Tag Archives: email

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

I AM OFFLINE! On Email Sabbatical from December 9 – January 12

I am offline, taking a deeply needed break while traveling. During the duration of my break, no email will be received by my computer. All email sent to me during this period will be redirected to /dev/null (aka “the trash”). If you send me a message during this period, I will never receive it and never respond to it. If you need to contact me, please send your email after January 12. If it is urgent and you know how to reach my mother, I will be in touch with her every few days. But I am intentionally unreachable during this period. Please respect that a girl needs a break and this is mine.


Credit: Betta Design

Background on Email Sabbaticals…

Years ago, I realized that there was no way to take a vacation and manage the always-on, always-in-contact lifestyle that technology affords. Initially, I thought that it’d be possible to simply ignore email while on vacation and deal with it afterwards but I realized that this was untenable. It takes months to catch up on thousands of emails and I’d come back and immediately burn out again trying to catch up. I’d end up declaring email bankruptcy, thereby failing everyone who contacted me because of my delinquency. I knew that I needed a different strategy.

I decided to start taking email sabbaticals as a systematic and respectful way of publicly communicating my boundaries. Six months before vacation, I let close collaborators and colleagues know that I intend to be wholly offline during a set of collectively known dates. A month before I leave, I write out to everyone that I work with to make sure that we all know what I need to accomplish before I leave and make sure that we have a check list to get it all done. I also publicly blog that I will be departing, letting everyone else know that they should get in touch if they’re going to need something from me. A week before, I message out again warning people. In this way, I systematically make sure that I take care of others’ needs before I depart. Communication is key to an email sabbatical. Disappearing without properly making certain that everyone has what they need is irresponsible and disrespectful.

When I am on vacation, I am confident that I have taken care of my responsibilities before I left. I have contingency plans set up for anything I can predict might happen while I’m away. I make sure that my brother, mother, sysadmin, and housesitters all know how to reach me in case of an emergency. But most importantly, I know that my email spool is not filling up with a big To Do list that will haunt me when I’m gone. Do I miss things while I’m on vacation? Most certainly. Inevitably, I will receive numerous emails from journalists covering year-end stories about teens, people wanting me to review journal articles, students wanting help with their term papers, and perhaps an invitation or two. I do feel guilty not personally responding to these people to say that I’m unavailable but that’s precisely the point. I need to let go in order to truly take a break and refresh. Are there going to be people pissed off at me because I’m on vacation? Sure. But I’m also used to getting pissed off emails everyday from all sorts of people yelling at me for my attempt to explain teen life. Part of me feels a guilty pleasure knowing that I will never see 5 weeks worth of angry emails.

The advantage of an email sabbatical is that I can truly take time and decompress and ease back into everyday life in January without an overwhelming and unmanageable list of To Dos. Personally, I think it’s a whole lot more respectful to preemptively and openly communicate that I need a break than to screw up and declare bankruptcy when everything crumbles. But maybe that’s just me. I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking that I’m a royal bitch for saying enough. Or think that I’m a privileged brat for being able to carve out time for myself. Personally, I think that we all need to start looking inwards and understanding our limitations and articulating our boundaries. Breaks aren’t a bad thing; they’re a fundamentally important way to refresh. I know that I will be a far better scholar when I return than I am right now because I’m too burnt out to think straight. I need this break. And I bet you do too. And taking a long weekend isn’t the same as taking a serious break. Which is why I’ve been saving all of my vacation days so that I could take a serious pause.

Anyhow, I wish you a happy December. Chag sameach, happy holidays! And please, for your sake and mine, take some time for yourself. {{hug}}

NOTICE: Email sabbatical will start December 9

If you don’t know me, you probably don’t know that I work obscene hours for most of the year and then take a proper vacation. As in no internet, no work, no geeking out on research. For me to continue doing the work that I do, I have to refresh. In order to refresh, I go offline. No email, no Twitter, no blogging. And only pre-downloaded Wikipedia-ing (because how can you tour foreign countries without wanting to know weird information about the universe?).

More importantly, I have learned that vacation isn’t vacation if you come home to thousands of pending emails. Cuz then you spend most of vacation worrying about the work that’s piling up. So, over six years ago, I started instituting “email sabbaticals” in my life. While I’m away, my lovely procmail file (aka “filtering software”) will direct all of my email to /dev/null (aka “the permanent trash”). I will not be reachable. The only person that I stay in contact with while I’m gone is my mother because it’s just too cruel to my mom to disappear entirely. Twitter and my blog will also loudly proclaim my MIA-ness. But the bigger issue is that I will return to a zero-inbox. Nothing sent to me during my email sabbatical will survive. All senders will receive a lovely bounce message saying that their message will never get through. In this way, no one can put things in my to-do queue while I’m trying to take a break. I need to recharge and there’s no way to recharge when the pile-up grows ever unmanageable.

From December 9-January 12, you will not be able to reach me. More importantly, you won’t be able to put things in my to-do queue. So, if you need something from me, holler now. Or wait until I come back. But please recognize that I need a break.

how to kill email

Rumors are (once again) flying around that people are going to be charged for sending email, postage stamp style. The details are uncertain, although the NYTimes has their version; apparently, Yahoo! and AOL are involved in this and there will still be free email, but paid for email will be given priority. The logic is (always has been) that companies should have to pay for bulk mail in order to minimize spam. There are arguments concerning the effectiveness of this and there’s the issue of variable global economies and how this might hinder poorer companies, non-profits, and anyone who doesn’t have the economic capital of the porn industry. There are lots of good arguments on both sides, but i don’t want to focus on that.

What i want to highlight instead is an aspect i haven’t heard discussed in the context of this: email is already dying amongst youth. Right now, most of us in our 20s view postal mail as the site of bills and junk mail; the occasional letter and package is super exciting, but we can almost always predict those (they are usually correlated with birthdays, holidays and the one-click button). For youth, it’s the same story with email – you get notices from parents, adults, companies, junk mail, and the occasional attachment that was announced via IM. Add postage stamps to this and email will become even less valuable; your friends won’t pay for it so the system will highlight the companies over your friends – yuck. Even those who appreciate sending email will be alienated by turning this into a capitalist enterprise. Yuck. Bye bye email, hello IM and SMS and alternative asynchronous message systems. There’s nothing like giving corporations a preferential position in the system to destroy a communications platform.