Why I can’t take your call right now

Cellphones and the Internet are wonderful, you can reach anyone, anywhere, anytime, no matter what they’re doing.

Cellphones and the Internet are horrible, anyone can reach you anywhere, anytime, no matter what you’re doing.

Which of these two statements resonate more with you?

For me it’s definitely the latter — it’s great that in an emergency we can get instant help, but most of the time our always-in-touch habits only lead to us being constantly distracted. We’re only able to do our best work when we focus on one task for an extended period of time, so distractions need to be avoided.

Why others try to distract us from what we’re doing:

The people on the other side of our unexpected phone calls, emails, and instant messages usually aren’t aware of our entire task lists — just the parts that are relevant to them — and so it’s impossible for them to be good judges of when they should or shouldn’t interrupt us.

In order to communicate in a less distracting way, we need to have a “hierarchy of communication” — a set of rules that specify when we allow ourselves to be interrupted, in what way, and through which mediums. Over the past couple of years these have been the rules that I’ve been able to use very successfully:

1. Email:

Priority: Low to Medium (email should be used for general communications and requests).

I check my email two or three times a day, usually at 10:00, 13:00, and 16:00. And, I never check my email before I’ve planned out my task list for the day — this helps to keep me moving forward on existing tasks instead of just dealing with new requests.

When I do check my mail, I evaluate each message to decide whether it’s more or less important than what’s already on my list.

2. Instant Messages:

Priority: Medium (instant messages should be used for quick questions and answers).

Although my Google Talk, iMessage, and Skype clients are online most days, they’re usually set to “Away” or “Do Not Disturb” and I only check them once every 45 minutes or so.

I usually respond pretty quickly to short IM messages, but if someone tries using instant messaging to get me to work on a task that isn’t more important than what’s already on my list for the day, I ask them to send me all of the details via email.

3. Phone Calls:

Priority: High (phone calls should be reserved for emergencies when I’m not at the person’s office, or for scheduled discussions of specific topics).

My phone spends most days in Do Not Disturb mode, meaning that all incoming calls go straight to voicemail. If someone need to have an important discussion with me over the phone, it’s best to first use another medium to schedule a time that works for both of us.

I mention alternative ways to contact me in my voicemail, as well as ask that the caller leave a voicemail if they’d like for me to call them back:

Hi, this is Willem. I’m unable to take your call right now, if this is an emergency please call my office on 021 000 0000. The best way to get in touch with me directly is via email at willem@pronotbusy.com. Alternatively, if you leave a voicemail I’ll call you back as soon as I’m free.

I set up that office number via a virtual office service, and if the reason for their call is important enough that they call the office and leave a message with my assistant, their message will show up as a push notification on my phone.

4. In-Person:

Priority: High (in-person discussions should be used for emergencies when I’m at the person’s office, or for a scheduled meetings and training sessions).

Most of the time I work from a home office, a shared workspace, or my clients’ offices. For the days that I’m working from clients’ offices, I’ve set up a “signal” to indicate when people are welcome to walk up and interrupt me: if I have my earphones in, I’m trying to focus and should only be disturbed if the request is urgent.

When someone asks me in-person to do something, I’ll still compare that request to what I already have on my task list; if I think what’s already on my list is more important I’ll either make a note of their request in my task management system, or I’ll ask them to email me the details of what they need.


Sometimes the unexpected happens and we have to drop what we’re doing to deal with a problem immediately. Although rules like the above are designed to isolate us from “fake emergencies” and allow us to focus, it’s important that we build in ways for people to get in touch with us when a real emergency does arise.

For me, this works as follows: When I’m there in-person, my colleagues and clients are welcome to immediately interrupt me when an emergency comes up. When I’m not there in-person, they should use a phone call to contact me, and although their call will go straight to voicemail when my phone is in Do Not Disturb mode, a third attempt to call me will automatically be let through.

Is this approach something you can try implementing in your work?

This essay was originally published on my blog. If you have any comments or just want to talk about life, work, happiness or anything else in general, feel free to give me a shout!