Vacation Maximization, Part 3: How to Survive Post-vacation Overwhelm

by Shana Montesol Johnson

The worst part of going on a great vacation is coming back to work.  How to handle the emails waiting for your attention, the work that has have piled up in your absence, and that feeling of post-holiday malaise?  Here are some tips:

Give Yourself a Soft Landing

It’s tempting to try to make the most of your vacation by flying home the night before you return to work, but this will just make for a painful transition.  Give your body clock a chance to reset itself from “vacation mode” to “work mode” by coming home a night or two before your first day back on the job. For example, returning to town on a Thursday, and taking Friday off, can give you ample time for a smooth re-entry.

Don’t Open That In-Box

Even if you’ve set up your email brilliantly before you depart on vacation, you may have the unpleasant task of sorting through hundreds of unread messages when you return.  Before diving into your in-box, check in with your colleagues, boss, counterparts, etc.  (If a face-to-face meetings is not feasible due to geographic constraints, set up a phone/Skype call.)  Ask them, “What do I need to know?  What do you need my help with?  What is urgent?”  These quick meetings will help you prioritize what you need to focus on right away, what can wait a couple of days, and what you can take care of in the coming weeks. You’ll also better be able to process your emails, because you will have a clearer sense of what has happened in your absence, what issues are outstanding, and which ones have already been resolved.

Attack Your Email In-box – Methodically

When you do open that email in-box, process your messages methodically.  Sort emails by subject line (threads), then date, so you read the related messages with the most recent first.  That way, you can see the back and forth on a single issue.  This also makes it easier to quickly delete earlier, repetitive messages that have already been resolved.

Follow the best practice for email processing:

  1. Delete it – Is it spam or a message you’ll never need again? Delete immediately.
  2. Do it – If you can respond or deal with the email in 2 min. or less, do it right away.
  3. Delegate it – If someone else can take care of this, forward it along!
  4. Defer it – Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Will the action or response required by the email take longer than 2 minutes to resolve? If yes, convert it to a task on your To Do list.  If you will need to refer back to the email message later to complete the task, move the message to a folder (and write down with the task on your To Do list which folder it’s in)
  • Is the “task” associated with the email message simply to wait for further input/response?  Then create a “Waiting For” or “Pending” folder in your email program and move those messages there.  Don’t just leave them in your inbox as a reminder.
  • Is it a long email that you just need to read for information?  File it in a “To Read” folder or print it to read at a more convenient time.

This approach to processing email, also called 4D, means that when you check your email, you dispose of each message, one at a time, right away. After you’re done glancing at or reading the email, make sure it disappears from the in-box, rather than “hangs out” there for you to deal with later.  Having these lingering messages can be psychologically taxing and energy-draining.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, you can try the tactic of moving all the messages arrived while you were gone to a brand new folder. You can then process these messages separately, which makes it easier to keep on top of new things that come in.

Capitalize on Your Fresh Perspective

Hopefully, your time away has refreshed you and given you some new insights about your life or work.  If so, this is the time to build on that by incorporating new habits, activities, or approaches.


What do you find most challenging about return to work after a great vacation? What tips have worked for you?  Please share in the comments section below.

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