Take A Vacation From Email, Without Returning To A Full Inbox

During a vacation a few years ago, I completely unplugged from email, social media, and websites for a week. The experience revealed some hard lessons about myself. I also found the secret for how to unplug in such a way that you won’t be swamped with emails when you plug back in. 

On past vacations I would “check-in” on email each morning and evening. This year I decided to completely unplug. Unplugging would allow me to fully engage with my family 24/7, relax, and completely change my frame of mind for a week. I wanted a real vacation.

3 Personal Lessons From A Week Without Email

The idea of stepping away from email for a week made me a bit nervous. My organization’s customer service, marketing, and sales is run entirely through our website, email, and social media. Because it’s all Internet-based, even when I travel I normally process and respond to email.

It was no problem for my organization to live without me. However, I had trouble living without email. Here’s what I learned:

1. Email releases adrenaline. I’m was afraid to actually count, but I’ll conservatively say that I checked email and social media 15 times a day. I got an adrenaline rush checking these accounts. I loved seeing new orders and hearing from people who have taken or were thinking of taking one of our courses.

I recently installed a car stereo that connects to my phone (CarPlay). The cord is in the glovebox, so that’s where the phone sits when I drive. When stopped at traffic lights I found myself reaching for my phone to check email or Facebook. Like Pavlov’s dog, so habitual has the adrenaline rush become that any lull in activity causes me to reach for my phone. Healthy? I think not.

2. Email shifts the source of self-esteem. I was surprised by how much my ego was stroked by the constant flow of emails and social media pings. New orders, potential customers, and other indicators of progress drop into my inbox hourly. Are these things really the best indicators of who I am and how I should feel about myself?

Emails, clicks, likes, and retweets stroke the ego. As with all external means of boosting self-esteem, these ego strokes have a very short shelf-life, you need more and more. A week without email confronted me with this truth anew. I was driven to healthier internal sources of self-esteem based on what I am called to do and who I am called to be as a person.

3. Email messes with my priorities. A wide variety of opportunities, challenges, and busy-work come in emails. They add to my to-do list and unfocus my mind. I become a generalist chasing things down. Even after forwarding these emails to my admin person, I still find my brain thinking about these things or the implications of them.

I lose focus from my best contribution – the non-urgent, content-creation activities that only I can do.

As the vacation week progressed, my thinking became less cluttered. A week without emails allowed me to realign my priorities from the urgent to the meaningful. During my vacation, I spent all my time on non-urgent but meaningful things – time with my wife, kids, reading, sleeping, and laying around (yes, laying around is meaningful!). After returning home, I realigned my priorities to stay out of the clutter and instead focused on my priority activities.

How To Unplug From Email And Return To An Empty Inbox

One reason leaders are reluctant to unplug from email is the mountain of emails they face when they return to work. There is a way around this. One that has worked for me and others.

Here’s how you can avoid a full inbox when you return to the office: don’t receive any emails while you’re gone. Put a version of this notice on your email autoresponder:

Hi, I’m away on a family vacation from today until August 23, 2015 and am not receiving email during this time. The email you sent me has been DELETED and I will not see it.

If you need help before I return contact Jim at jim@mycompany.com. If there’s something I need to know about please send it to me after August 23, 2015.

Then, have your email administrator delete any new email during your vacation.

Scary? Yes. Does it work? You bet!

It’s about managing expectations. If people know you aren’t receiving their emails, they are okay with you not responding. If they really need immediate help, they will find someone besides you to help them or they’ll wait.

I used this strategy during my vacation and it worked beautifully, without one complaint. In fact, customers wrote to cheer me on and congratulate me for giving a family vacation my full attention.

Question: What have you found that works to take a vacation from your email? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    2 thoughts on “Take A Vacation From Email, Without Returning To A Full Inbox

      • Good question Duke. Anything your company sends you is also online. So, when you realize you need it, go online to access it.

        Here are a couple other variations:

        1. Use multiple email addresses. And have someone else monitor those addresses. All our customer service and sales emails go to another address (not mine).

        2. Have someone manually delete through your email. Remember, it’s saying it that’s been deleted that is important, because it sets the expectation that you won’t respond and also slows the email flow. Someone else (admin person, spouse, teammate) can actually go through your inbox and delete.