Vacation - that word should evoke feelings of rest and relaxation, but for many of us, it instead creates anxiety about what we will come back to when we return to the office. Access to email on mobile devices is a blessing and a curse! If you're like me, you have a constant internal struggle between "keeping up" with email and truly unplugging with the knowledge that you'll have hundreds of messages to wade through when you get back.
How would you like to not check email on vacation and get back to inbox 0 within a day of your return? Here are some tricks of how to do it! Follow these few steps to have more fun on vacation and not feel sick to your stomach about opening your inbox when you return! I use Microsoft Outlook at work, so most of the how-to's are specific to Outlook, but the tips can work for almost any email program.
Spend Minutes Before You Leave to Save Hours When You Return
In less than an hour before you leave for your trip, you can save yourself five times as much time when you get back. If your company uses Outlook and your email goes through a Microsoft Exchange server (as opposed to a mail provider like Gmail or Yahoo!), you can literally process your emails when you're far, far away and Outlook isn't even running! It's easy - just open Outlook, and click on "File" in the menu bar in the upper left of the screen. Choose "Automatic Replies," and after you've selected the dates and created templates for your replies, click on the "Rules " button - this is where it gets really cool! Here you can create nearly endless rules to automatically delete, move or forward messages based on a variety of criteria like who sent it, who it was sent to, the subject, etc. The rules run and take care of your messages automatically, so that even if your "no email on vacation willpower" fails you and you pull up email on your phone, those messages will already be taken care of.
If you use Outlook with a mail provider like Gmail or Yahoo!, you can create rules but they just won't run until you open Outlook, and you'll need to manually turn them on and off. Just click on the "Rules" icon on the "Home" tab and then select "Manage Rules & Alerts." If you use something other than Outlook, don't despair, you can create similar rules, too!
A Vacation Review Folder Makes You Feel Better
On my last vacation, I tried to only check email occasionally and when absolutely necessary. After a total of 6 days out of the office I came back to 1, 200 emails . I actually had received 1,600 but because the tip about out of office rules, 400 of those messages were automatically deleted or moved to a folder for me. But still, 1,200 emails is a LOT, and I needed some shortcuts to get through them quickly and without missing anything important. The first step to get through a post-vacation inbox is to create a new folder where you can move items you need to reply to or that contain an action.
Here's how you do it in Outlook:
As you go through the next few steps I'm going to outline for you, this folder will be a holding tank for your later to do's. To make it very easy to quickly move items to this folder, set yourself a Quick Step. When a message is selected in the Inbox view, you can simply click on the Move to "Vacation Review" Quick Step to immediately move it out of your Inbox and into this folder.
Here's how to create a Quick Step in Outlook:
Who It's To Helps Make Quick Decisions
After you have your Vacation Review folder created and a Quick Step set up, I suggest starting by grouping your messages by who they were sent TO. This allows you to quickly see which messages you were only CCd on and which messages were sent to a large group that may not require a response or action from you. This may allows you to delete large amounts of emails without reviewing each individual message.
Here's how you group messages in Outlook:
Expand one group at a time, skipping the group of emails sent only to you - you'll handle these in the next step. Quickly scan to decide if you can delete the whole group, and if so - go for it! If you think that there may be something you need in that group, get a closer look at an individual message without opening it by turning on a reading pane. Click on the View tab and choose your favorite reading pane location.
As you review individual emails, don't get distracted and try to do anything! You have three choices: 1. Delete (use your keyboard delete key or the delete icon), 2. Move to "Vacation Review" folder, or 3. Archive (move into your existing folder structure. To read my suggestions on a simple folder structure for email read Email Organization: Part 1.) The only other thing I'm going to give you permission to do at this point is to unsubscribe before deleting if it's an email list you no longer want to be part of.
It Matters Who It's From
Now you should be left with emails that were sent only to you. To make it easier to review, drag the "To" field back down to the Inbox grid, then follow the rules above to group, but this time right click on the "From" field. You will instantly recognize if a sender is spam or one that you need to pay attention to. Just like before, as you review individual emails using the reading pane, resist the urge to do anything. Just choose from the same three choices as above: 1. Delete 2. Move to "Vacation Review" folder, or 3. Archive. Remember you're allowed to unsubscribe before you delete since that will help you have fewer emails next vacation.
Get Ready to Get Stuff Done!
Now your inbox should be completely empty - unless you've gotten some messages while working through this process. It's ok to leave those few, unread messages in your Inbox for now. The Inbox is for new, incoming messages, and your Vacation Review folder is for your backlog of things to get done. Now you have a way to see clear progress as you get caught up.
Make sure your "Vacation Review" folder is set to conversation mode. Just go to the "View" tab and check the "Show as Conversations" checkbox. In the "Conversations Settings" drop down, make sure "Show Messages from Other Folders" is selected.
Sort by received date by clicking on the header until you have the oldest conversation first and then just tackle it! Keep a notepad handy because things are going to jump in your mind while you are working through your emails. You can just jot them down and not break your rhythm. I recommend working in sprints with breaks in between. Don't work for longer than 25 minutes at a time. Set a timer and when it goes off, check the Inbox for new, urgent items only, then at least take a stretch break before diving back into your "Vacation Review" folder.
It's ideal to have a full day back from vacation to play catch up, but since that's not realistic, you may have to settle for just a couple hours a day for several days to get through your backlog, but using this method will greatly reduce your stress and the time it takes to get caught up!
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!