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The Sensible Case for Totally Ignoring All the E-mails You Miss on Vacation

You now have permission to open your inbox, select all, and archive on your first day back at work

After less than a week at Lake George this summer, Matthew Harrigan came back from vacation to find 596 unread e-mails waiting for him. It took the managing director of Grand Central Tech, a New York City-based startup incubator, a full day to get through his inbox—and most of it was garbage. "Just over 12 percent is all that I’m reading," Harrigan said. "The rest I’m just deleting."

It's a digital trap that quickly drains the reservoir of relaxation from time off. But there is a way to escape the post-vacation e-mail hangover. What if Harrigan and millions of workers all decided to skip the exhausting, futile ritual of sifting through hundreds of mostly unimportant messages? Why not just disregard the e-mails received while away altogether, forever and always?

Come Tuesday, after the three-day Labor Day weekend, follow these simple steps: Open your e-mail software, select all, and archive. It's that simple. The first day back doesn't have to sap the precious energy surplus gained while away from work—not if you ignore all the e-mails received while away. End the summer without the burden of old e-mails. 

To those who practice Inbox Zero or like to maintain a certain level of digital decorum, this might sound rude, bordering on insane. "We want to be responsive, your ability to be responsive is a currency," says Harrigan. But there's a way to avoid the vacation e-mail deluge without offending the wrong people or missing a critical task. 

Most e-mail is so inconsequential that we ignore it most of the time anyway. Open rates on e-mails hover somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent. Those stats go way down the longer a message sits in an inbox: A 2011 study by Mailer Mailer found e-mail's half-life to be six hours. That's because a lot of the e-mail we get, especially at work, has an expiration date. Someone wants something in a given period of time. Often that time passes while we're away on vacation. This makes sifting through an inbox full of old messages all the more pointless.

Yet we justify the time spent reading (or at least scanning) piles of old messages because of the potential to uncover a can't-be-missed request. For many of us, those e-mails don't exist. Increasingly, internal office communication happens via such group chatting tools as Slack or HipChat. Earlier this summer, in a sign of this shift, Slack announced it had amassed 1.1 million daily active users. One of the advantages of these tools is that a message from a boss or close colleague that you most need to see will trigger a push notification on your smartphone.

For those employees more critical to the day-to-day operations of a business, like Harrigan, some e-mails may fall into the essential bucket. One way to avoid coming back to a never-ending inbox is to check in periodically while on vacation, which many of us already do. A 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 44 percent of Americans reported checking work e-mail on vacations.

But going on vacation loses its utility if you're also working or worrying about work. "If you don't actually turn off, you come back exhausted," says Harrigan. "If you try to relax and cover everything at the same time, you’re just in constant angst."

Catherine Campbell, who runs the marketing firm Bright Planning, suggests hiring a virtual assistant like Zirtual. Or, at some offices, a colleague might cover your inbox for you. 

If handing over your inbox feels too intimate, use the out-of-office auto-reply to your advantage. Campbell coaches her clients to "break out of the standard box" of imagining that any e-mail could be urgent: "If this is an emergency ...." Her advice: "Actually redirect them to where they need to go." That might mean offering a co-worker's contact information or including a link to a company's Frequently Asked Questions page.

Some people take a more passive-aggressive route, putting the reason for their absence, as noted in a recent New York Times piece. The out-of-office reply can also signal the date you'll return, hinting at a more strategic time to send, or resend, a message. "I'd be fine with the followup afterward, [rather] than me digging nine days into e-mail to find someone's note," James daSilva, an editor at SmartBrief, explains in a Twitter message. As a courtesy, Harrigan suggests embedding a link in the auto-reply that includes a calendar notification for the date of return. "I’m reminding you that I’m back and please start sending me whatever," he says. 

Some people, such as the venture capitalist Brad Feld, go for a more direct approach. His auto-responder for vacations lasting longer than two weeks declares the following: "I will not be reading this e-mail. When I return, I’m archiving everything and starting with an empty inbox." After vacation he skims his Gmail account for anything important and then archives everything else. He doesn't worry that he will miss something. "Some pop back up, and all are available on search," he says. If that cavalier approach sounds stressful, consider using an e-mail organizational tool, such as Mailstrom, that helps nuke messages en masse. 

Harrigan wishes he could have an out-of-office message more like Feld's, something like:

Thanks for your note. I will be out of town until X date, and won't be checking my e-mail. When I return on X+1 I will delete all e-mail I received while I was gone that is not bank/billing related. Otherwise I, like you, spend a full day frantically reacting to what I meant to leave behind when I went on vacation and spend the last day(s) of my vacation dreading that that day is coming. I'm sure you know the feeling. SO, if you're receiving this message and it's urgent that you hear from me, please write me anew on X+1 date and I will gladly respond as soon as I can thereafter.

After hearing about Feld's approach, Harrigan decided to try something closer to his dream auto-response for his next vacation even if the tactic makes him slightly self-conscious. Harrigan worries people might find it too presumptuous, as though he is too important for their silly little messages. But he swears it comes from a good place.

"All I’m trying to do is look out for people," he says. "When we’re on vacation, let’s not send each other e-mails." 

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