When Answering Email Is A Career Setback

It’s minimally rewarding to get lost in a sea of email–both for your psyche, and your career development. Here’s what to do about it.

When Answering Email Is A Career Setback

Cal Newport caught our attention with one insight: Don’t follow your passion.


So how about another: “Knowledge workers are bad at working.”

Why? You probably already have an idea: because we’re mired in tasks. Like Newport says, if you’re a chess player, you’ll spend thousands of hours dissecting games of better players. If you’re a violinist, you’ll practice until your fingertips get calluses. If you’re a knowledge worker, you try to get to inbox zero.

Are there any rules?

Let’s go back to the violinist. It’s tempting to make the conclusion that musician do things like nutso music camps to inch closer to the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell said is the secret of success. Let’s avoid that.

As Frans Johansson observes in The Click Moment, the 10,000-hour approach only really works in fixed environments. In tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules are reasonably set, so over enough time, a talented and assiduous student can technically master them.

But most of the world isn’t so fixed. The start of the Twilight series literally came to the as-yet-unpublished Stephanie Meyer in a dream. Then, of course, there’s startups: The Internet collectively went green with envy when Summly–whose founder Nick D’Aloisio is a ripe 17 years old–got acquired by Yahoo for $30 million.

If there is a pattern, what is it?

Similar to productivity master Bob Pozen’s ethos of step-by-step optionality–where you maximize your chances for the next, better gig by developing in-demand skills at your present job–Newport espouses what he calls career capital theory. By making stuff that people want–not necessarily by following your passion–you make wealth.


So how do you build career capital? Newport wrote a whole book about it. But, to begin, give yourself enough time to immerse yourself in your big projects–that’s where you’ll be able to do the work that stretches your skillset and creates new value for your team.

And if you feel like you’d never have to do that, you might want to talk to your boss–and put away your phone.

How do you give yourself a situation where you can do your best work? Tell us in the comments.

How to Write Six Important Papers a Year without Breaking a Sweat: The Deep Immersion Approach to Deep Work

[Image: Flickr user Vincent Lock]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.