Cal Newport’s excellent book, A World Without Emails”, is not specifically about emails and it does not advocate that we get rid of them. Rather, the focus of the book is on instant messaging in general, and in the early chapters it concludes that emails are, in fact, "amazing".  Emails, and other instant messaging platforms, allow you to prepare a message at a time that is convenient for you and to instantly send that message to another person, or group of people. The recipients can read and reply to the message at a time that suits them. 

Instant messaging is described as “asynchronous” communication as it allows for the transfer of information, but the transfer is one sided, and this contrasts with “synchronous” communications, such as face-to-face meetings or phone calls.

Cal, in his book, details improvements in productivity during the last century, from the development of the continuous production line by Ford for the Model T. Over the course of the 20th century, we saw a 50 fold increase in efficiency. It was expected that computers, and instant messaging, would bring the same level of increased efficiency to knowledge workers, but since the widespread use of emails began in the 1990s, the average efficiency of the knowledge worker has not materially improved.

So what are the problems with instant messaging?

Distraction and context switching

Our main asset in the IP sector, and any other sector where knowledge is the primary output, is our attention capital, i.e. the ability to think and focus on a specific task until it is complete.  We have a limited number of “cognitive cycles” each day, and every time you interrupt such a cycle to check emails, look at a pop-up message or the like, then that cycle is lost. 

To function efficiently, we need mental space free from interruption and (depending on which study you look at) it can take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes to recover your focus following an interruption. In this respect, any form of interruption is damaging – even the pop-up message that you think you ignore will distract you from the task in hand, in the same way as a sprinter who needs to step around an unexpected obstacle will be slowed from reaching the finish line.

Lack of clarity

Emails are often less clear than we think – generally speaking, both the writer and the reader will be overconfident in assessing their understanding of the message.


Emails are extremely easy to send, particularly to large groups of people, but an email can be time consuming for the recipient to process.


Instant messages are often used for discussions rather than just to convey information, but any form of asynchronous messaging is misappropriate for this purpose – such discussions can often lead to a high volume of long messages, which are time consuming to write and read… and rarely lead to a conclusion.

The concept of the Hyperactive Hive Mind

The “Hyperactive Hive Mind” is a key concept in Cal’s book – and, if left unchecked, this is one of the most damaging features of instant messaging.

An absence of suitable workflows leads to instant messaging becoming the default method of all communications, paving the way for the Hyperactive Hive Mind.

Instant messaging leads to unstructured and unscheduled workflows and often leads to the constant feeling that one should be regularly checking and responding to emails. This creates a vicious circle and subsequently work gets constantly interrupted as hindrances are created while checking and responding to emails, thereby crippling the mental capacity to productively perform knowledge work. Also, in the absence of a defined workflow, we will all default to whatever is easiest for us as individual – and that is often instant messaging.

Creation of a firm of general administrators

Some of the greatest gains in productivity during the last century came from specialisation.  One of the improvements introduced by Henry Ford was to break down the production of coiled-wire magnetos. Originally, a single worker took about 20 minutes to make each magneto; Ford introduced a waist-high conveyor belt and broke down the construction into five steps, implemented by five workers standing shoulder to shoulder – this reduced the production time for each magneto to 5 minutes. 

The danger of emails is that it makes it too easy for specialists to be involved in day-to-day administration issues like the approval of expense claims – each request only takes a few seconds or minutes to approve but that represents the loss of a cognitive cycle and prevents the specialist engaging in chargeable work.

Best practice

Remember, instant messaging is hugely useful but, as outlined above, only if it is used correctly. It is important to define clear workflows to avoid instant messaging becoming the default – otherwise instant messaging is likely to lead to work overload, increased stress and significant dissatisfaction.  


Effective workflows do not develop organically – as mentioned above, left to our own devices, we default to whatever is easiest for us as individuals and that is unlikely to the most productive solution for the group.   

Workflows must be considered and defined – while emails and other forms of instant messaging may play a pivotal role in any specific workflow, it is important to consider alternatives. 

Breaking out of the Hyperactive Hive Mind

To remove the background pressure of constantly checking instant messages, it is essential to discuss and formalise response protocols. You might, for example, say that no response to an instant message is expected in under 4 hours, or you could define specific times of the day when instant messages will be checked. 

An essential element of this discussion is the “emergency response” protocol, as the most frequent reason given for constantly checking instant messages is to see whether something extremely urgent needs immediate attention. The emergency response protocol defines how and when contact will be made if something needs immediate attention – and obviously the protocol cannot involve an instant message, but generally relates to a phone call or other in-person direct contact, such as going to see someone.

Start what you finish

Once the protocols are in place, and you can focus on tasks without distraction, then you need to maximise your cognitive potential by fully completing a task before you start the next task.

Pop-up messages

All pop-up messages should be turned off, and in any event will become unnecessary when suitable communication protocols are in place.

Asynchronous vs synchronous

Careful thought should be given to the use of emails outside of a defined workflow. In short, well-structured meetings can replace a significant volume of emails, and these meetings are particularly helpful when a group of people need to discuss something where there may be opposing views and/or a need to reach a quick consensus.  

Cal’s book discusses options such as agreeing a fixed maximum character length for emails, beyond which a meeting should be considered but arbitrary limits of this type can be avoided if people are mindful of their use of emails.


The issues created by instant messaging are not all about technology – it is our natural tendency to gravitate towards what is easiest in the moment, combined with a lack of an alternative, that generally leads to the most damaging use of instant messaging. One needs to be conscious of the issue and ensure that alternative workflows are defined, wherever appropriate. 

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