A World Without Email | The Specialization Principle

How do we get out of the mess that email has made? Cal Newport, in his book A World Without Email, lays out a few principles that could help individuals and organizations get out of this mess we’ve made. First, Newport argues that organizations must prioritize their worker’s attention. Knowledge work require great depth of thought which needs to be managed and preserved. Second, organizations need to put thought into the “production process” of getting knowledge work done. It’s not enough to merely focus on what needs to get done. Organizations need to focus on the underlying process of how work gets coordinated. Third, the coordination of work needs be guided by certain “rules” or protocols.

In the last chapter of the book, Newport encourages knowledge workers to reclaim their specialization. Knowledge workers can see their specialized skills wear away due to the fact that computers have made administrative work “just easy enough” (217). Knowledge works are now doing much more admin work than their actual work. Instead of doing admin work, knowledge workers should focus on specialization, “working on fewer things but doing each thing with more quality and accountability” (220). Satisfaction, Newport points out, comes from working on things that really matter. To encourage specialization, Newport suggests a few broad practices.

Do Less, Do Better

Knowledge workers should outsource work that they don’t do well. They should seriously pair-down their day-to-day responsibilities (228). They need to be more aggressive in delegating work and looking for opportunities to offload non-essential tasks. If knowledge workers want to get out of the hive mind trap, they could trade accountability to get autonomy. In other words, knowledge workers could say, “Hey, give me a trial period where I don’t need to answer email but instead can produce.”

Sprint, Don’t Wander

Instead of splitting attention amongst various project, Newport encourages workers to “work on one objective at a time, without interruption until is complete” (234). Sprints pause other work for a time to complete this project. Team sprints can be useful to create momentum (238).

Budget Attention

All workers have a finite amount of attention, yet often, many people are vying for it. Workers can create “quotes” for requests that come in so that their attention is not eaten away (242). There could be various quotas for things like meetings, nights out, or papers to review.

Supercharge Support

The plain fact is that for knowledge workers to focus on their specialization, they need to be supported. If knowledge workers start doing less, what happens to the tasks they take off their plate? “Most tasks will disappear” Newport claims (246). For those that don’t, however, the support staff can accomplish. But the support staff must not be left to itself. It also must be supported! How can organization support the support staff?

  • Structure support. Leaders can help the support staff create effective workflows (249). They can give clarity in the next steps of the workflow.
  • Build a smart interface between support and specialists. Focus on effective communications between support and specialists such as a organization-wide newsletter with reports from each team.
  • Simulate your own support staff. As a last resort, individual workers may need to simulate their own support staff. To do so, workers could block specialist hours and support hours. They could also consider having two separate email addresses.

Application Questions

  • How much time is spent on admin in your current position?
  • How much time is spent on “essential tasks” of the position?
  • What tasks can you eliminate? (Consider: would anything truly bad happen if I didn’t do this?)
  • What tasks can be delegated? (Consider how to delegate more effectively)
  • What are our workflows for the support team? How can we better structure these things?
  • What is our current interface between support and specialists? How can we improve this?

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