How to make email less distractive and more productive 

How do you currently spend the first two hours of your day?  

Unfortunately, most of us come to work, grab a coffee, chat with a few colleagues, sit at our desk, open our email and respond to them from the top down. Then, before you know it, it’s 1pm and you’re still reacting to requests. 

Newsflash! You are letting email dictate your day. 

Whether you are conscious of it or not, those emails you have read, replied to or filed create distractions and make you unproductive for the whole day. You have given up control of your effectiveness  but the good news is you can win it back. 

Transform bad habits to good 

According to an article by DMR, a company that looks at social media statistics and trends, the average user gets around 112 emails per day. (I’ve heard people say it varies from 40 to 200 per day, depending on the role.) 

When asked, ‘What percentage of those are important and require a considered response from you?’ The answer is almost unanimously 10 per cent. A study by the University of Glasgow found that we use email correctly to leverage time zones or answer a well-defined question only 20 per cent of the time.  

The rest is a waste, and much of it could have been better handled by a phone call or face-to-face discussion. 

Many of these productivity problems arise because we are operating on autopilot. We don’t think about what, when or even why we are doing things; we just do them in the order in which the tasks came to us, or how they’re written on our to-do list. Well, no more! 

Leave it ‘til lunch 

For the majority of us, our peak alertness is actually at 10am and our best coordination is at around 2.30pm. This is best explained by the work of Michael Smolensky and Lynne Lambert, published in their book The Body Clock Guide to Better Health, which describes a person’s typical circadian rhythm. 

Hence, tasks that require attention and focus are best done in the morning, and repetitive tasks are best done in the afternoon when your body is naturally looking for a rest while it digests your lunch.  

At this time, woften experience a drop in attention, memory, logical reasoning and mood. This is not a good time to have a meeting where critical decision making or problem-solving is required, but it is a good time to do things like, yes, email. 

Yes, it does seem ridiculously late, but remember that only about 10 per cent of your email requires a considered response, so now you can manage and process the remaining 90 per cent that doesn’t require your brain to be at capacity. (And, given that 80 per cent of your emails is probably a waste of your time anyway, there’s not much at stake here.) 

But the very idea of not checking your emails until after lunch is scary! ‘What if there is something important there that I need to respond to?’ 

The point is that your email inbox is no different from the old-fashioned in-tray on your desk: it’s the way that work comes to you. But we need to be more mindful of when we process it, respond to it and complete it. 

Scan it and move on 

To combat FOMO (fear of missing out something important) scan your email first thing in the morning and make some conscious decisions about what requires action, and when following these five steps:  

  1. Run down the inbox and identify the 10 per cent that requires a considered response. (Colour-code senders so you can quickly identify those from your boss) 
  2. Determine if those responses are needed immediately or can be scheduled. 
  3. If it’s not urgent, and it requires a considered response, then schedule it for the first two hours tomorrow, or another morning later in the week. 
  4. Leave the rest until later in the day. 
  5. Get rid of stuff that has already been handled or is old. This is another task to leave until later in the day. 

This is about shifting your usual patterns and cycle of habits. 

Remember, if you are someone who responds immediately to all emails, then people come to expect that. Then, if you don’t reply to something within 30 minutes, you’ll get another email or a phone call wanting to know why you haven’t responded to the email. 

When you delay your email then you start to form a new and improved habit and you protect your most valuable time in the morning for your ‘real work’. 

3 tips to reduce email, now

  1. Send less. 
    Try other communication methods such as phone calls, personal visits or instant messenger. 
  2. Improve the quality. 
    Use the subject line more effectively. For example, rather than say ‘When can we meet’, you could say ‘Can we meet on Thursday at 2?’ 
  3. Action items.
    Create a ‘Done’ folder in your inbox. Once an email has been read or actioned, drag it across. If you need it later, you will be able to find it. 


Donna McGeorge

DONNA McGEORGE is a speaker, author and mentor who helps people make their work work. Using a creative, practical approach, she improves workplace effectiveness while challenging thinking on leadership, productivity and virtual work. ‘The 25-Minute Meeting: Half the Time, Double the Impact’ is published by John Wiley. Find out more at


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