My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Taking a vacation? Take an email sabbatical!

This post was originally written for LinkedIn; see comments there.

Have you ever returned from vacation more stressed out than when you left? Is the reason because you came home to 10,000 email messages that managed to convey high pitched anxiety even in text (with a few exclamation points to add pressure)? Vacations should be a break from the insanity, not a procrastination of it.

Years ago, I realized that when I went on vacation, I needed a real break. I didn’t want to be tethered via email or social media. I wanted to go offline. But I also wanted to come back without the onslaught of messages that would take me weeks to unbury myself from. So I started instituting email sabbaticals. The idea is simple: turn off your email. Set up a filter and Send all messages to /dev/null (a.k.a. the Trash). Send a bounce message telling people their message wasn’t received and that they should resend it after X date or send you the contents via snail mail.

Of course, if you just turn off your email with no warning, you’re bound to piss off your friends, family, colleagues, and clients. So here are some tips to successfully taking an email sabbatical:

  • Step 1: Schedule a vacation. A vacation is not a long weekend. You need time to decompress. Schedule it ahead of time. I recommend at least two weeks so that you can really relax. You’ll spend the first week of it still shell-shocked from stepping away from the computer anyhow.
  • Step 2: Communicate with colleagues. Long before you’re headed out on vacation, tell people that you intend to be gone from X to Y dates. I tell collaborators months in advance so that I can make sure that we’re on the same page and that they have everything they need.
  • Step 3: Manage expectations. Talk to everyone who relies on you. Schedule a meeting before you leave and schedule one for when you return. Agree on the to-dos and create a contingency plan for issues that might arise while you’re unreachable.
  • Step 4: Create a backdoor for emergencies. Identify someone that is willing to serve as a buffer for you that you can check in with every 3 or so days who people will be afraid to contact unless it’s an emergency. I use my mother for this one. Colleagues feel weird about calling your mother, but they’ll do it if it’s an emergency. This is a good safety net if you don’t feel like you can be out-of-reach for that long.
  • Step 5: Send a final warning note. A week or two before you depart, send a note out to everyone reminding them that you’re about to leave in case they need anything from you. And then turn on your out-of-office notice to warn people that you’re about to disappear into the void. That way, you catch any notable issues.
  • Step 6: Make your email go poof! I’m a geek. My procmail file is absurd, but you don’t need to be a geek to make your email go into a blackhole. Add an away message / auto-responder that will catch people’s attention and inform them that you’re gone and that their message will never be received. ┬áThen filter ALL of your email like you would if it were spam. Use your favorite mail program to send everything straight to the Trash. Bye-bye!
  • Step 7: Disappear. For realz. Seriously, take a vacation. You need it. There’s nothing like a vacation to rejuvenate and make you better at your job. If you come back refreshed, you’ll have better ideas and be more on top of your game. This isn’t a gimmick to sell you a self-help manual. This is basic logic. We’re all overworked and maxed out and when we’re stressed, we don’t function well. Use your vacation days. Use them well. Cherish them. And don’t work while you’re on vacation. That. Defeats. The. Point.
  • Step 8: Re-entry. When you’re back, quietly turn everything off. Reach out to the people who depend on you the most for a check-in. Make sure to schedule time to give them what they need. Be attentive, be supportive, be vacation-refreshed calm.

Communication is the key to an email sabbatical. Disappearing without properly making certain that everyone has what they need is irresponsible and disrespectful and people will get pissed off. They’ll be offended. They’ll think you’re all high and mighty. But when you go through steps to make sure everyone’s covered, it’s amazing at how well people respond. And, often, they too start taking email sabbaticals, guaranteeing everyone gets the reset they need.

People often ask me if I’m frantic about the thousands of emails I must’ve missed. Again, because I’m a geek and use procmail, I have log data. What’s funny is that, aside from the first 48 hours where people like to test my bounce message, people stop sending me email. With all of these steps in place, people actually leave me alone.

Are there things I miss? Sure. But I don’t fear missing out because I know how important it is to truly, genuinely, actually take a break. Being burnt out sucks. When I’m burnt out, I’m a crappy employee, a dreadful friend, and a terrible person to be around. It’s well worth missing out on a few things in order to make sure that I’m who I want to be.

So go ahead, don’t be afraid, don’t make excuses. Take a vacation. And take an email sabbatical!

Flickr Credit: Ahmed Amir

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1 comment to Taking a vacation? Take an email sabbatical!

  • I just was on vacation in Chile, and I didn’t set up an e-mail sabbatical. However, the extreme remoteness of my destination(s) served much the same effect. First Easter Island, then the Atacama Desert. Even though I had unlimited global roaming on my phone, outside Santiago it wasn’t much use – probably for the best. Work e-mail was turned off anyways, and the only downside was a delay in uploading all the beautiful and jealousy-inspiring pictures of the places we were visiting.

    What did you think of the steps Daimler and others were taking to curb the blurring work/life boundary through steps like blocking emails after work hours? http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/01/business/some-companies-seek-to-wean-employees-from-their-smartphones.html

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