Breaks from work are refreshing, but returning to an inbox filled with hundreds of emails can make you wish you never left. Who wants to spend an entire day catching up to those who felt compelled to keep working while their families and friends were toasting eggnog?
“You may feel like you need another vacation just to recover from the stress of getting back into a work groove,” says Alexandra Samuel, author of Work Smarter, Rule Your Email.
Dmitri Leonov, vice president of growth for email management system Sanebox, has a creative way for dealing with post-vacation email overload: “I opt for shorter breaks that run from Thursday to Sunday, so I don’t miss much,” he says.
Whether you take a long weekend or a two-week hiatus, Samuel and Leonov agree a simple set of practices can make it easier to return, especially if you lay the groundwork before you leave. Here are five things you can do now to return to work with a zero–or close to it–inbox:
To lower the amount of reply emails that land in your inbox, stop sending emails 72 hours before your break, suggests Samuel.
“It’s tempting to clear your plate by firing off a whole bunch of emails, but any email you send is an email that could trigger an incoming response that you then have to deal with over the holidays,” she says.
While it’s okay to send important messages, such as an end-of-year expense report or details on how to reach you in case of an emergency, don’t send your boss a memo with your deep thoughts on your current project, says Samuel. “Unless you want to engage in an email back-and-forth about that project over the course of your holidays,” she says.
Set up an automatic out-of-office reply that says you will not be looking at your email while on vacation until a certain date, says Samuel. “Add that it may take a while for you to review your backlog, and if this is an email that needs a response, please email it again when you return from vacation,” she says.
Pad your return date by two to three days, suggests Leonov. “That will give you time to get back to the office and actually get stuff done,” he says. “Plus, everyone will be super impressed when you get back to them on the ‘day of your return.’ It’s all about setting up expectations.”
“That autoresponder liberates you from needing to immediately go through your backlog,” says Samuel. “Instead, when you come back from vacation, drag all your waiting email into a folder. Start the New Year with an empty inbox, and skim through the backlog as time allows.”
Filters group email into folders by content or sender and are particularly important when you’re on vacation, says Leonov. Set up manual filters that search for specific information, or take advantage of automated filters that come with some email software providers, such as Gmail’s Priority Inbox or SaneBox.
“You want to group emails together according to context so you can process them in bulk,” says Leonov. “Newsletters and notifications, for example, lose value after 24 hours; you can delete or archive what is no longer relevant.”
Okay, so this is kind of cheating, but if you can spare five to 10 minutes every other day, it will save you time when you’re back, says Leonov. He suggests three kinds of emails you can triage:
- Unimportant emails can be bulk processed by selecting them all at once and archiving or deleting them.
- Emails that can be handled in seconds with a reply or a forward. “When you reply, think a step ahead to answer any other questions that might trigger another email,” says Leonov.
- Important emails can stay in your inbox and be handled thoughtfully when you get back. Some email providers have a snooze feature that will put the email at the top of your inbox at a specified date.
“You can clean out 75% of your inbox with the first two steps of the triage,” says Leonov.
Samuel disagrees with the triage approach: “I think that is a recipe for never getting out of work mode, mentally,” she says. “It’s a lot healthier to actually turn off for a real break.”
If you’re worried about missing a specific message, such as an email from your boss or client, she suggests setting up an email rule that forwards crucial messages to a separate email account set up for vacation purposes.
“Then you can check that account and only that account, instead of getting sucked into all the other stuff that’s accumulating in your inbox,” she says. “For added peace of mind—and to break the checking for email routine—set up a text-messaging notification that lets you know if one of those key emails arrives, and don’t even think about email otherwise.”