Take An Email Sabbatical: 5 Steps

Most of us can't simply turn off email during a vacation, but there's a practical way to get away from it while trying to unwind.
Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd is infamous for taking "email sabbaticals," in which she redirects all messages to the trash bin while she's on vacation. Boyd's auto-reply asks senders to resend their emails once she's back in the office. In this way, she avoids the "punishment" for being out of office: the dreaded digging through hundreds of emails, most of which are now irrelevant.

Every time I ask people if Boyd's approach would be practical for them, emphasizing her good advice about early and repeated communications to colleagues, they answer: "I think I'd get fired."

Here's a more practical, five-step way to take an email sabbatical, with a little help from a friend. It's not something you can do every time you're out of the office, but I've been able to do it once a year for the last two years, and it has worked well. After just returning from a week-long vacation, I had to handle only about 20 emails out of almost 400 that my inbox had received. The ones that needed action got handled by the person in charge of IT while I was out, and I received a verbal summary about the rest.

[ Need extra help taming your in-box? Check out these tools. 10 Tools To Beat Email Overload. ]

1. Identify a victim, er, helper. If you have an assistant at work, great. But if you don't, identify a trusted colleague to help you out, a person you're willing to help when it's his or her turn. If that person isn't the person who's "in charge" of your work group or technical area while you're out, have your helper send any action items to the in-charge person.

2. Separate your work and personal email. If you haven't already done this, do it, and make sure you've left plenty of time between the time you start telling people to stop emailing personal stuff to you at work and the time you take your vacation. You don't want your trusted colleague to have to sort through your personal junk.

3. Notify colleagues. That is, make sure they know who will be handling your email while you're out. Make really sure they understand that someone who isn't you will be reading every email. Your colleagues will then make the call whether they should send that confidential email your way while you're out or hold off until you return.

4. Set up rules. In addition to setting up your standard auto-reply, create an out-of-office rule. In my case, I had all of my emails forwarded to my helper, but I also had those emails placed in a folder called "Vacation" in case I had questions about my helper's summary (see Step 5, below). My helper set up a rule that moved emails forwarded from my account into a separate folder, in order to protect her own inbox. Having now set up this process twice, I think I will use a shared folder in the future instead of forwarding.

5. Return to email nirvana. My helper placed my emails into categories based on their content. Action or time-sensitive items that she had sent on to the person in charge of IT went in one folder. Emails with pertinent but not critical (for example, the last cc: in an email chain that was purely for my information) went into another folder.

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There's no doubt that I used some goodwill chips to make this approach happen. But it also let me completely ignore my work email during a family vacation, with the knowledge that if something super-hot came up, I would get a phone call from my helper or from the person in charge. I returned to work truly refreshed.

There's another benefit. As we all know, just putting someone in charge doesn't necessarily mean that colleagues are going to get in touch with that person when you're out of the office. This type of email sabbatical makes sure that important colleague communications get acted on.

Boyd says: "I don't fear missing out because I know how important it is to truly, genuinely, actually take a break. Being burnt out sucks. When I'm burnt out, I'm a crappy employee, a dreadful friend, and a terrible person to be around."

All true. Email is one of the biggest burnout factors in modern work life. We can't all take Boyd's advice to cheerfully delete email while out of the office, but most of us can take the steps outlined above to recharge and then make work re-entry less dreadful. Take it from me.

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