How A Three-Month Leave Fundamentally Changed the Way I Do Email

Anyone who has taken an extended leave from work faces the same problem — how to handle the email beast while you’re away.

I was facing a three-month maternity leave from my startup, MeetEdgar. (This is my second kid, second leave.) This time I needed a better email gameplan — I did not want to spend my first week back trudging through a massive inbox!

While researching the ways that people handle this, I came across one strategy that blew my mind: total annihilation. Here’s how it works — you write an autoresponder that goes a little something like this:

Hi there, I’m on extended leave and will be returning on <enter date here>. All emails received during my leave will be deleted. If you need to reach me, please reach out again after I return on <enter date here>.

Does your entire body just relax when you read that the way that mine does? Could I really just delete EVERYTHING?

I considered it but I felt a softer approach could work for me. I ended up with a modified version that has changed the way I do email forever.

When I started my leave, I turned on an autoresponder letting people know when I would be back and directing them towards our MeetEdgar support email for general inquiries. Then I signed out of my work account on all of my devices to make sure I wasn’t tempted to check.

It worked for a few weeks. At some point, I decided to peek in out of curiosity. I’m sure you can guess what I found — hundreds of emails.

Now, my normal email behavior is to open every email and quickly deal with them. I try to follow the touch-it-once principle and am an inbox zero devotee.

But I was still wasting a lot of time opening every email. I get a LOT of unsolicited pitches. It’s mostly development shops but there are no bounds to the junk people try to sell me. These emails really bogged my inbox down.

Turning on the autoresponder gave me a new level of freedom in dealing with these emails. To be completely honest, I was likely not going to respond to most of them, but I used to open them. I guess I had a low-level FOMO going on thinking I might miss something, or something might look like a pitch but actually be something I genuinely wanted to see.

(Has that actually ever happened? No.)

So, while I was on maternity leave I dealt with my inbox in a different way — I immediately archived almost everything. It actually made my inbox super easy to deal with as only a few messages remained. I quickly noticed a trend: email basically came in two categories:

  1. Emails from my team that I needed to see
  2. Junk I didn’t need to even open

Yup, that was more or less it. There are a few exceptions, and occasionally I’ll get messages from friends. But these are few and far between, generally no more than once per week.

After clearing out my inbox regularly during my leave, I confirmed this trend over and over again. I was able to quickly scan for emails from my team and archive the rest.

When I recently returned to work, I decided to set up my inbox a little differently. I wanted a section of only team emails and a section with everything else. That way I could treat the team emails as my “real” inbox and ignore the rest.

Here’s the best hack I’ve found for doing this — my system isn’t perfect, suggestions for improvement are very welcome! Basically, you sort all of your team emails into one category, then use Gmail’s category tab system to quickly locate them.

  1. Create a Gmail filter that only pulls emails sent from your domain — you can do this by setting the “from” field to *@yourdomain.com
  2. For bonus points, you can also add in any other domains that may be from people who are on your team but don’t share your domain — for me that’s my legal and tax/accounting teams
  3. Set a category for the emails — unfortunately Gmail doesn’t let you set custom categories, so I just picked the one that would naturally pick up the fewest emails. For me, that’s social, as I don’t have any social notifications turned on for my work account.

4. Go to “configure inbox” and enable the category you choose (as well as any others you like)

5. Now the “social” tab has become your real inbox, with only the emails you need to see! You can either scan “primary” without opening or just archive them all.

6. Drag any emails that you actually want to process/respond to from “primary” to “social”.

This system has dramatically cut down the time I spend in my inbox by automatically separating the emails I actually need into their own tab. I generally hit “archive” on my primary tab and no longer open or look at pitch emails in any way.

If your job involves a lot of communication with new people outside of your team (like a sales role) this system clearly won’t work. But for anyone whose focus is mostly intra-team communication, give this system a try.

Do you have a way to automatically filter your most important emails? I’d love to hear it!