Last summer I took my first real vacation in more than seven years. Sure, I’ve taken long weekends or a couple days here and there, but I’ve always had ample network coverage and been in touch with my work obligations daily either by email, phone calls, or remote access. One of the blessings, and the curse, of the modern age is that with rare exceptions, we never are truly away from work. For sixteen days last summer I was almost completely unplugged while on a cruise and trekking through Alaska with very limited Internet access. It was an odd combination of terrifying and liberating.
In my day job as an attorney I’ll routinely receive 50–75 emails a day and have more than a couple dozen active cases requiring my attention. Prior to leaving for my trip, I was especially nervous about responding to client problems during my absence, and perhaps even more dreadful of slogging through the hundreds or possibly thousands of email that would await me upon my return.
Turns out, everything was okay. To top it off, I returned to the office with an empty email inbox. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Here’s how:
Before You Go
1 Month Out
I planned my trip well in advance. About a month or so before I left, I started notifying my regular clients and those with active projects of my absence. In addition putting my clients on notice, this gave me an opportunity to review each active project and determine what tasks could and need to be completed before I left and plan accordingly and whether any deadlines would lapse during my absence.
If you use a task management system or the “Getting Things Done” or similar methodology this is where having an organized and updated system will really be of benefit. You’ll be able to plan out tasks, due dates, and see what projects are on the horizon.
2 Weeks Out
In the weeks before I was due to depart, I started working longer than normal hours in a final push to wrap up any project that could be completed. There’s nothing like an impending deadline to spur motivation. In the final few days before I left, I had meetings with my assistant and co-workers who were watching over files in my absence. Prior to these meetings, I went through each file and updated my notes on all my files and made sure everything was in good order should someone need to step in during my absence.
The Day Before
Finally, we get to my final hour in the office where I start preparing my desk for my departure. This included cleaning my office, clearing everything off my desk and making sure everything was filed back in its proper place. Whenever I leave town, I’ve always felt a need to leave my home and office spotless. Partly because I don’t like to return to a mess, but also because part of me feels that if I don’t return I don’t want someone else to have to clean up my mess. Perhaps it’s morbid, but a ritual I always have.
I don’t typically like using auto-responders for personal email, but I think they’re still important for business email if used correctly. When I’m out of the office for an extended time (usually more than a couple of days) I’ll setup an auto-responder that is customized for my absence. I want to be careful not to over-use an autoresponder or people will just ignore it. I’m also not above fibbing just a bit. This particular message read in big bold letters at the top:
“KATIE FLOYD HAS NOT RECEIVED YOUR MESSAGE.”
I then briefly set out the dates of my absence, the fact I will not have access to email during my absence, alternate contacts at my office who can be reached for urgent matters, and specifically requested that the sender re-send their message after my date of return if they wanted me to respond. I also changed my voicemail greeting to include similar information and asked callers not to leave a message as I had no way to check it. This helped to manage expectations of when my clients would expect to receive a reply and know I was not simply ignoring them.
The truth is, I did check my email while I was away and there were only a few days that I was totally without Internet access. However, the steps I took before I left, coupled with my auto-responder significantly cut down on the amount of messages I received while I was way and the time I spent dealing with them.
Triage When You Can
In my case, I was able to find reliable Wi-Fi during my trip and could receive email on my iPhone every few days. I made the decision that I was going to allow myself no more than 20 minutes a day to devote to email triage and work related activities and then continue on with my vacation.
In the event you can’t, or choose not to triage emails a few times while on vacation, consider purchasing Wi-Fi on the plane back home and working for an hour or two to clear your email inbox before you land. The last thing you want to do when you return to the office is hit an inbox of thousands of messages. I found managing them every day was more manageable. Most messages fit in to a couple different categories and were handled accordingly:
About 50% of my messages could be immediately archived or deleted. These messages included junk mail, informational messages only, or messages that might have relevance now but wouldn’t by the time I returned.
About 10% of my email messages required a response. The senders had already been informed I was out so lengthy replies weren’t necessary. Typically, I was answering a quick question or promising to follow-up in more detail upon my return. They were composed on my iPhone and took less than 1–2 minutes each to complete. When done, I either archived the message if no further action was required, or added it to my task management system for follow-up upon my return to the office.
Forward to the Office
Another 10% or so of my emails required attention before I returned or were matters that could be delegated to other people back at the office. This is where having done my due diligence to update your staff colleagues so they can be prepared to step in on your behalf paid dividends.
Flag for Follow-up
Of the email that wasn’t immediately archived or deleted, the bulk of it would have to be handled at some point upon my return. There are a couple ways you can do this:
On of the simplest ways to flag email for follow-up is creating a “Follow-up” folder in your email and filing all messages there for further action. Unfortunately, this requires you to process the emails again when you return but this achieves a couple of important goals. First, it gets the message out of your inbox. Second, if you’ve properly triaged you messages, your follow-up folder will only have those select messages that actually require your attention and be a very small percentage of your actual email. Hopefully it won’t be overwhelming. Of course, you have to remember to check the follow-up folder when you return.
I use a tool called SaneBox to manage my email. Among the many benefits of SaneBox is the ability to create custom “snooze” folders that you can temporarily divert messages to. For example, I’ve created a “tomorrow” and a “next week” inbox with Sanebox. When I receive a work-related email after hours that is not urgent, I’ll typically just file it in the “tomorrow” or “next week” folder. The message then reappears in my inbox the next day (or in the case of “next week” on Monday) at 7am. Sanebox will also allow you to create custom snooze folders. For example, if I was going on vacation to return on January 5, 2015, I could create a special mailbox to file messages in that will reappear in my primary inbox on that date.
Forward to A Task Managment System
My preferred method for flagging items for follow-up is to get them out of my email all together and instead, move them into a dedicated task management system. I use OmniFocus but there are others that have similar features. One of my favorite features of OmniFocus is that it has a feature called “MailDrop” that allows you to forward an email to a special email address and have it show up in my OmniFocus inbox for later processing. This is great when I’m on the go and want to make sure that I capture a task because the entire content of the email is preserved.
Depending on your mail client, you may also be able to use a clipping service or share extension to share an entire email or text from an email directly with your task management system of choice. Unfortunately, sharing extensions introduced in iOS 8 do not currently work in Apple’s native Mail.app on iOS, but they are available in several third-party mail clients including my favorite, Dispatch.
When You Return
Of course, when you return to the office there’s still a lot of work waiting for you, and you’re probably still a little hungover (perhaps literally, perhaps figuratively) from your vacation. For this reason, I always schedule a “quiet day” in the office as my first day back. In fact, as far as everyone else is concerned, I’m still on vacation and my auto-responders are still on and my calendar is clear. If I’m really returning on Monday, I’ll tell everyone else that I won’t be back in the office until Tuesday. This will hopefully give me a day of peace to begin processing my task and to start working on any urgent problems before people start calling.
With a combination of pre-planning, triaging email on-the-go, careful follow-up, and a quiet day back in the office upon my return, I feel confident I can manage an extended email absence without being overwhelmed upon my return.
Disclosure: SaneBox and The OmniGroup are sponsors of Mac Power Users
This article first appeared in the November 2014 Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/