As I discuss in my series of posts on email, one of the best practices for email management is to process your email inbox to zero every day. This is both doable and fundamental to effective workflow.
But there are times when your overall workflow is best served by taking a few days off from email — by taking an email vacation, even though you continue to do your other work during that time.
Why Email Vacations Can Be Helpful
Why would you need to take an email vacation? Well, sometimes you might have a project that is so large that it deserves concentrated focus for a period of several days. Checking your email during this period can disrupt your flow and take you out of the zone, thus diminishing your effectiveness and extending the time the project takes. Plus, email could open up a long rabbit trail that will take you away from the project entirely.
Other times, you may have just had enough and need a break. This is OK. In fact, sometimes you can find yourself in a vicious cycle where accomplishing email-related work is simply creating more work. You feel like you aren’t getting anywhere because completing things is just opening up way more loops that need to be addressed. Sometimes the best way to address that situation is to step away from email for a day or two and let things settle out.
Being productive is not about gutting out your email regardless of how you feel or what your situation is. Rather, being productive is precisely what enables you to take the time to step back, gain perspective, and take a day or two away from email. In fact, this is not only made possible by being productive, but is probably a necessary part of the foundation for remaining productive.
As I write this, this idea is beginning to feel more radical than I first thought, even though I have done this off and on for many years. It feels very strange to say “take a day or two away from email if you need.” That feels risky. And if you did it arbitrarily, it would be. So let me give you an example and then a few principles.
Here’s an example. We just moved into a new house, and so we have had all of the unpacking and organizing and various stuff that goes along with a move. So I just took a five day email vacation to finish this up as quickly as possible. (By the way, for anyone wondering from my earlier comment whether there could be any type of project that doesn’t require email, this is one example!)
The open loops involved in needing to get your house put away and office setup are the kind that create drag on your life if not dealt with quickly. So I decided it would be most effective to shut email off and get the remaining things done in 5 days rather than also do all my regular email and online stuff during that time and extend the project to 8 days or more. Also, I like being able to focus like this.
It just so happened that these last 5 days fell over the Thanksgiving holiday. So, one could object that this really wasn’t an email holiday — most people had a long weekend. But that gets to one of the key principles in all this: you need to time your email vacations strategically. I intentionally put my “email vacation” during a time when it would have minimal impact on my ongoing responsibilities. (Plus, I normally would have kept up with email at least 3 out of those 5 days, so this was a real email vacation.)
Another thing I wanted to do over the holiday was relax, and the email break served that as well. Finishing all the move-in stuff, plus keeping up with my email, would have likely meant that email would have actually taken the place of the time I needed to spend relaxing with my family.
Now, because I took 5 days away from email, I’m in a much better place to keep up with my email and ongoing responsibilities this week with minimal drag (not having all the move-in stuff hanging over my head and diverting my focus). By segmenting the last part of my move-in project from email, rather than doing both currently, both are actually accomplished more quickly.
So this email vacation was not contrary to being effective with email, but actually served that cause. And it is not contrary to the fundamental principle of processing your email to zero every day, but rather is one of the primary benefits of keeping up with email.
What Makes Email Vacations Possible
In other words, processing email to zero every day is precisely what makes email vacations possible. First, if you are current with your email, you don’t need to worry that you are forgetting about some huge task buried in your inbox. Second, because you know you’ll be getting your email right back to zero in a few days and be right back on top of things.
Best Practices for Email Vacations
Last, let me suggest a few best practices for taking email vacations. First, I already mentioned that you should time them strategically. Don’t take them arbitrarily (although sometimes you will spontaneously need to take one, which is just fine), but seek to place them in spots that will create minimal disruption.
Second, remain available by other means for important matters that are highly urgent. For example, the people you work with should know they can reach you by phone or text message whenever there is an immediate need.
Third, if you are taking more than a one-day email vacation and its during the work-week, it’s probably the best idea to create an auto response saying you’ll be away from email. I didn’t do this (sorry) because I forgot, but the fact that my 5-day email vacation was over a holiday weekend reduced the need for that.