How to Master Email and Other Interruptions

TimeUnless you do not have email and other modern technologies you face interruptions daily from them. Modern digital communication systems including email and social media are designed to grab your attention all day long. This is especially true if you have notifications activated on your smart phone or if your email plays some annoying alarm each time an email pops into your inbox.

If you are too young to remember a world without these constant interruptions you may not know what is like to work without them. If you remember the world before email and the internet you should know well what it was like to focus on something without the interruptions.

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Urgent vs. Non Urgent

There are situations where you need to be aware of IMs (instant messages) or emails coming in because your job requires rapid responses. Many work environments however do not require such vigilance. Let’s look at the latter situation first.

Not Urgent

In many work places (and at home) emails and IMs are not urgent. They are more like the old fashioned letter. Immediate response is not needed. If most of your emails fall into this category you are in luck. You can turn off the notifications both on your phone and on your computer. You can develop the habit of checking your email once, or twice or maybe three times a day and responding only to those that need a response today.

The beauty of this is that your focus is not disrupted. You can concentrate on your work. You can get so much more done if you have uninterrupted time to focus on it.

If you have this luxury of not having to see emails when they arrive then turn off the notifications, even turn off the phone, and get the work done. You will be amazed and pleased with how much more you can get done without those interruptions.

Email’s Culture of Immediacy

Unfortunately email and instant messaging has created a culture of immediacy. It has conditioned us to respond to messages immediately.

I routinely get a non-urgent email at 10:00 in the morning and if I do not respond I get another one at 1:00 PM asking if I got the email earlier that morning. It is like people cannot wait. Patience is a virtue in very short supply. If it is not truly urgent why must we respond immediately?

I suggest there are two reasons: because we have formed the habit of having to be in touch all the time and we get a little buzz off those messages coming in and going out. The other reason is that because email is so fast it is conditioning us to keep at it and respond immediately.

In fact we do not have to. Unless you operate in a system where urgent emails must be responded to quickly you can leave the to later in the day. Over time people will adjust. They will learn that you do not respond immediately like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

It also means you must change your habit. You need to disconnect. You need to give up the rush you get from those emails. It can be done. It just takes some self discipline and some practice.

If something truly is urgent there is still a telephone that people can use. It is a better tool than email anyway for something truly important and urgent. They can call you.


If you work in an environment where IMs and emails are routinely used to notify you of genuinely urgent action items, then you may not be able to turn it off. In that case you need to become ruthless about triage.

Triage was first developed in medicine – it is used in emergency rooms and combat hospitals to give the most attention to the cases that need it most and need it fast. The bullet wound takes priority over the hangnail.

You can do the same with your email. Look at incoming emails with some scrutiny. Even when our jobs use emails for urgent notification most emails truly are not urgent. They are ads, general announcements, personal messages, etc. They can wait and you should ignore then until a time when you can devote yourself to cleaning up the in box.

Only the genuinely urgent items require our immediate attention. Those you can answer immediately. Then you ignore the rest and get back to work.

Using email and IM systems can make you more productive. Allowing them to interrupt you continuously and control your attention defeats productivity.

Take control of your time and your attention. Don’t allow emails to run your day. Turn them off when you can, and if you really cannot turn them off then triage them and do so rather brutally – ignore them all unless they are truly important and urgent.

You will get more done and get it done in a better way. Try it. It is a less stressful and more productive way to work.

Learn how to manage your time to achieve more of what you want to do in my book, Effective Time Management. Get free lessons on how to use your time more effectively with my Effective Time Management Lessons.

Wishing you well,

Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.