Patton's Picks from the PMA Library: A World Without Email

October 2021

"A World Without Email: Reimagining Work In An Age Of Information Overload" by Cal Newport

If you're looking for book recommendations to enhance your nonprofit leadership, Patton McDowell offers a weekly summary of some of the essential and emerging titles from the PMA Nonprofit Leadership Library.

As Cal Newport explains, email represents the culprit in our "hyperactive hive mind" workflow. We've become addicted to constant asynchronous communication under the false belief that low-friction emails increase productivity. Maybe not! Newport argues we are less productive in a constantly distracted state, playing email ping pong by endlessly scheduling meetings, reading useless reply-alls, and enduring a physiological stress because we have a genetic need to respond. While making the argument against this hyperactive hive mind mentality, he offers examples and suggestions that produce greater productivity for knowledge workers, preserve attention capital and reduce the cognitive stress of constant switching. 


  1. Attention Capital Principle: Identify workflows that better optimize the brain's ability to add value. Use TRELLO, work boards and other productivity tools. Understand the difference between work execution - actually getting things done - and workflow: the rather misleading sensation of busyness and productivity without the actual results. Reduce your workflow and actually get the right things done.
  2. The Process Principle: Introduce smart production processes will increase performance. Create a spreadsheet/SOP to define each step. Best Practice: work without unscheduled communications. Task board: Plan, ready, blocked, work, done. Kanban: Do, Doing, Done. Hold regular review meetings to ensure everything gets done without it interrupting what you're already doing. 
  3. The Protocol Principle: Design rules when and how coordination occurs in the workplace, and automate these processes in a calendaring software. Establish office hours. Client protocols: manage expectations. Utilize five sentence (max!) emails. 
  4. The Specialization Principle: Do fewer things with more quality and accountability. The computer has made us functional at a lot of tasks, but being a generalist is no good for a specialist. Use focused sprints instead of juggling multiple tasks. "Budget your attention" - limit meetings and other energy drains that can hinder your efforts towards high-priority items. Add more administrative help, if you truly find yourself trapped in the email game when you really shouldn't be, or designate your own administrative time for yourself. 

Cal Newport is an American non-fiction author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.