Vacation Email Strategy

Last fall I adopted a zero tolerance policy for my inbox being out of control. Some weeks I would end the week with several hundred messages that needed to be dealt with in some fashion. While I'm in the office it's been relatively easy to keep up. While my inbox has thousands of messages, they're there purely as an archive. Unread messages are dealt with rapidly. As I read each message it either gets left in the inbox to archive, responded to immediately, filed into a folder for later reference, or deleted if I don't need it. This has worked amazingly well when I'm checking email several times a day. Generally email doesn't pile up in a way that is overwhelming. When I'm out of the office on the the other hand…

I was away from the office for a week over spring break on a mission trip and the internet connectivity was sparse at best. When I returned it took an unhealthy amount of time to filter through all of the messages. I'm pretty sure it took me more time to deal with it than it took to receive it all. I determined that I needed a new strategy.

All of my email is in gmail accounts and I use the IMAP support, which makes remote access really easy. I've got the ability to manage it from my laptop, iPhone, or the web. My new strategy is to just read email whenever I get the chance, even when I'm not in the office. Generally that means reading email on the phone. Here's my new conference/vacation email strategy:

  • Read mail when possible.
  • Process immediately by:
    • Only replying to absolutely urgent email (most can wait a week or two).
    • Saving a draft of an empty reply. Basically I hit the reply button, then save the draft. The goal is just to have drafts started, not to actually have any content.
    • Reading and either saving into an appropriate folder or leaving in the inbox.
    • Saving into a "Needs Attention" folder if it can't be quickly registered.
    • Deleting if it doesn't matter.
  • Try to have the unread count in the inbox as low as possible when I return.

I tested the new strategy at Q in April and it worked fairly well, it kept me in the loop without being overly involved and it dramatically reduced the reentry time the following week. It worked so well that I decided it might be a good strategy during vacation as well. I know I probably should 100% disconnect when I'm on vacation, but it's just not something I do well. Part of it is directly related to the volume of email I seem to get and how overwhelming having a huge unread message count is for me.

So this past week in Colorado I tested the theory. Over the course of the week I filed about 25 messages into the "Needs Attention" folder, started and saved drafts for another 30 or so messages, filed a bunch into folders, left many in the inbox, and deleted hundreds. When I returned to the office on Wednesday the only messages that needed attention were those that showed up overnight and my filed messages. By noon all of the email had been closed out and I was able to go about my day. My guess is that the same process using the let it all pile up model would have taken me all day Wednesday to process and several more days to close everything.

I'm really happy with how everything worked out. I flipped through a few emails at a time on my phone or on the laptop whenever I had a spare moment. It never really made me feel like I wasn't on vacation – all of the real work happened after I got back to work. It certainly was nice when I got back to only have a handful of email that needed attention.

How do you handle the pile of email while you're away from the office?