Email and the Death of the Mind

Society has been engulfed by a crisis of concentration that has hit higher education particularly hard. Our time and attention have gradually shifted from the specialized intellectual tasks that directly produce value to busywork, such as managing our inboxes and tackling nonessential administrative obligations.

Instead of giving in to this reality, we should reaffirm the importance of the life of the mind by reforming the academy as a beacon of concentration in an age of distraction. Higher education can lead the way in turning back the tide of electronic chatter that threatens to overwhelm us. Do we have the will to protect what’s important against the pull of what’s easy? Will we stand for the power of concentration over the shallowness of rapid communication? And if not us, then who?

Cal Newport in “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?”

I am looking forward to Newport’s new Digital Minimalism.

For my part, reading his Deep Work was a game changer about a year and a half ago. I realized that when stress about difficult and large-scale projects would overwhelm me, the tendency was not to face the problem head-on but to try to feel productive and in control by accomplishing little, manageable things. Email was a great go-to. Clear the inbox. Help some people out. Check, check, check. I realized two things through reading Deep Work. (1) I was distracting myself rather than solving a problem. (2) I had made my fast response time and reliability on email into something of an idol because I believed that it showed that I was more responsible and productive than co-workers or friends who responded slowly-to-never. Since then I have learned to send less email, respond more slowly, and batch the whole process into dedicated times. The result is that I have to face the complex challenges of research, writing, and lesson planning head-on. The productivity gains can be difficult to measure. It isn’t that I am able to teach twice as many courses in a year, but rather than I am able to teach the courses that I do teach better, with a few fewer hours in preparation, and a lot less vague anxiety. One thoughtful lesson on a complex topic is worth 1,000 emails.

 

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