Interrupting Interruptions: How to Deal with Notifications, Messages and Email

Back in May, I promised I’d dedicate a post on how to ‘train’ others to respect your time. This is it.

You’re working on some high brain requiring task. You’re in the zone, or at least you think you are. Tinnnnggg! An SMS pops up on your iPhone sitting in your peripheral view. Your heart skips a beat as you feel special for a split second. ‘Hey, r u coming 2moro? Uve got to see this epic funny video I saw bro,’ reads the message. ‘Yea man, lol send me the link aha,’ you reply. You put the phone down and secretly crave for the follow up message. You look back toward what you were working on before. Oh no, brain fart. Let me see if Ali emailed me about that workshop this weekend.

Before you know it, you’ve detoured down Procrastination Street, losing out on two of your precious commodities: time and attention.

The power of immediate attention is often underestimated, even overlooked. Having time and attention for an hour, a day, a week, more than doubles your focus and effectiveness at getting important and urgent things done. I’ve said this before. Then how you do you maintain attention? How do you interrupt interruptions before they reach you? How can you train others to respect your time?

It’s all possible. Making others work around your schedule and on your terms is not hard. All you need is an infrastructure and some discipline.

Divide your attention-giving down to 4 categories:

  1. Not important, not urgent
  2. Moderately important, but it can wait
  3. Really important right now, it definitely cannot wait
  4. Emergency! May Day! May Day! Someone is dying!!!

Then assign a medium of contact to each category. Mediums include email, whatsapp/viber, SMS and phone call. Essentially its phone for emergencies and email for everything else. Here’s my assignments:

Category 1: Email – Once a week scheduled checkups for 1 hour max, preferably Saturday afternoons (never check email first thing in the morning or last thing before bed!)

Category 2: Viber/WhatsApp – Daily for 10 minutes max during afternoons, preferably between 4 pm and 6 pm (this is the sweet spot between afternoon and night study sessions). This means you should turn off all notifications for these apps so you can check them manually – this will require considerable self-discipline.

Category 3: Phone SMS – All the time. Your phone for SMS is now the Holy Grail. It’s precious and reserved only for emergencies. No longer shall you devalue the SMS by wasting its power on sending your friends links to nyan cat. Thou shall not waste its power! When you receive an SMS from colleague/project partner/club committee member/etc it means it’s an emergency, so treat it as such. Get to it as quick as possible. If you don’t, others will lose trust in your infrastructure.

Category 4: Phone Call – All the time. When. All. Else. Fails. The ultimate emergency issue has arisen, and you are yet to be notified. White House Down, people are dying. That’s how you should treat a phone call.

*Facebook deserves a mention here on its own. It’s used as a contact medium (Facebook messaging) and also social tool. I recommend treating it like email, once a week. For those who can’t, check daily for 15 minutes max the same time as Viber/WhatsApp. As long as you schedule a time and time limit.

For the infrastructure to work however you MUST:

  • Disable ALL notifications for Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp, email and any other social app on your phone. They are to be checked manually at scheduled times. It’s been too long you’ve been accustomed to obeying that alert tone.

Once you have this infrastructure, and you plan on committing to it, it’s time to train others to work around this schedule. When someone emails you, reply and give them options of contact. Let them know that if it’s extremely urgent, please SMS, if it can wait till the coming Saturday, email. Tell them that you check email once a week. Here’s a sample response:

“ (After resolving an issue or responding to an enquiry)

I check email once a week. If urgent please contact me via SMS on 04XXXXXXXX, or give me call if extremely urgent. If it can wait, I prefer email. I hope you understand as it helps me be more effective to serve you better.



Do this to everyone who contacts you, and soon they’ll learn to respect your time and attention. Your immediate attention will be something precious you don’t give out so easily. Your self-esteem as well as your productivity will boost, as you stop feeling used all the time.

It’s important to note here how you respond to messages and emails. Multiple back and forth communication can be counter-intuitive to the whole setup. Here’s 2 solutions to the back and forth hypnosis:

  1. Provide solutions. For example when organizing a meet, don’t say ‘I don’t know, where do you think is good?’ Instead, reply like this ‘I suggest Hacket Café, what do you think?’
  2. Provide ‘if not’ scenarios. For example, you’re trying to purchase a second hand textbook from an online seller and you’re trying to bargain, instead of saying ‘Is the price negotiable?’ and waiting for a response, say ‘Is the price negotiable? If so, is $80 reasonable^? If not, what’s your lowest offer?’ You get the point.

Use these two tips together to literally cut down back and forth communication by 5-10 messages. The person at the other end will also appreciate your effectiveness and treat you seriously. Cut to the chase, dodge the wiffle waffle and remember to KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid.

^I like to use the word ‘reasonable’ as people don’t like saying things aren’t reasonable. It makes them feel like an asshole if they say something isn’t reasonable (when they know it is).

Here’s an example of how I used these two tips together to produce a potent message (and ultimately a good deal):

I saw an ad online for a textbook I wanted to purchase.

‘Hi, I’m interested in your book. Is $100 reasonable? If so, are you ok to meet at Sci library entrance at 1pm tomorrow? If not, when and where do you suggest.’

The reply was literally along the lines of:

‘Yea sure, sounds good’.

All it took was one message and one reply. It may have taken slightly longer to craft that first message, but hey, it worked. People subconsciously desire direction. People are lazy, they don’t want to think of solutions. They like to respond with yes’s and no’s and okay’s and be herded around like sheep. They like to follow and not lead – this idea deserves another post on its own.

That’s about all I have to say about training others to respect your time and being effective in non face-to-face contact. Design the infrastructure, using the blueprint I’ve provided while using the back and forth solutions simultaneously and believe you me, you will be blown away by how uber effective you’ll become in the art of communication. Not to forget the peace of mind that comes attached.


Ali’s email can wait for now. 😉



About Masood

In pursuit of the peak performance lifestyle.
This entry was posted in Lifestyle Design, The Productive Muslim, Time Management. Bookmark the permalink.

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