Random Thoughts

Paying Attention to Attention

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Last week I gave a short presentation to the High School student body here at ISB. I talked a bit about what I was going to say here. From the time I wrote that post (a good reflection for me) to last Tuesday when I actually gave the presentation I kept coming back to this idea of attention and asking the kids: 

Who do you give your attention to?


I talked about the 1-9-90 rule that researchers see emerging. That is that 1% of us create, 9% of us curate, an 90% of us only consume information. After the presentation I asked students to write down the top three things that get their attention.

CC 2.0 by Stephen Poff

The idea of the Attention-Economy is not new, but I felt that students needed to know about it and needed to think deeply about how they spend their time….specifically how much time they spend consuming vs creating.There is another part of the Attention-Economy that I think we as educators need to pay attention to. That is when to ask for someone’s attention. Over the past couple of years I’ve been playing with this idea of attention myself. Being in Thailand and having most of my readers in the United States I have found that the time my blog posts go public has a direct correlation with how many people read my blog posts. If I publish my blog posts in the middle of the night U.S. time I get almost 50% less people reading that particular post, 50% less tweets about it, and therefore less feedback on my ideas. 

Because the pace of information is so fast, by the time readers in the U.S. wake up my piece of information is history. 

Based on what I have learned playing with my own blog posts, I’ve started to transfer over to e-mails at school with pretty good success…and this is really what I want to share with you.

Do you pay attention to the timing of your e-mails?

I haven’t come across a school yet that does not rely heavily on e-mail to get things done. Which means we all get a ton of e-mail during the work day and sometimes even more after hours.

When you send that e-mail to your staff could be as important as the e-mail itself.

Case in point:

I needed to send out a survey last week to staff. The administration had asked that I send it out right after an e-mail that they were sending out to staff about e-learning and our school’s expectations for teachers.

There was nothing wrong with this….except the timing that the administration sent out their e-mail was all wrong. Teachers were in the last day of finishing up grade reports (never a good time to send e-mails) and second, the e-mail came out around lunch time when many teachers were working on their grades. As I talked to some teachers later on, some admitted to me of just deleting the e-mail, “It wasn’t relavent to me at the time.” While others don’t even remember receiving the e-mail in the first place.

Teachers’ attention was focused on something more important and therefore other less relevant information is missed.

Instead of sending out my e-mail of the survey at that time….I waited for the right time. Tuesday at 2:00pm, two working days later and 5 minutes before the end of the day I sent out the survey link in a quick two sentence e-mail explaining that the survey consisted of 7 questions should take 2 minutes at most and would really appreciate their time and effort.

Over 50% of the staff filled the survey out by 2:30 that same day. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Timing is everything:

CC 2.0 by DylanHartmann.com

Send e-mails just before teachers have a break to put that e-mail at the top of their inbox. Very few people answer e-mails from the bottom up even though that would be chronologically correct. Things at the top get noticed, so try to plan and send your e-mails a few minutes before a break, lunch, or right before school gets out. These are times when teachers check their e-mail. 

People appreciate short:

This is why every administrator should be on Twitter. To learn to write short, concise e-mails that get to the point quickly. If you need your staff to read something longer, put it in a Google Doc and link it to the e-mail. We read documents differently then we read e-mail. Use the right form factor for the information that needs to be communicated. 

Subject Lines are Important:

You have one really good chance to sell your e-mail and that is the subject line. It honestly could be the most important part of the e-mail. Make the subject purposeful…make me want to click on the e-mail and not just pass over it.

Be sensitive to teachers attention:

Before sending an e-mail think about what has teachers attention at the moment. Are grades due? Is there a holiday coming up? A special schedule? Much like we tell students to “think before you post” we need to “think before we send”. 

Attention is a valuable commodity and we all get frustrated when we feel like our time is wasted. By making a few simple adjustments in the way we think about communicating could help all of us focus our attention in a much more productive way.

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Jeff-
    This post makes so much sense and definitely will have me thinking the next time I need to send out an email where I need information from our staff. Thanks for the great ideas. Michelle

  2. Two questions that come to me daily are 1. Why didn’t that email subject line specify who needs to read the email? and 2. Why don’t we do a better job making our email groups so that mass emails don’t go out so often? Also, often emails come out with a list of agenda items for staff meetings, and then a paper list is passed out as well once we arrive at the meeting. First, we typically do not need the list emailed. Second, we do not need a paper copy either. The list should be projected during the meeting. Teachers always carry a little “staff meeting notebook” with them or a sheet of scratch paper. Unless teachers need to think about something before arriving at the meeting, don’t send the email in advance. Often teachers are late to the meeting because they are stressing about reading the agenda email list. That’s irony!

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      Great points…..and again I think we’ve become so relient on e-mail that sometimes we use it for the wrong reasons. Give people the information they need when you need their attention. I think you hit it on the head.

  3. Layla Sacker Reply

    I found this post really made me think. I resolve to no longer be as focussed on ticking things off my “to do” list but focus on the recipient and what they have to do.
    Thanks for this.

  4. Great post….. I was just talking with other area tech directors about timing of blog posts and emails just recently. Another finding that I’ve hit… for longer, information type posts directed to staff (that don’t require action), I’m finding that I get the best response by sending out the email w/ link to staff on late Sunday afternoons/evenings. So far this seems to get the best click thru rates for my specific audience.

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