I just got back from a lovely vacation in the South of France. Had a great time, spent too much money on food and not enough on wine, and when I arrived back in the States a few days ago, I was happily stinking of ripened cheese, strong coffee, and Gitanes.
A bad stench awaited me at the office, though: my rotten e-mail in-box. I didn't do e-mail on vacation. My wife, the smart one in the family, wouldn't allow it. So when I got back, my in-box was an explosion of messages-- and that's not including spam, which was mostly filtered out. One look made me imagine a cartoon character opening a closet filled to overflowing with pots, pans, and sharp knives--or Captain Kirk and the Tribbles.
The exploding in-box is a common postvacation lament. Even my lovely bride--a musician, not a geek like me--had so much e-mail waiting for her that Outlook XP crashed when it tried to download everything. (I used to have this problem too, until I upgraded to Outlook 2003.)
So I started to wonder, is there a way to gracefully handle that postvacation e-mailbox? I checked around CNET and found a few strategies that people use, explained below (in order of severity). Maybe some of these strategies will work for you. If not, please let me know your methods for dealing with the fallout from an e-mail-free vacation.
Solution 1: Don't stop
Some people here simply keep e-mailing when they go on vacation. Shelby Bonnie, our CEO, uses his Treo 600 to scan his in-box frequently. Mostly, he says, he uses it to delete messages, so when he gets to a real computer he has a more manageable in-box. Also, he uses plane rides to blast through e-mail when the rest of the family is snoozing. And he sneaks online from time to time to keep up-to-date. Not much of a vacation, if you ask me, but I guess if you're CEO, there's just no such thing as a pure vacation.
Jai Singh, of News.com, is in the Shelby camp. He says about the Treo, "It's sort of fixed the mail overflow problem. It's luggable, portable, and discreet. You can take can quick, furtive glances at the incoming while the family is absorbed in the restaurant meal. So far I have escaped the family's wrath." Neat trick, Jai.
Solution 2: The away message
A lot of people use an away message (an autoresponse to incoming mail that lets folks know you're out of town and when you expect to return). Use of these messages is controversial, though. For one thing, the bounce-back verifies your e-mail address to spammers, and putting too much info in your message can be an invitation to crooks: "I'm out of the country right now with my family for three weeks, and my house isn't being watched." But a well-worded away message can be valuable; it tells people trying to reach you why you're not responding to them quickly, and you can also put names and contact info of the people who are covering for you in the message, so you don't lose business. Plus, it cuts down on repeat e-mail from people who are still trying to track you down.
Solution 3: Triage
Candy Meyers, senior vice president of CNET.com, says, "I subscribe to modified triage. Don't read any e-mail for the first five days of a one-week vacation. Then ease your way into reading the mission-critical ones first. If something is so important that your office needs to reach you, they should have your cell. And if you don't have a team in place to handle most emergencies, what kind of boss are you?" As for using the Treo to keep up on e-mail, she says, "Reading e-mail in those all-important first days of a vacation is a great way to kill family spirit."
My boss, Pat Houston, also uses triage, and so do I . When I get back, I sort my e-mail in-box by sender and look for the most recent messages from bosses and the people I do most of my work with. I read and reply to the latest one or two and figure that older stuff will come up again if it's important. Then I scan for the urgent messages, then for subjects on projects that were cooking right before I left.
Another big part of triage: In any discussion thread, start reading at the most current message, not the first one sent. If you've been away for a while, chances are the issue has already been solved, and you can quickly delete the whole thread in one fell swoop.
Solution 4: Denial
Pat also mentioned this strategy: "Pretend the e-mail doesn't exist. Skip right over it and instead start with only the e-mail that begins on the day of your return." That will certainly make your return to work feel like a new beginning, but as Pat notes, "It could also get you out the door--and into the ranks of the unemployed."
Solution 5: Start over from the beginning or lie
This "solution" is the extreme version of denial. There's a legend of a person who used to work at CNET. It's said that when he came back from vacation he would delete his old e-mail account and get a new one, then just tell everybody his new address. It was a fresh start, although of course, the person no longer works here, so you can draw your own conclusions. An alternative is to claim that your hard disk crashed and tell people that if something is important, they should resend it. I don't subscribe to either of these methods, but I admit they're tempting.
So what's your secret postvacation e-mail strategy? Drop me a line. I'm in the office this week, and I have a clean in-box…
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