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How to handle your overflowing inbox when you get back from vacation

Checking your email after being out of the office can be horrifying. These tips can lessen the terror you feel.

How to handle your overflowing inbox when you get back from vacation
[Photo: Efe Kurnaz/Unsplash]

Vacations can help you reduce the stress of work, but that feeling of bliss doesn’t last long. A survey from the American Psychological Association found that the benefits of time away dissipate within a few days. Maybe it’s facing the reality of that overflowing inbox?

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“I dread my inbox when I return from being out,” admits Jill Gugino Pante, director of the Lerner Career Services Center at the University of Delaware. “I am also very mindful of my time when I return. Unless there are meetings I have to be a part of, I usually block time off the day I return to sort through my inbox. Knowing that I have one to two hours of blocked time to sift through the hundreds of emails helps relieve some of the stress.”

From being proactive to carving out time when you’re back, these tips can help you tackle your inbox more effectively:

Before you leave

Set up rules in your inbox so that certain emails go into specific folders, suggests Tom Cuthbert, master chair and CEO coach for Vistage, an executive coaching and peer advisory organization. For example, have your meeting invites or client messages sent to different folders so you can tackle emails by type and importance.

“This way you can methodically clean out your inbox when you return,” he says.

Keep work moving in your absence with an autoresponder that directs inquiries to others who can cover for you, says Mike Pugh, the vice president of collaboration at the communications platform RingCentral. “This will limit the size of your backlog,” he says.

While you’re gone

Pugh likes to do a mid-vacation email sweep to clear topics that just need a simple response, with one caveat: “Do it during off hours, so your responses are less likely to trigger immediate follow-ups or calls,” he suggests.

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During downtime, such as waiting at the airport or in early morning hours before you have plans, triage your inbox by clearing out messages that are unimportant, such as newsletters or emails where you’re CC’d.

When you return

Then when you’re back from vacation, set aside time to get caught up. It can help to set up a meeting with your team instead of having to wade through email threads, says Cuthbert.

“This way you can communicate and get up to speed on everything that happened while you were out,” he says. “Ask them to build topic lists to facilitate focused conversation.”

You can also build an “email catch-up window” into your schedule, says Pugh. “Put it on your calendar before you leave so you don’t have meetings waiting for you before you can catch up,” he says.

Start by deleting the junk. “Chances are, some of the emails in your inbox are no longer relevant, especially if you took an extended period of time off, so go through and determine what you need to read and get caught up on,” says Cuthbert. “Prioritize responses.”

Get some traction by handling emails that require the least amount of attention, suggests Gugino Pante. “These quick-response emails help me see my inbox go from triple digits to double digits, which in turn help my stress levels decrease,” she says.

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Some email service providers, such as Gmail and Outlook, have a canned response option that can help speed up the time of sending replies that are similar in nature.

Then focus on mid-level emails that may require a bit more thought, but don’t require additional meetings, research, or follow-ups. Finish by tackling the long-term emails—the messages that can sit in your inbox for a while until the answers can be determined, suggests Gugino Pante. If you don’t want them sitting in your inbox, use a tool like Boomerang for Gmail to resurface them at a later date.

It can be tempting to spend a lot of time on email, but be aware of the value of your time, says Cuthbert. “Email can be a huge time waster,” he says. “Think if your time would be better spent diving back into work on your first day back, as opposed to spending time digging through email.”

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