Self-Experiment: Ignoring vacation e-mail

For most of us, taking a vacation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you really need time off to recharge after a grueling year. On the other hand, you dread your e-mail inbox when you return – and by the time you’re finished cleaning out your inbox on your first day back, you need another vacation.

I once spent 4 hours cleaning my inbox after a 2-week vacation. This time, after my 2-week vacation I spent precisely zero minutes cleaning my inbox. The reason was simple: I auto-archived everything and didn’t read anything when I got back.

If a nervous sweat broke out on your forehead at the thought, keep reading. I had planned a vacation from December 24 through January 9. How to ensure that while I was in Costa Rica sipping water from a fresh coconut, the only things going through my head were electrolytes?

I knew myself well enough to be sure of two things:

1) No matter how good my intentions were, I would check e-mail at some point.
2) If I read anything that I desired to respond to but couldn’t, I’d stress out and vacation feeling was ruined.

Logically, the only possible solution that also ensured that I wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown from dealing with e-mail pileup when I returned was to make sure that I never saw it. But what of the consequences? At Google, your inbox is your umbilical cord to the world. In fact, it’s quite rare to ever hear the phone ring in my office. The first week without e-mail would be fine as things were always quiet in the last week of the year. But thefirst week of the new year would be a problem, as everyone clamored for your attention to finish things that didn’t get done in 2010.

What’s the worst that could happen? I tried to scare myself as much as possible: I’d miss a huge launch, I’d delay a huge launch, or I’d not respond in time to a VERY IMPORTANT E-MAIL (VIE). All of which would result in me getting fired.

Getting past this fear took time, but I eventually realized that: no one was going to fire me close to a major holiday week, and if a launch was so huge, they would have told me beforehand so I could arrange backup. Once the decision was made, I had to bring my co-workers around to the idea. This was my out of office auto-response:

I will be OOO until January 9, 2011. If you need to contact me, please resend your e-mail on January 9 as I am auto-archiving all messages received before then and won’t even see it. Happy holidays! Julie

And then I had to hold myself to it. In Gmail, set a filter where anything “To:*” is archived. This diverts any incoming message away from your inbox, whether addressed to you or a mailing list. And honestly, after the third time checking e-mail and seeing no messages, I stopped checking altogether.

So what did end up happening?

  • Several frantics e-mail about launch happening the day I got back. Later got pushed back two days, so I had no problem supporting it.
  • One blog post that I ended up launching one hour later than it was supposed to.
  • Several people worrying about my well-being due to not receiving e-mail responses
  • A massively improved sense of well-being and the most productive day back from vacation I’ve ever had

2000 = Number of e-mails filtered between Dec 24-Jan 9th
4 = Number of e-mails resent to me after vacation

The pros so massively outweighed the cons that I wondered why I’d ever had doubts. But if ever in doubt, put your worst fears into writing and you’ll see that they’re all manageable.

Then kick up your heels and relax. You deserve it.

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