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Email's death grip is strangling us, says computer scientist

Are we doing our work, or just talking about it?

Innovation Hub

Email draining your life force? You’re not alone, according to computer scientist Cal Newport.

Elise Amendola/AP 

Constantly checking your email might feel like textbook responsible work behavior but, according to Cal Newport — a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of "A World Without Email" — it can actually wreak havoc on productivity. Newport argues that our out-of-control inboxes are keeping us from being the thinkers, workers and problem-solvers we could be if email ran our lives less. 

Three takeaways

  • Repeatedly “context shifting” during the workday — moving from the work you're doing to tending to your email inbox, then back again — “is like poison to clear thinking,” according to Newport. The cognitive disruption this causes distracts from “real work,” inhibits deep thinking and hurts ingenuity.
  • Newport hypothesizes that nonindustrial productivity is stagnating because of our “increasingly hyperactive, hive mind mode of working.” As email has gobbled up more of the typical 9-to-5 day, workers have pushed themselves beyond expected hours — doing deeply focused work after the kids go to bed or in the early morning. 
  • Our socially wired, “Paleolithic” brains don’t handle mounting social obligations well. The stress that managing our inbox induces originates from the fact that it feels like we’re ignoring “a tribe member tapping you on the shoulder” — a person who might be less inclined to share food with you during the next famine if you aren’t helpful, Newport explains.