Vacation Maximization, Part 1: How to Manage Your Email So You Can Enjoy Your Vacation

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Vacation season is upon us.  How will you handle your email while you’re away from work?  Here are some thoughts on how to manage email while you’re on vacation so that you can actually ENJOY your break.

About a decade ago, my husband and I took a 3-week break from our demanding consulting jobs in Washington, DC to visit Asia. The moment when that sense of vacation elation hit both of us – simultaneously – was not when we sat on a white sand beach with fruity drinks in hand.  Rather, it was when we went through security at Dulles airport and had no laptops to put on the conveyor belt. What a feeling of freedom, to travel sans laptop!  (This was before either of us had a smartphone, Blackberry, or other such electronic leash)  It felt deliciously delinquent!


Being totally unplugged from work for three weeks helped my husband and me to relax, recharge our batteries, and return to work refreshed – the whole point of a vacation.  And the conventional wisdom would certainly agree that Thou Shalt Not Check Email on Vacation. If you can do it, go for it.

However, I understand that some people – many aid professionals among them – feel that the blissful ignorance of avoiding email while on vacation is not worth the pain of returning to hundreds of unread messages. Others report they have difficulty relaxing while worrying that some important message is being ignored.  So they choose to check email periodically while on holiday.

Go Ahead and Lurk

So if you must, go ahead and check email while you are on vacation – but DO NOT send any email messages and DO NOT reply to any messages.  I call this the “lurker” strategy – you can look but do not make your presence known!  This is critical because if people see that you are online, they will send you MORE email messages and expect immediate responses.  If you think you might inadvertently reply to a message (force of habit?), you can set up Microsoft Outlook so that it will receive messages from your server but not send any outgoing messages.

Manage Expectations with an Out of Office Notifier

Most people set up an Out of Office notification message (i.e., auto-response) letting anyone who emails them know that they will be away for a period of time.  That’s good.  But beyond that, be sure that your Out of Office message says:

  1. You will not have access to or will not be checking email while you are gone.  Even if you will have the capability to check email (or lurk), you are managing others’ expectations that you will not read their message while you are away.
  2. In case of an emergency, people may contact your assistant or designated point-of-contact. Provide his/her contact info (email and phone) in your auto-response.  Agree that the assistant will text or call you if an emergency arises.  (And discuss with him/her how you define “emergency.”)  When your gate-keeper does not contact you while you are away, you can relax and enjoy your vacation.

Lay the Groundwork Before You Depart

Here are some things you can do before you leave to make your life easier when you return from break:

  • Give yourself a re-entry period. Instead of saying, “I will respond to emails once I return” in your Out of Office notification, add a day or two between your actual return and the day you say you’ll respond.  This gives you an extra “virtual vacation day” that’s just for dealing with email.  For example, if you return to work on Monday, your Out of Office message would say that you will return calls or emails by the following Wednesday.  This can reduce the stress of dealing with all the accumulated emails at once upon your return.
  • Establish a prioritization system. Your Out of Office message can specify that you will give first priority upon your return to voice mails. This helps ensure that the important matters don’t get lost in a flood of unread emails.
  • Make a pre-emptive strike.  Don’t just set up your Out of Office notification and then slip out the door.  Before you leave, let the most urgent, impatient, and important people know that you’ll be away, and give them the contact information for someone who can help them in an emergency (i.e., your assistant or designated point-of-contact).
  • Set up filters. If you don’t already have filters set up for your email, set some up now, so that your in-box is less overwhelming when you return.  All newsletters can go into a single folder that you can read through at your leisure.  Emails that you are cc’ed on, as opposed to those sent directly to you, can go in their own folder.

Now you are all set to enjoy your well-deserved vacation.  I’ll write a post in the future about how to process your in-box when you return.  For now, sit back, relax, and enjoy your break!

How do you manage your emails while on vacation? Are you able to disconnect from work and enjoy your break if you continue to check email?  What tips would you add to this list?  Please share in the comments section below.

And stay tuned for next week’s blog post “Vacation Maximization, Part 2: How to Make the Most of Your Vacation.”

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