How to Better Manage Email On Your Next Vacation

Whenever you are about to embark upon a vacation, the question of email inevitability comes up. Will you remain online, go offline, or try a hybrid of the two? In this post I provide a brief overview of these options and the system I will use on my upcoming sabbatical.

A Faucet That Has Just Been Turned Off - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #2708720

Photo courtesy of ©

First of all, I have experience with all three of these options:

  • Remaining online. I think this is usually a bad idea. I have done it many times, and I never feel rested at the end of my vacation. So much of our lives happen online today. If you remain online, nothing really changes except the scenery.
  • Going offline. I try to do this at least twice a year. It is like a digital fast. It detoxes the soul, relieving you from the constant ping of the outside world. It takes courage to do this, but it is well-worth the initial effort it takes to unplug.
  • Trying a hybrid. For me, this is the best option most of the time. It means that I remain online but set strict boundaries for what I will and won’t do. This gives me the freedom to continue researching and writing, without feeling obligated to reply to every email.

The key to pulling off the last option is intention. You must be proactive, outlining a plan and sticking to it. This is the approach I am taking for my upcoming sabbatical.

The basic premise is that I will continue to blog. (For me, this is how I process what I am learning. It is also a creative expression, akin to painting for some people.) I also want to be able to hear from my family and close friends. I also plan to engage in the comments on my blog and in twitter—but to a more limited extent.

For me, the key is eliminating 90% of the emails I receive. That is the part that is taxing. Since being responsive is so important to me—it is now part of my DNA—this means I have to have a system that gets these emails out of my field of vision, so I don’t feel obligated to read and reply to them.

Here’s the system I am using:

  1. Create an out-of-office message that sets expectations. For example, mine says:

    I am on a sabbatical until Wednesday, June 15th. Unless you are a member of my family or a close friend, I will not see your email until I get back. If you have something that requires my immediate attention, please re-send your email with the word “urgent” somewhere in the subject line.



    I doubt that this will get abused. At the very least, it forces the sender to re-evaluate the message and ask whether it is truly urgent.

  2. Use email rules to manage the flow of email. If you haven’t discovered the power of email rules, you are missing out. Most email programs (Outlook and Apple Mail) have this built-in. I place these rules at the end of any others that handle normal processing. Each one is a separate email rule:
    • Urgent. This rule tests the message to see if the word “urgent” (as per my out-of-office message) appears in the subject line. If it is, it leaves the message in my inbox. (In Apple Mail, I chose the “Stop evaluating rules action.”)
    • Family. This rule tests the message to see if it is from a member of my family. If it is, it leaves the email in my inbox. (Again, using the “Stop evaluating rules action.”)
    • Friends. This rule tests the message to see if it is from a close, personal friend. If it is, it leaves the email in my inbox. I have a small list of people here, all of whom know I am on a sabbatical, so I know they won’t abuse this.
    • Business Associates. This rule tests the message to see if it is from a handful of business associates. If it is, it leaves the email in my inbox. This includes my accountant, the person who handles my speaking requests, and a few key people at Thomas Nelson.
    • Sweep Remaining. If the message meets one of the above criteria, the program stops, leaving the message in my inbox. However, if it doesn’t, then this rule moves the message to a folder called “After Sabbatical.” If you want, you can also mark the message as read, so the message count does not distract you.
  3. Implement the plan. You might want to notify your family, friends, and key business associates what you are doing and set their expectations as well. Now simply turn the system on and enjoy your vacation.

This system is not perfect. Your email is still available in folder that you can get to. However, it will be out of your direct line of sight.

The best option would be to redirect the mail to another email account entirely. However, I found that this function did not work reliably in Apple Mail. In researching this on Google, I found others who reported the same experience.

The bottom line is that this system sweeps 90% of the messages I receive on a daily basis, leaving only those message that I intentionally want to see.

Question: What system do you use for managing email when you are on vacation? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Anonymous

    I fall into the category of those who don’t check their emails when they are on vacation. Certainly a rarity in my field (legal community), but unplugging completely is what’s best for me. Those who need to contact me certainly are able to call. Otherwise, I’ll check (and clean) my inbox when I return.

  • Anonymous

     I have always tried to make vacation “vacation” but it usually never works out that way.  I never stay fully off line with a Smartphone, but I do not turn the computer on.  I set up out of office responses for my e-mail and I set up rules to try and make the e-mail easier to work.  I have e-mails from newsletters and other items that I read go to a read/review file.  I then do a forward rule for messages from people that I want to see while I am on vacation.  I have them forwarded to my person e-mail that I get on my phone.  I have work related request moved to a Work! folder that I review when I return.  I do the same with e-mails related to the ministry and so forth.  This limits the amount of e-mails that I have to read on vacation.       

  • Robert Blackburn, Jr

    Great advice! Do you set up the rules in MobileMe webmail  or on the in the
    laptop Mail application? If the latter, doesn’t the laptop need to be on to
    process the rules?

    • Michael Hyatt

      I set them on my laptop and, yes, it has to be one. If you do it on the server side (MobileMe, Gail, etc.) it is better, because (a) it is aways on and (2) you will not see the emails until you are ready.

      • Robert Blackburn, Jr

        Thanks for the clarification. If it is better on the server side, why the laptop? Won’t they still show up in Mail, just in the MobileMe list? (I have used rules extensively in Win Outlook, but only in Mac Mail for spam deletion.)

        • Michael Hyatt

          Because it is more difficult for the average, non-tech user to set up. Also, not every user has access to server-side rules. One other factor, is that the redirect (rather than simply forward) function is not reliable in every situation. You want the redirect, so that the headers remain in tact and you can reply directly from where you sent the message.

  • Todd

    We just got back from Hawaii. The wife & I both needed to stay in touch with work, so we set a rule that we’d spend just one hour each day (usually in the evening) messing with it.

  • wendy

    I asked myself once, “Why do I like the dentist so much?”  That wonderful chair offered 30 minutes of freedom!  I found it very difficult to be digitally connected/obligated to my networks when saying ahh…(You know you’re in trouble when a root canal sounds delightful).

    Once a year, our family takes a true vacation.  For 7 days, we are unavailable to the outside world.  I also made the decision to adopt this mindset while watching my my son play baseball twice a week.  (He is young, so games don’t last beyond an hour and a half). 
    The world survives without me.  It was hard at first and I felt accountable to the people listed as missed calls.  I simply re-recorded my voice mail message and auto respond to e-mails with a specific time I would return calls etc. 

    You’re absolutely right, the key is to set informative parameters.  It allows/reminds us to enjoy a physical, conscious, hands on, won’t miss a home run, play red light green light with your kids…LIFE!  

  • Jplynch04

    Michael thanks for the wisdom above and thanks for the website.  I just recently discovered via Donald Miller.  I have promoted the fool out of your website here recently and think what you do has proved to be a great tool to share with both those of the faith and those who are not. 

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks so much for your support. I really do appreciate it.

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  • Jon

     I have a Google Android phone and redirect mails to my personal Google account. I then have filters set up for various things, such as a filter for anything to a specific mail address (that has been forwarded) to send the mails into a specific folder (labels in Gmail) or filters for emails from certain domains which I have identified as sending a lot through which I seldom really read. So as much as possible is taken off the inbox view. I just reply (when a reply is needed) from the personal gmail account, explaining why the different email address (if I feel it needs an explanation). 

    The only thing with this method is that without good filters it is hard to tell what is redirected in and what came direct. A few times I have replied without realising the mail was actually sent to a company mail address. Oh well!

    • Michael Hyatt

      You can also use one email account to fetch email from your others. The cool thing about this is that it retains the headers intact, so when you reply, you are replying from the original email address.

      • Jon

        I will definitely look into that, I was thinking that it must be possible to reply from the original email somehow.

        • Michael Hyatt

          In Gmail, look under Mail Settings | Accounts. You add additional accounts to pull your email in. You will have to know the email and password for each account you want to add. I also had to have our IT guys turn on the POP function of the Exchange mail server. But now it works beautifully.

  • bethanyplanton

     I am using your out of office reply as a template for setting up mine for when I will be on my honeymoon this summer. Thanks for posting it. It is a great guide. 

    • Michael Hyatt

      Great. I am glad you found it helpful.

      • bethanyplanton

        I always wanted to be direct in it but was slightly worried I was too direct. But since your example had no fluff, I am not worried now. 

  • Keith

    I’ve got a great tool for you. – I’ve used them for several vacations and absolutely love it. It allows me to send a “vacation message” and says if it’s urgent then use this to text me or notify me. It sets the same threshold and super easy to use.

    When I first used it 2 years ago it was the first time I’d gone without checking email for 3 consecutive days in years.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I have heard of that. I will check them out. Thanks.

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  • telavivvacationapartment

    I really appreciate this and thank you for this,and I am also enjoy reading this.

  • telavivvacationapartment

    i like this post its very informative since vacation is past approaching this will help the travelers a lot to prepare to another vacation 

  • telavivvacationapartment

    really travelers will learn about the rules on how to spend vacation there are many rules to be consider its not you have to prepare your vacation

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