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🕵🏻‍♀️A World Without Email

A World Without Email Reimagining Work in the Age of Overload (or the hyperactive hive mind

Email is making us miserable. By trying to be more efficient, we’ve accidentally deployed an inhumane way to work.

Cal Newport

Thinking big 💡

I have a love-hate relation with email. Love the convenience of it as a messaging tool but hate stuff piling up and having to go through it all. 

6083 in my personal Gmail account 😱 

Over half the world population uses email in 2021. The total number of business and personal emails sent and received per day will exceed 319 billion in 2021 and is forecast to grow to over 376 billion by 2025. Despite the growth of chat apps, we still use email, and you need an email address for most online activity. I spend most of my day in work inboxes – it’s where the magic happens – sign off, editing, documents because it’s faster and in real-time—the ping-pong game…like a slot machine. 

The overall feeling is low-level anxiety like my work is never done.

  • We check our emails every six minutes 
  • Knowledge workers receive and send an average of 126 emails every day 
  • We spend an average of three hours a day on email

A growing body of research on the effect of email suggests banning or putting restrictions on email can dramatically increase individual productivity and reduce stress. Companies have also taken action to reverse the trend. Thierry Breton, CEO of the French information tech company, Atos Origin, noticed his employees were distracted by constant emails, so he took steps to eliminate what he saw as adverse effects on productivity. In 2011, he announced he was banning email and wanted Atos to be a ‘zero email company within three years. 

We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives. We are taking action now to reverse this trend, just as organisations took measures to reduce environmental pollution after the industrial revolution.

Thierry Breton, CEO, Atos Origin

The solution was not to ban electronic communication outright for over 70,000 employees; instead, they built a social network organised around 7,500 open communities working on collaborative projects. Atos hasn’t got rid of email entirely but reduced it by 60%, increasing their margins and reducing administrative costs. 

The movement to protect leisure time is gaining ground. The EU parliament voted massively in favour last month of a resolution calling on the European Commission to propose a law allowing digital workers the ‘right to disconnect’ outside of work to reduce burnout. Research shows people who work from home are more than twice as likely to surpass the maximum of 48 working hours per week. And we’re putting in more hours since Covid – two a day on average.

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in the Age of Overload

Penguin Books

Last Friday, The New Yorker published an excerpt from Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email. Cal, aka Mr Deep Work, is a Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and the New York Times Bestselling author of seven books. 

The chapter focuses on an aspect of overload culture that isn’t talked about much – that email is making us miserable. The more time we spend emailing, the less happy and more stressed we become. What makes this a game-changer is that Cal is putting the onus on companies to make top-down changes rather than focusing on the individual as per earlier books. As Peter Drucker said back in the 70s, knowledge workers are autonomous, but only to a point.

As a freelancer, you can create your own systems and habits to manage information, but it’s not going to make much difference if your clients don’t work in the same way. 

The hyperactive hivemind 

Our workplaces are set up for convenience, not for getting the best out of us. We must be switched on to multitask with knowledge work, which doesn’t fit in with creative, deep thinking. Neuroscientists tell us our attention is single-tasked, and it’s not productive to switch from one task to another. This is making us miserable. 

It mismatches with the social circuits in our brain. It makes us feel bad that someone is waiting for us to reply to them. It makes us anxious.

Cal Newport

Cal describes this workstyle as the ‘hyperactive hivemind’ based around unstructured communications via email and IM and meetings that dominate our day. Email is fine for short communications as intended, but it’s a terrible knowledge management system. 

How do we tackle the hivemind and do our best work?

Cal says we need a more linear approach to workflow. Doing one task at a time to allow the brain to switch contexts – with fewer interruptions from email & IM. One study found (via BBC Worklifeon average, it takes us 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain a deep focus after an interruption

We can learn a lot from how software engineers operate – extreme programming, Scrum & Agile methodologies. Working on one product for a period of time and giving it your whole focus. A more intense, shorter day of deep work with no ad hoc tasks works better with how our brain operates. Try applying Sprint methodology to your creative work – pitches, ideas. 

Work on the productivity of the knowledge worker has barely begun. Globally, the world has more than 1 billion knowledge workers, so we’re well overdue for a rethink & revolution.

It’s coming!!

The next five years will see an insane amount of change and we’ll be embarrassed that we opted for ease over efficiency with email. There’s a lot of interest in getting rid of the hyperactive hivemind to produce higher quality products and services because money and productivity are on the line.

Companies that require their workers to be ever wired and working on multiple tasks will fall behind companies that prioritise more in-depth, slow creative work.

It’s a radical and bold vision – a world without email – that could make you happier and more productive. As Caroline Sauvajol-Rialland, the author of Infobesity, says, information overload is a cultural crisis.

There’s this great challenge of lundimanche that we must tackle, – the French portmanteau word for the blurring of Sunday into Monday. 

Caroline Sauvajol-Rialland

It’s time to change how we communicate at work. 

The advice 🤔

  • Use Calendly instead of emails to arrange meetings to reduce the back-and-forth comms.
  • Use shared project management tools like Trello, Dropbox or Flow to organise tasks and share links so your team know what you’re working on, can see status updates and add comments – it reduces the pressure on your inbox. 
  • Basecamp has ‘Office Hours’ – if someone has a technical question for a given expert, he or she can’t shoot an email and has to wait until the expert’s next office hours to ask a question.
  • Get rid of personal email addresses and have a team/project email so everyone can respond. 
  • Try Scrum/Agile methodology – combines working in intense sprints (1-4-week projects) with daily 15-minute standing meetings to get things done. Everyone gets a chance to speak and ask for help. Pin coloured notes to a board to show commitments, so there’s no ambiguity.

If it works for 12+ million software developers…

Go deeper 🕵🏻‍♀️

🎧 The James Altucher Show – A World Without Email with Cal Newport.

💻 The New Yorker: Email is Making Us Miserable and The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.

📹 LinkedIn Live: Journey Further Book Club with Cal Newport – A World Without Email, March 16. 

📚 Under New Management by David Burkus – the companies outlawing or at least restricting email and getting more done.

🎤 National Union of Journalists event, March 8 – a chat with John Crowley, co-author of the Journalism in Time of Covid survey, on freelancing and mental health.

Guests welcome – email me!! if you’d like to come.  

Advice. Opinions. Conversation.

Copywriting projects – June 2020

It’s June, my birthday month. A special anniversary this year – I’m 46 years young and also celebrating 20 years as a freelance writer!

What am I working on in June?

Here’s an overview.

  • E-shots and newsletter for a retail trade body
  • Annual Review 2020
  • Social media copywriting for a journalists’ trade union
  • Promoting #ForgottenFreelance and #NoFreeWork campaigns
  • Developing a new blog series – thought leadership pieces from the gift card industry
  • Social media reporting
  • Writing blogs on perimenopause and sex, and menopause and sex (yes, two different things!) for a sex tech startup. A slight challenge as I have Safe Search on while homeschooling
  • Boilerplate for a press release
  • Email newsletter, The Shift, my weekly (Sunday) update on work culture
  • Research – listening to podcasts on marketing and work trends: Hot Copy, Is This Working? Call Paul, Being Freelance, The Copywriter Club. I go by the 25% rule and spend the first hour of the day working on my business rather than in it
  • Pandemic check – updating my website SEO, links, blog, checking tone of voice etc

It’s a diverse range of content and comms across very different industries.

I use a variety of platforms – MailChimp, WordPress, Hootsuite, Microsoft Outlook, LinkedIn, Twitter, G-Suite, Substack, Zoom, SurveyMonkey, Disciple app.

It’s all about communication right now. Getting the right tone and shifting things online – meetings, webinars, podcasts, apps. Finding ways to keep people connected while they’re working from home and having systems and processes in place to manage remote teams.

Being direct is essential – so have one message or call to action per email, use bullets, and keep it short. No one wants long emails with too much information. There’s no point planning too far ahead either as we don’t know what’s coming and things are changing so fast. Focus on the next couple of months. 

Now isn’t the time for a hard sell but don’t disappear on your customers either – keep in touch, a weekly email is fine. People will appreciate you being there and doing stuff. It’s an opportunity to show people how you’ve responded to the crisis, your values and teamwork. Once this is over, we’ll remember the brands that took action and helped others, and we’ll be loyal to them.

Add a personal touch – a sign off from the CEO in an e-shot, or call your clients to see if you can help. Offer to keep in touch via their personal email if they’ve been furloughed. Ditch the Survey Monkey and ask for a quick email update instead. Make it easy for people to keep in touch with you.

Use Zoom for online meetings as people are familiar with it and using it personally. Don’t share a meeting link on social media and set a password to join. Make it fun – jokes, canned laughter, music, drinks. Don’t aim for perfection; keep it real. We’re all in this together.

I was inspired to see how the Jigsaw team have been using Zoom – they are a social bunch! Check out their blog post here.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked across many industries, and it’s been interesting to see how clients are adapting to the new normal. It’s great to share ideas and see how trends in one industry may help another. It’s one of the joys of being freelance – you see things from a different perspective and bring fresh ideas.

If you need help with your copy and content, feel free to get in touch. I’m here to help.

Sign up for my weekly newsletter, The Shift – exploring new ways of living and working.

PS. If you’re struggling to concentrate, try the Pomodoro Technique, a time management tool. Set your 25-minute timer and work on one task at a time with no interruptions. Short break. Rinse and repeat. I also use Do Not Disturb when I need to concentrate – all calls and notifications off for a calmer working day.

I don’t want to go back to normal, do you?

See this as an opportunity. It’s a good time to think about how you live and work and make some changes.

Advice. Opinions. Conversation.

Interview: Natasha Russell – “It’s a world of content ‘on-demand’. I see opportunities. I see real changes in the vision for and experience of events.”

Natasha Russell is a freelance events producer based in Cheltenham. Collaborative, fearless, and super-friendly, her clients include the London Evening Standard Film Awards, Amnesty Media Awards, Nike and Adidas. We worked together on the GCVA Conference in March just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I asked her how it has affected her business and what companies can do to future-proof their events.

What do you do?
I am an events producer, working on corporate events as well as festivals and mass participation. I have been self-employed since 2012 but last year moved to operate as a limited company, as most agencies and clients prefer this. I live and breathe events. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked first-hand at every level of event management and production.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19?
I had two big jobs before the pandemic hit. Initially, it was just extra insurance precautions and additional sanitation measures. Since then, most events have been cancelled. A few have been postponed, and budgets will likely be cut. For those from August onwards, ticket sales have slumped or stopped, despite ongoing marketing in some cases.

So, the reality is that the pandemic has stopped all imminent work, and I suspect this will be ongoing for some time. The last thing we should sensibly be doing is joining thousands of people in a festival environment, for example, where let’s be honest, hygiene levels are much harder to maintain, and any communicable illness is a risk.

Have you had any financial and emotional support?
At the moment, it seems that I am one of many who fall through the cracks as a sole director. Although I am patient to see what might change and get worked out, I have six years of accounts as a sole trader with a reasonable income and would have been properly supported until I changed the status of my business.

I have looked into universal credit and am trying to explore the furlough rules. The irony of the situation is that most events professionals were happy as sole traders and would have been covered, however various schemes such as IR35, have meant more and more ‘freelancers’ have had to form limited companies to continue working.

I have been proactive in contacting my MP and sharing online petitions. I work with Hoxby, a freelance collective and there’s much informal support there, either passively on the vast Slack platform the organisation uses, or actively in individual chats with people in the network, including the founders Alex and Lizzie. They have just launched Remote Work Mates which aims to support people who are new to working remotely. It’s great to have a network of people, who are not emotionally involved with you or your business, to reflect and discuss things. Hoxby values output, not ‘time at your desk’, which helps with mental wellbeing at this time.  

Otherwise, I’ve been turning to the event/business groups on Facebook for information and advice from my peers, (as well as many skill-sharing webinars), ultimately there are thousands of us in the same boat, so this is good for industry-specific things. I’m a big fan of Twitter – you need to take things with a pinch of salt sometimes, but if you follow the right people there are some excellent nuggets of advice and information. I have been watching Martin Lewis (along with the whole nation).

How are you adapting your business?
Initially, there were many knee jerk reactions – people quickly taking things online – shares in Zoom are going through the roof. I have played a slower game, learning about the different platforms, and how to create the best experience for speakers, delegates, sponsors, and exhibitors; how to generate networking spaces for 1-2-1’s and how to maximise income without a physical experience. I have spent time attending my online events to see how I get distracted, what holds my attention and how people are subtly able to get their brand out there. I am now confident to support my clients to move forward with their events in this strange time. 

I am also looking at my skill set, developing new skills for when the events world re-awakens and looking at other projects that can use my expertise. I do hope that I can keep my business going, and I am lucky to have some loyal clients who will come back to me, even if they don’t go digital. I also hope to be able to continue to support new clients whatever their needs might be. The whole events industry is one that pulls together and works collaboratively so whatever the need of the client, there will be an approach I can deliver.

Can you give an example of how the industry has pulled together?
Skill swap days started; people are sharing knowledge. There is no competition, just a general desire to keep busy and share information. Look at how the most prominent event venues have turned into hospitals. People were amazed at how quickly it happened – that’s events – if you want to build something fast and efficiently, call us in and we will do it, and well. One of the next projects I was due to work on would have been at ExCel London, so we would have turned that same space into a fantastic party venue, unrecognisable from an empty hall and the hospital ward it is today. 

What does all this mean for the future of events?
We are already an industry under scrutiny for our sustainability credentials, the travel, the waste – the world of work has changed. Remote working is the new norm. We are now in an era where people are proving they can work just as effectively remotely as in an office, they can even hold down their job and home school their kids! 

I think we will see a shift in the industry. I work in the mass participation sports market, and we are seeing massive changes in people’s habits during this time so not only will live events see a boost but also a desire for virtual challenges. There will always be a desire for experiences, and I think social events, festivals and the like will continue to have real meaning and people will have the desire to connect, with friends, family, their favourite band and even their favourite brands. With everyone getting fit during the lockdown, maybe mass participation events like 5k runs will come back with force, bigger and better. 


Where I see a long-term change is in corporate events. Businesses will have to be much more open to having a digital offering in the future regardless of whether we get back to ‘normal’. Corporate events are sometimes a bit of a ‘jolly’. If we can effectively deliver the same meaningful content, networking and opportunities for brands to reach their customers online, then will we need to take time away from our families to attend that big conference? Why travel overseas to hear a keynote speaker when realistically you can be in your home office and have a similar experience? We can ask questions, share ideas, run polls, and showcase brands online. We can even go into the side ‘room’ and network with a potential client or collaborator. 

Suddenly there are opportunities to attend events that weren’t viable financially or otherwise, as we can participate in our own homes, with no time off work and no travel costs. It’s a world of content ‘on-demand’. In the future, I see virtual or hybrid events becoming mainstream and complementing in-person events. I see them blending, and most brands having a virtual presence. I see opportunities. I see real changes in the vision for and expectations of events. 

Photos by Natasha Russell

Advice. Opinions. Conversation.

Corona Diaries: The Spiky Blob – Branding the Coronavirus

The day after the CDC launched its emergency operations center for the new coronavirus Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins were asked to make an illustration of the virus to give it an identity. Something eye-catching to get the public’s attention which could be used as the ‘face’ of the epidemic.

As CDC medical illustrators, they use art to make difficult medical concepts more accessible. They’ve created images for viruses before like Zika and Ebola, so this was a regular job and they weren’t expecting their work to go global. But, as the pandemic spread, the image started to show up on screens everywhere, “it started popping up around the world.”

I can’t remember the branding for Zika and Ebola – just did a quick Google search – ah, the red mosquito, but this coronavirus, with its red spikes, orange and yellow crumbs has burrowed into my brain. I’m not dreaming about it yet, but I am hypnotised when the news comes on. It also pops into your head at random moments like when someone invades your personal space or when you reach for something in the supermarket – a reminder to be careful as viruses can live on surfaces for up to three days. Doktor Zoom has been photoshopping it into all the images of Donald Trump…

How did they do it? They took a different approach to create this image – a detailed solo ‘beauty shot’ to highlight one virus and bring it to life. The texture and shadows give it depth and you can imagine how spiky it feels. It also had to work with other branding materials for COVID-19 so they chose red/grey with orange/yellow dots as it was the most arresting, “it just really stood out.”

“The novel coronavirus, like all viruses, is covered with proteins that give it its character and traits. There are the spike proteins, or S-proteins — the red clusters in the image — which allow the virus to attach to human cells. Envelope or E-proteins, represented by yellow crumbs, help it get into those cells. And membrane proteins, or M-proteins, shown in orange, give the virus its form.”

It’s an iconic image and the most powerful piece of branding so far in 2020. How remarkable that it was created in just a week.

A visual reminder to #StayHomeStaySafe. Alissa is happy that “it’s out there doing its job.”

I’ve used it to illustrate my Corona Diaries posts – here’s the full credit info: CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS.

More on her work at CDC in this video: