Is email your biggest distraction?

If you answered yes, then you are part of a growing group of people that feel email is their single BIGGEST distraction. 

Not only does email impede our productivity, according to Jocelyn K. Glei, author of Unsubscribe – How to kill email anxiety, avoid distractions and get real work done, it also impacts our creativity. 

Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky are Google employees and the authors of Make Time - How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. They describe the downside of hopping on the “busy bandwagon” and offer ways to optimize our habits and routines to have more time each day including how to manage email.

Glei believes that we have a love-hate relationship with email because we treat it like a task and not a tool.  For example, if your goal for the day is to get to “inbox zero”, then you are just adding stress to your already busy day. Glei, Knapp & Zeratsky agree that having an empty inbox is unrealistic.

People check their email 74 times per day and spend 28% of their workday reading and responding to email.

Although this stat doesn’t specifically relate to teaching, it could.  Some semesters I had 150 students so even if half of them messaged me, that’s a very full inbox!  And that doesn’t even include general messages from the college, from other faculty, coordinators and the Dean.

One of the problems with email is that it is addictive (as is checking social media).  According to Glei, our brain releases dopamine when we recognize a task as complete.  Checking off one more thing on the To-Do list feels good and so we want to repeat the behaviour.


Glei, Knapp & Zeratsky provide some good tips in their books such as:

1. Think about each email as a letter. For example, if you received 50 letters in a day, would you respond to every one of them that day?  

2. Set up a daily routine so you can find the best time to respond to email.  Then change your response expectations by setting up an automatic response to let people know when you will respond.

Ruth Pearce, author of Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths-Based Project Management uses the following email response: 

Thank you for your email.  I have been experimenting with some productivity practices and have discovered that 10 am -12 pm is the best time to respond to emails each day and then again between 6 - 7 pm.  My goal is to respond to emails within a day as far as possible. 
3. ONLY check 2 to 3 times per day. Set up blocks of time (like you would for meetings) to deal with emails during this time only. A University of British Columbia 2014 study found that checking email 3 times per day lowered stress as opposed to checking many times during the day and evening.

4. Remember that not everything is urgent. Knapp & Zeratsky refer to the idea that everything is urgent as “instant response insanity”.  It’s true – most emails are not urgent. 

5. Before cc-ing a variety of people, think about whether they need to be included.  This helps cut down on their emails.  

6. Delete your email app from your phone. This may sound drastic but when Knapp’s son asked him why he was looking at his phone while they were playing, he realized that he had to make some drastic changes.

What can we do as teachers?

Let's teach our students how to write an effective email.  I used to get messages like “what’s the assignment?” but I had no idea what class the student was enrolled in!  I had to email the student back, wait for a response and hopefully receive more details so I could respond appropriately.  This just wasted a lot of time for the student and for me.

Since our students will be using email in their jobs, we can teach them how to write appropriate messages that are concise and actionable.  (Glei provides 18 sample email scripts that we can use with our students from responding to angry customers to setting up a meeting). 

Glei also suggests some interesting apps like that allows you to sort and view your Gmail inbox in columns like To Do, Follow-up and Deals. 

I love which allows you to unsubscribe to subscription emails at one time.  I have a bad habit of signing up for newsletters, etc. which I never read and so they end up adding to my inbox messages.

In the end, don’t we all just want a bit more time?  I believe it’s about developing good habits and making good choices. 

As Erasmus reminds us

“A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.”

What are some new habits that you can develop to manage email in your life?

Thanks for reading, Patrice


Glei, J. (2016).  Unsubscribe – How to kill email anxiety, avoid distractions and get real work done. Perseus Books: UK

Knapp, J. & Zeratsky, J. (2018).  Make Time – How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. Crown Publishing Group, NY

Mark, G., Shamsi, I., Czerwinski, M. & Johns, P. (2015) Focused, Aroused, but So Distractable: A Temporal Perspective on Multitasking and Communications. CSCW, New York

Pearce, R. (2018).  Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths-Based Project Management.



Patrice Palmer has more than 23 years’ experience as an ESL teacher, trainer and writer in Canada and spent seven amazing years in Hong Kong. Her experience with professional burn-out in 2015 prompted her to reflect on her own lack of self-care and adopt positive psychology interventions which she now shares with other educators and administrators. Patrice's new book Teacher Self-Care Manual: Simple Strategies for Stressed Teachers by Alphabet Publishing is available at





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