Improve your performance and avoid the goldfish syndrome with Monica Seeley’s tips to handle email distraction

Who has a better attention span you or a goldfish? Recent research has found that thanks to constant digital interruption our ability to focus has now been reduced to less than that of a goldfish.  Goldfish have an attention span of about nine seconds.  Since the turn of the century ours has been reduced from about 12 seconds to eight.  Why? Because we allow ourselves to be distracted by new emails and social media alerts.

Distractions are expensive

Such interruptions have a profound impact on our personal and business performance and hence well-being.  Even if you only glance at them.  Here are some ways they impact on our productivity.

  • 15 minutes added to the time needed to complete the original task in hand because it interrupts your train of thought, even if only momentarily.
  • 10 point reduction in IQ long term. That’s the equivalent of taking hard drugs.
  • Creativity drops as you become immersed in the small things and fail to see the big picture.
  • Mental energy and health drops because stress levels rise as you try to keep up with the day’s task list.

We are still fairly hopeless at multitasking which is what we are doing when we continuously deal with our email whilst doing other things.  This is despite the fact that many people and especially the younger generation peer at the screen whilst talking to you, having a meal with you, preparing a presentation – even playing sports.

The most productive, creative and often healthiest people are those who can maintain focus, even if it’s only for a short period.  They disconnect from email etc whilst they attend to the task in hand whether that be for five or fifty-five minutes.

Five top tips to stay focused

Here are five top ways to stop being distracted by email.  These give you a chance to finish tasks on time and have more time to think and do the things that really matter.

Stop the email interruptions:

What if you really do need to see emails from high-priority people (eg boss, key client etc)?  Write a rule which alerts you when these and only these emails arrive.  See our latest ‘Don’t Be Distracted by New Emails’ for a full explanation at

What is a reasonable time to expect people to wait for a reply, and especially senior executives? If you are a front-line worker in sales, it might be thirty minutes.  If you are more of a back-office support person it could be a couple of hours. Maybe even half a day especially if the email requires a substantive response.

Clearly, there will always be unusual situations where instant responses are needed. However, even in these situations, you should ask yourself if an instant response is a reasonable expectation. Could better planning mitigate tight deadlines?

Managing expectations

The quicker you reply to an email, the quicker the other person will always expect a reply.  The key is to manage the sender’s expectation of when you will reply. Your email behaviour will influence the other person’s email behaviour. Here are three ways to help you do this:

  • Agree with colleagues what is a reasonable response time for both internal and external emails.
  • Add a line in your signature about when to expect a response.
  • Use an auto response (or Out Of Office Message) which acknowledges the email and tell the sender you will deal with it and who to contact if it is really urgent.

What if the email requires a substantial response?

Not all emails are equal.  Some are easy to answer within your designated time frame. Others need you to collect data, think through what to say, be checked by colleagues etc.  For these more difficult ones, send a holding response, acknowledging receipt of the email and saying when you will respond in full.  That way you have managed the sender’s expectation which is as much as they can expect if they want a professional robust response.

The alternative

What if you feel it is unreasonable to turn off new mail (and social media) alerts?  What are the other options?  Check it is not a function of your own personality, in that you might be suffering with acute email addiction.   Use our online Email Addiction benchmark tool at Alternatively, try eating nine goldfish every day to improve your attention span!

Dr Monica Seeley is the CEO and founder of Mesmo Consultancy. She is a leading international expert on email best practice. Her acclaimed workshops enable participants to reclaim their lives from the inbox and save up to 45 minutes a day (every working ... (Read More)

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