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In my last blog post, I addressed how to be unplugged and enjoy a refreshing vacation. That post was timely, since I completed it right before going on vacation myself. I'm back now and facing one of the consequences of taking that much needed break – email overload.

Being interviewed on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning show about post vacation email overload earlier this week inspired me to write this blog post (thanks Ottawa Morning!). Here are my 5 tips and strategies for addressing the dreaded post vacation email overload:

1. Before You Go on Vacation let People Know

You have to address the deluge before you even leave for vacation. One or two weeks before you head out the door, it's a good idea to let your important contacts – clients and colleagues – know that you will be heading out shortly. Tell them how long you will be gone, and provide them with the contact information of a person who can handle any emergency or urgent issues that may arise while you are away. Letting key contacts know about your plans in advance will help manage their expectations, and can assist in minimizing the email deluge.

2. Out of Office Response and Forwarding Your Messages to Colleague

Once again, setting up your email with a good out of office message is key. The message should specify that you will have no access to email or voicemail for the entire period of time (or a minimum limited access with set times per day if you can't totally disconnect). Critically, include in the message the contact information for someone who can cover for you for any "real" emergency that might happen during your absence.

Since you've created an out-of-office message for your vacation, keep it on for an extra day or two. That extra day or so gives you the time to sort through things that came up while you were gone. Simply state in your message the date when you will respond to messages as opposed to the actual date you return to the office.

If possible consider forwarding your messages while on a vacation to a colleague. Your colleague will be able to "triage" your account, address anything urgent and leave the rest for your return.

3. Use Folders and Filers to Sort Messages

We all get lots of email that may not require our immediate attention. It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with your email system (whether it be Gmail, outlook or another email client), and set up advance filtering and filing system. For example, emails that are newsletters and the like can be automatically filtered to a newsletter folder, uncluttering your inbox. Employees who work with employers with more advanced systems may be able to set up rules that will file email to dedicated projects or client folders.

There are also other simpler software solutions. Consider using services such as Sanebox or Mailstrom to triage your inbox automatically for you. For example SaneBox prioritizes important emails and summarizes the rest. It filters non-important emails out of your main inbox. The program works on any type of email inbox (and device), is customizable, and learns from your actions. Features include, unsubscribing, summary of daily email, smart reminders and snoozing email. While some of the features could be set up using mail rules and filters, it's much quicker and less complicated with software like SaneBox or Mailstrom. Check with your employer whether they will allow you to use this type of software first before using it.

4. When Back, Set a Time to Review and Triage

Once you are back make sure that you only allot yourself a limited amount of time to check email. Be strict with your time (say 30 minutes to an hour max). Only respond to emails that have to be answered immediately or can be responded to quickly. Any emails that are not relevant can be deleted immediately (the mountain will look a little smaller!). The rest can be triaged and wait reply later in the week.

A good idea is to sort your inbox by sender as opposed to time. This will allow you to see where your messages are coming from more easily, and prioritize those that require response. Scan the subject lines for clues as to which emails require quick response or can be deleted.

5. "Boomerang" Your Non-urgent Email Back to Your Inbox at a Later Date

Some email arrives too early for you to really be able to respond. Think about an invitation to an office event that requests replies for a date weeks in the future, for example. However, you are just back from vacation and don't even have a sense if you can attend. With those types of email that do not require an immediate response use software to set reminders that will bring the email back to your inbox and your attention at a later date. For example you could use software like the "Boomerang" extension for Gmail. By using software like Boomerang you can take messages out of your inbox until you actually need them. The software allows you to choose when you need it again. It will then archive the message, and at the time you chose, bring it back to your inbox for response. Again, get permission from your employer first before using it.

Bonus TIP – Consider Going on a Total Email Sabbatical

If all else fails, considering going on an email sabbatical. The idea is that you will turn off your email and delete it. This is accomplished by setting up a filter that sends all messages received to the trash in conjunction with a bounce message telling people their message wasn't received and that they should resend it after 'X' date. As this is more than the usual out-of-office message, the bounce message must be very clear that the message sent was not read and will never be received. A sabbatical is a bit extreme, but it will allow you to come back to an empty inbox.


This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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