Taming the post-holiday email beast

I’ve just returned to work after 2 weeks of annual leave. On my first day back at work I deleted (almost) all the emails I received while I was away, without reading them.

It was liberating, productive and very enjoyable! But was it worthwhile?

Why try to tame the beast?

I was inspired by Ryan Dunn’s email fairytale, where he wisely suggested that time spent catching up on emails after a holiday was wasted time.

I think that conventional office environments feed the post-holiday email beast. It’s nurtured, encouraged and used as a badge of office. Many people are expected to spend their first morning or day after a holiday wading through emails. It’s almost a standing joke in a lot of workplaces.

Most of the emails have been dealt with while they were away, or things have moved on so it’s not relevant. They have to hunt for the latest email in a chain to get the up-to-date position. When people start replying to their holiday emails, this generates more emails and the beast starts snarling again.

While all this is going on, that person isn’t able to ease back into work; they miss the chance to just spend time talking with people to find out the news; they are plunged straight back into conversations and decisions that have weathered while they were on holiday.

And this is only e-mail. I use Slack, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, gmail and Twitter to keep in touch with people, my sector and interests. This creates a lot of channels to stay in touch with.

My best ever ‘out-of-office’ message

I set my out-of-office message to give a clear message that I was going to delete any emails I received while I was on holiday.

I explained why, and I gave 2 options for people to use while I was away: a shared inbox monitored by my team, and the email address of a colleague.

What did I do with my holiday inbox?

I dealt with my inbox in 5 minutes on the train to work. I used a tip from Ryan to go through any meeting invites in the calendar on my work smartphone, to avoid having to read the emails.

I was then about to greedily highlight and delete all the emails, chuckling at the thought that I’d tamed the beast. But I hit a snag. Even though I tried not to look, I glanced at one of the subject lines and it was marked ‘Personal’ and related to an action relevant to a colleague’s wellbeing.

It stopped me in my tracks. I was in danger of causing a colleague extra hassle at a time when they could do without that. I changed tack.

I moved all of the holiday emails into a folder and scanned down the subject lines. I pulled out 4 emails that needed to be dealt with to avoid any colleagues being put in a tricky spot. I forwarded these to my inbox to be dealt with. I deleted the rest.

Did I tame the beast?

Yes! I definitely received fewer emails while I was holiday. Anecdotally, people said they avoided or stopped sending me emails because they’d read my out-of-office message and knew I wouldn’t read their email. I think this definitely worked.

When I scanned down the emails I could spot the ones I want to unsubscribe from. It’s also inspired me to put rules on my Outlook inbox to automatically delete or move some regular, corporate emails into another folder.

The best thing about it though was my first morning back in the office. I spent the morning just chatting with my team, sharing stories about our summer holidays and things we’re working on. It was really good to reconnect and get back into the flow of how we work together.

Top tips for dealing with the post-holiday inbox

Top tip #1: use your out-of-office message to set expectations and help people who genuinely needed to contact you

Top tip #2: if you have a work smartphone, use the calendar to quickly go through any meeting invitations without having to look at the emails

Top tip #3: scan the subject lines of emails to pull out any that relate to a colleague’s wellbeing, to be dealt with separately

Top tip #4: take the opportunity to unsubscribe and set up inbox rules to automatically file away regular emails

Top tip #5: enjoy the time spent chatting with your team and co-workers to find out how they’re doing and what we’re working on

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