other project.” And you can actually schedule that out and you know exactly what you’re gonna do. You don’t have to think about it because it’s already on the calendar.

Cal Newport: Yeah. And you know it’s coming, and you can do that across the whole team. And I talk about another company that did this, they were using flow. All these tools can do the same thing, it’s cards on boards, you can attach stuff to an assignment, they’re all great. I don’t have any particular favorites. They did like you were talking about, and they anchored these sessions with the short status meetings. So it was… You knew, like, yeah, for this project, we all get together for 15 minutes at this time, and then we can all just go and work on that. We can quickly sync up. Like, okay, wait, I need this, you need that. Will you send that in here? What are we doing? We got it, good. And then they’re just in that world, and that’s what they work on. And so these synchronous status meetings anchored sessions in which everyone was gonna be working on that project. And so once you start thinking about attention, capital theory and getting away from the hive mind, all of these things become options. Like all these innovation flood gates just open once you realize, what if we don’t just rock and roll in an inbox?

Brett McKay: And another case you make in this book, and it’s gonna be… I wouldn’t say controversial, but it’s counterintuitive to the way we do work today. One of the other things that happened with digital communication is it allowed people, workers to become generalists. You could, instead of relying on a secretary to handle your scheduling, well, you can do that through calendaring tools and email. You don’t need a secretary anymore. Instead of relying on some other support staff to do… I don’t know, marketing. Well, no. As a CEO, you can easily do marketing yourself if you’re a small business owner with these tools, but as you make this case, because we’ve become generalists, we’ve actually diluted what we’re able to do that actually brings in money or productivity.

Cal Newport: Yeah, we’re doing way too much. What’s typically on the plate of a normal knowledge worker is too much, if you wanna, again, maximize the return you get on the investment in this human brain. One of my favorite studies that I cite in the book, and I talk about all the time ’cause I just love it, is this economist from Georgia Tech. And this was in the early 1990s, late 1980s, early 1990s. So he was looking at this first wave where personal computers came into the office, and it was doing just like you were talking about. We don’t need typing pools, and we don’t need a travel agency internal. You can just book that on the intranet. This is where we got rid of a lot of support staff. And he took 20 different departments over five major companies and he studied like what they did. And, okay, so they fired a lot of support staff because I don’t need a typist, I can do a word processor. So I don’t need a typist and I don’t need a receptionist because you can do email, etcetera. What he did, which was cool, is he crunched all the numbers. And he said, “Okay, here’s what happened. Yeah, that work got easier, but it moved on to the plate of the executives that were doing the actual front line value creation for the firm.”

So in order to get the same amount of work done, they had to hire more of these executives because they were now spending a huge portion of their time servicing administrative tasks. Well, the salary of these executives is more than the salary of the support staff. Sassone crunches all the numbers and says, in the end, on average, their salary costs ended up 15% higher because it was like you fired the assistants and then you had to hire more of the executives that they get the same amount of work done, and you ended up spending more. And he called this the diminishment of intellectual specialization. That’s the effect. And basically, his warning, which I think is a good one, is that making tasks easier in isolation don’t necessarily make companies more effective, broadly speaking. And we saw this with email. You make it easier for people to communicate, you make it easier for people to grab someone’s attention, doesn’t mean they become more effective. You can actually make them less effective. We end up sending more work to each other, we end up assigning more tasks, we end up trying to lay claim to people’s time and attention more often. We tend to do this in less efficient ways and ways that distracts people more. So I think email is just a continuation of this trend of making certain things easier with technology in the workplace doesn’t necessarily make that workplace more effective.

Brett McKay: Right. So counterintuitive notion, if you’re a business owner, you might actually wanna hire more people. Again, this is making work more complicated, but there’s gonna be friction but you actually might save more money because you…

Cal Newport: Yeah, yeah. Because I think… Here’s what should have happened. So I think the way that we should have leveraged IT technologies that made certain support tasks more easier, the wrong thing to do was to say, “Let’s fire the support staff and put all this work onto the plate of the people they were supporting.” Instead, the right way to take advantage of that is to say, “Oh, with smaller support staffs, we can implement the same amount of support work.” That was the right way to maximize the advantage of productivity saving is that we’re not gonna put anything new onto the plate of the front line value producers. Where we’re gonna save money is that now that we have all these tools, the support staff can use all these tools. And now we don’t need as many support staff to support the same amount of people or the support staff and give even more support to the computer programmers or the ad copywriters. That would have been, logically, actually the way to maximize value, by completely eliminating the support staff and moving that work onto the plate of the front line workers. It was just a mistake. It wasn’t the optimal return we could get on that particular technological innovation.

Brett McKay: Alright, so just to recap here, we’ve been talking about these principles, sort of high level, and you get into details with it, and there’s lots of books out there if people wanna pick up a book about Scrum or Sprint or whatever. But the idea is, instead of relying on email, you want to create systems where you don’t even have to communicate with other through email. You can just look at the… It could be a task board online, or it could be a white board with Post-it notes and all the information about the project is right there. And it’s self-evident, basically, what needs to be done, and you might incorporate some check-in meetings that are once a week, or everyday that are just 15 minutes. And by thinking about that and structuring it, you can spend less time talking about work and actually working. Is that the idea?

Cal Newport: Yep. I think that’s absolutely right. Email is great for sending, broadcasting information or delivering files, but for all the interaction that needs to happen about your work, find ways to do it. It doesn’t require that ad hoc messaging.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about this. If you’re a business owner, easy to do ’cause you’re like, “Okay, I heard this. I’m gonna implement this.” Let’s say you work at a company, you’re just sort of a staff member or an employee or, in your case, like you work at a university, which I know are just… I have friends who are professors and hyperactive hive mind is full-blown there. How can you implement some of the stuff we’ve been talking about? So from the bottom up, is it possible? What do you think?

Cal Newport: Yeah, here’s the good news. If, as an individual, it has no leverage over how anyone else works, if you still go through this mindset shift and say, “My work is made up of processes. There’s these repeated processes that I’m a part of again and again that produces value, there’s the answer to the client questions process, there’s the… Whatever, get proposals together process. Go through and figure out what these processes are. And the best way to do this, by the way, is actually when you’re in your inbox, just ask this question about every message you answer. What process is this email interaction connected to? What process is this email interaction connected to? And that’s a good way to quickly uncover, “Oh, here’s the things I do regularly.” And then for each of these, go one by one and say, “Given just what I can control, how can I minimize the amount of back and forth communication required to execute this process?” What I found is that even if no one else is on board with this, that type of thinking can have a huge effect.

So sometimes it’s just stuff you’re doing internally. Like, okay, the way I keep track of information and gather information from people prevents there being a lot of back and forth. We have to schedule a meeting. I just send a schedule one Sling so we don’t have to do back and forths. And sometimes you can stealthily recruit people into your processes without calling it that. So you say, “Alright, we gotta get this proposal out there. So here’s what I suggest. I’ll have a draft uploaded to Dropbox by noon on Monday. You take a look, put any comments you have into it, I’m planning to work on it Tuesday afternoon. Let’s have a… I have this office hours Tuesday at four, so if there’s any questions, just grab me then and we can chat about it, and then I will send it off to the developer Wednesday morning.”

They don’t know this is a process. But what you’ve done is you’ve just brought them into a plan that doesn’t require back and forth communication, and they’re just busy and overwhelmed. They’re like, “Great, I’m glad Brett has a plan. I don’t have to worry about this.” They’ve just been drawn into a process that’s gonna minimize back and forth. So if you just asymmetrically optimized processes to reduce back and forth, you can have a massive improvement, I should say, on how hyperactive the hive mind is and how much pressure you feel to have to keep checking these inboxes.

Brett McKay: And another thing you can do is just talk to your boss and be like, “Hey, I got this idea that would make us more productive and make people less miserable,” and they might listen to that.

Cal Newport: Yeah, and just have a safety valve. What works there is, A, positivity. I think we can get more done. And, B, put in a safety valve. This is what gets rid of the main complaint of what if something bad happens. You say, “And of course, we have a safety valve where you can just call me if there’s an issue or it’s not working.” These safety valves are never invoked, no one ever calls you, the processes work, but it gets past the main mental block that bosses have, which is like, what if something happens unexpected this process can’t handle? I’m worried about not being able to reach you. I’m worried about a client thing being missed. You just put it in a safety valve of like, “I always have my phone, it’s always on. Just call me if there’s any issues and we can take care of it.” And don’t worry, the valves never open in practice.

Brett McKay: Yeah, no one ever calls but they’ll send an email if you allow that, right?

Cal Newport: Yeah, 10% more friction. It’s crazy. There was this researcher who was telling me this story, by the way, of they went into this company and they took a dozen people in this big company, and said they’re not gonna use email for a week just so they could see what happens. This is a mindset of like, Let’s study how this dynamic works by breaking it and seeing what goes wrong. And this one guy was telling her about how he hated that every week he had this big period where he had to set up a lab as a research company and his boss would just be like, email, email, email, do this, do this, what about this, what about this? You have to answer me. During that seven days where this guy was not on email, the boss completely stopped bothering him with these things. And what made it so interesting is that the boss’s office was two doors down. So just the friction of the boss having to walk two doors down the hallway and say, “Hey, Fred. Can you grab this for me or do this thing for me?” Just that little bit of friction drastically reduced the amount of time he was bothering him.

So, yeah, a little bit of friction goes a long way. Zero friction is very, very dangerous. A little bit of friction, I have to walk down the hallway and I have to look at your face and bother you is a completely different ball game, and I can just hit send and it costs me nothing. So we should be very afraid of zero friction. In all sorts of physical systems, things go crazy when you get rid of the friction.

Brett McKay: No, I’ve experienced that. And it’s funny, whenever I’ve had problems with my website, for example… I got a web developer, and as soon as there’s a problem, like, “Okay, I’ll shoot this guy an email.” And then he might not take… He might take a day to get back to me, but in that time I’m working on it, like, “Oh, never mind. I figured it out myself.” I’m sure that happens to IT people all the time. It’s like the bane of their existence. It’s like, “Oh, yeah. Turn off and on my computer and that’ll solve it.” And I imagine if I had… If my developer had some friction in place and like, “Okay, you only call me if you have a serious problem,” I probably wouldn’t send any emails to him with these stupid problems I figure out on my own.

Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s right. Friction is… We don’t understand fully what goes wrong when you push this friction down. We’re like, “Hey, we have a call.” By the way, I ran a web development company when I was a teenager in the ’90s, and I was a high school student. And this was before cell phones, and this was before laptops. So I was literally unavailable, and we just built out this system and the way we did it is, we had these set calls. And like, yeah, we’ll go through all your issues and we’ll document everything we told you and put it and we’ll upload it to this extranet. You can see exactly what we’re doing, and we’ll have a work blog and our team… We just had to put in place more difficult systems and we were able to run a company with essentially zero email. So there’s a lot of other ways to do this that have a little bit more friction. It keeps everyone happy and the work gets done.

Because one of the big points I make is that we think accessibility is what everyone wants, but really what they want is reliability. They wanna know they can trust that you’re gonna get to work done, that you know what you’re doing, that things are happening. If they don’t trust that stuff’s gonna happen, then they’re gonna wanna be able to access you all the time. Because they’re like, “This is gonna be on my head until you confirm you saw this.” But if you have a system in place they trust, people are pretty happy not to have to bother you all the time. People don’t like doing that, but they also don’t like having to keep track of things in their own head and not trusting you. So reliability often trumps accessibility in these situations.

Brett McKay: I gotta remind ourselves we fought World War II and won World War II without Slack or email. And you actually talk about George Marshall, this guy was the guy in charge of the war. And the guy hardly… He wasn’t really doing a lot of communication back and forth. He just worked and then he was done for the day, and then he went off and rode his horse, and then he came back in the office. And that was it. He didn’t really… He wasn’t on all the time.

Cal Newport: Yeah. He stopped at five because that’s the way they dealt with heart problems back then. It’s like, “I will die if I work past five.” He didn’t work past five. But he’s a great example because managers often tell me, “Look, in my job, I have to be very responsive. That’s what my job is.” But I say George Marshall was the manager to defeat all managers. This guy was in charge of the entire US Armed Forces during World War II. And what he did is, instead of trying to say, How do I most effectively deal with the communication structures and systems in place? Which is the way that I think a lot of managers think about it. It’s unavoidable, all this communication is gonna happen, so I just have to be really fast. He just changed the structure from scratch. He fired a lot of people, he consolidated a lot of things, he put people under him, and he drastically reduced the number of people who had direct access to him. And he put in place more processes, here’s how meetings worked which are gonna be incredibly effective. He was very sequential.

One thing at a time. You come in, you’ve done your research. Here’s the issue, here’s what we think the right answer is. Marshall gave his feedback. Okay, here’s my addition to that. Great. Next. And he would just do that. One thing after another, you couldn’t grab him, it wasn’t hyperactive hive mind. Be done by five. So I use this example for managers. Don’t think that the way that your communication and collaboration systems and habits in place now are unchangeable, and all you can do is figure out how to deal with those most effectively. You can proverbially fire your own colonels, like Marshall did, by which I mean, you can rebuild how you organize and collaborate and communicate with your team in such a way that isn’t just completely hyperactive mind. If he could do that, and he had higher stakes, more pressing things, a bigger budget, more people… All the stuff you think is hard in your job, he had it 10 times harder, and he was done by five.

Brett McKay: That’s inspiring. And you can also use this in your personal life, too. You highlight how you’ve done this, implemented some of these ideas in your own personal life. So you can have a board for the vacation, and then you have a board for… I don’t know, some household project you gotta do. And you can do a status check-in with yourself or your spouse, or even family where everyone’s on the same board. And that’s something we kind of implemented in my own family. My wife and I, we get together once a week. We have a marriage meeting and we say, “Here’s what we need to get done. Are you doing that?” And then it takes 15 minutes and we’re good for the rest of the week. And then we have a family meeting, same thing. Kids, what’s going on? What do you got going on? What do you need to bring anything to school? Okay, that’s it. And it takes 15 minutes and you’re done.

Cal Newport: Yeah, you guys aren’t on a Slack channel. Like, “Hey, hey.” Like, “Brett, hey, we need the milk or whatever… Can you grab that? What happened to that? Can you do this?” Think about that. You could take that 15 minutes and a clear place to store who’s doing what and all the information. You could replace that with just a ton of ad hoc conversations throughout the week, but it would be terrible. And that’s how we do a lot of other work right now.

Brett McKay: Well, Cal, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Cal Newport: So my website,, that’s where my blog and newsletter are. You can find out about the book. Also my podcast, Deep Questions, we go deep on all these issues. I answer reader questions from people in business with specific case studies. How do I deal with this issue? So if you wanna go deeper on it, that podcast also has some answers as well.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Cal Newport, always a pleasure. Thanks so much for your time.

Cal Newport: Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Cal Newport. He’s the author of the book, A World Without Email. It’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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