How to Unplug While You Are on Vacation

For the last few years I’ve taken a short sabbatical each summer. I’m looking to rest and focus on intense relational time with Gail. The challenge is unplugging from the Matrix.

How to Unplug While You Are on Vacation

Photo courtesy of Istockphoto/blowbackphoto

Anyone who’s attempted it can relate to the difficulty. I’m at the computer or on another device a large portion of the day, every day. I’m reading, interacting on social media, dealing with email, building my business. Plugging in is second nature. Unplugging is hard.

People use many different solutions with varying degrees of success. Some try hiding apps on their mobile devices. Others use parental controls. I read an article a while ago about a writer who actually locks his phone in a safe. And then there’s this idea, a walk-in Faraday cage to block digital signals.

That might go a little far for me. The good news is that I’ve learned a few things about unplugging since starting my sabbatical tradition. These five steps work for me:

  1. I enable a special emergency email that I only use while on sabbatical. Only my family and teammates have this email. I check this once a day.
  2. I disable all other email accounts on my desktop and mobile devices. I’m using an auto-responder to explain my absence along with Gmail’s filter function to delete all messages as they arrive. Details on the auto-responder and filter below.
  3. I delete Slack and TweetDeck on my desktop and mobile devices so I’m not tempted to check them. I will reinstall them when I return.
  4. I view Facebook via my browser, but I will only use my personal account to stay connected with family and close friends. This is entertainment for me not work. I’ll keep Instagram on my phone for the same reason.
  5. I set up a voicemail message for my phone that mirrors the auto-responder message I’m using for my email accounts.

Here’s the text of that auto-responder message. You might find it useful. I also explain how to set up the Gmail filter to remove all messages from your inbox as they arrive. It’s not quite the same thing as deleting them, but it’s close.


Thanks for your email.

I am out of the country until September 8th on my annual sabbatical. During this time I will not be checking this email account—at all.

If you have something urgent, please contact my assistant, Trivinia, at

Please note: I will be deleting all messages from this account as they arrive, using Gmail’s filter function. Why?

  1. So I don’t return to an inbox full of messages that have already been resolved.
  2. So I am not tempted to check email while I am gone. ;-)

If for some reason your issue is not resolved before I return, please re-send your message after September 8th.

Warm regards,


To set up the filter, go to your Gmail settings and select filters. When you go to add a new filter, you’ll see a window like the one below. In the “From” field, type “.” This mean the filter applies to every message.

how to unplug 1

You will get an error message on this, but you can ignore it. Once you set the parameters, click “Create filter with this search.” You’ll see a window like this one.

how to unplug 2

Make the selections you see above. You can’t actually delete the message and also trigger the vacation message. Instead, mark it as read and skip the inbox. The message won’t be deleted, but it will be automatically archived so you don’t see it when you return to your inbox.

In my experience these steps allow me to get my head out of my work and my heart into my rest.

Question: What steps do you take to unplug? How much rest do you get if you don’t? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

I am currently on sabbatical. Please excuse my absence from the comments section below. My Community Leaders will be responding in my absence. Thanks.
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  • John Richardson

    Enjoy your time away, Michael. Well deserved!

  • Eric S. Mueller

    Have a good sabbatical, Michael.
    I’ve never quite understood this obsession with unplugging and the lengths people will go to to escape their phones and Facebook accounts (I’ve heard of the Faraday cage and even the idea to bury your phone in the yard during dinner). I’ve used the same tactic all along: if I don’t feel like dealing with it, I don’t. I don’t feel the need to leave all my tech at home while on vacation, or to get an emergency number or email address. When I let too much email build up, I realize how much of it is non-essential and can be ignored.
    Someone once told me I must be a better person then they are. I said “No, but you have to remember, who is in charge: you or your phone?” Some people seem to let their phone run the show. I shut mine off when it bothers me.

    • Elizabeth Staeheli

      The most valuable part of the discussion has to do with not receiving emails while gone so that you don’t have to go through a pile of nonsense when you come back. GREAT IDEA! Thanks Michael!

  • Thomas Matty

    Ha! Unplug from the Matrix! Good analogy. I never thought of the gmail auto-responder in conjunction with the archive function. I agree, that’s a great combination. I would actually think archiving them is better than deleting them, just in case. You could always skim through your archive when you got back to see if any names or subject lines look like you need to do something. At the end of the day, the world still spins when we are not behind the wheel. It is just uncomfortable to not feel that (unwarranted) sense of control.

    • Joel J. Miller

      It’s a good way to find out what requests were really important. If you never hear back, it was probably a waste of time to begin with.

  • Leslie A

    Very helpful! Thanks! Have a great sabbatical :)

  • Brent Dumler

    Michael, I love this…and was able to practice all of this on a recent family vacation. I have to give credit to Carey Nieuwhof for offering the same tips. I’m launching a satellite church campus in 3 weeks, and yet I was able to empower team-members to handle campus issues in my absence. For 9 days I was able to completely disconnect and be present with my family. Words cannot describe how much I needed this going into this new season for our church. Thanks for this post. Great stuff. I hope your time off is just as restful.

    • Michele Cushatt

      9 days? Fabulous. Well done.

    • Wesley Wiley

      Well done Brent. My best friend is planting a church. Few people are as prone to burnout as pastors. Now the challenge will be scheduling the next one. :)

      • Brent Dumler

        Thanks. That is very true. I try for every 3 months for a brief Sabbatical.

  • Daniel Decker

    I honestly don’t do a very good job unplugging but it is an area that I hope to improve on as I scale my business and create more margin.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I have the same problem, Daniel. I periodically delete my social media apps from my phone; that helps, but it’s a struggle.

    • Michele Cushatt

      I don’t do this well either. I try to unplug from Friday 6 pm to Monday 7 am. But then I end up traveling over the weekend and it’s seemingly impossible. It seems a discipline I need to revisit (and reinvent) again and again.

  • the Old Adam

    Great piece.

    I hope I have a chance to employ these suggestions…someday.

  • Mike Mazyck

    We must
    “Divert daily -withdraw weekly –abort annually” Dr. Larry Hill
    Glad to hear you have aborted!!

    • Michele Cushatt

      Good quote. Thanks for sharing it, Mike.

  • Travis Dommert

    If I’m honest, I didn’t really expect to learn anything from this post…but rather to see validation or reinforcement for what I know I *should* do. Wrong. The auto-archive + auto-responder was brilliant.

    It is now Aug 4…almost a month since I left town for the July 4th holiday…I’m still guilted by the 100+ emails I haven’t gotten to during that period. Might have to declare email bankruptcy!

    Have a GREAT restful time. We need you fresh to inspire us with new wisdom and insights that won’t come from the office. Can’t wait to hear about it!

    • Joseph Lalonde

      Glad you were able to learn something from this post Travis. Do you think you’ll use the auto-archive next time you’re on vacation?

      • Travis Dommert

        Joe – Thanks for the question. Just being honest, I can’t say. It takes courage to get over ourselves and just trust that God can manage the world’s issues while we’re away doing our thing. (only half joking) I will commit to reread this post and lean into it. Sort of a half-hearted commitment, but I think it reflects my love-hate relationship with email.

        At times it feels like the bane of my existence, a constant current of attention-grabbing distractions. Yet, I’m also fully addicted and can hardly imagine life without it. Doing a positivity exercise recently (might have been while reading Think and Grow Rich), I came to the realization that I have a negative attitude about email.

        I realized that flipping this to a positive would require me to become in complete command of email. That I would need to find it helpful, energizing, enabling…not life-sucking.

        Michael’s had great posts on this topic, but to date, I haven’t been able to maintain a true “inbox zero” state. To make that a reality, I think I probably need to set aside a couple of “catch up” blocks of time mid-week and end of week so I can confidently get back to zero by Friday…without living in email throughout the week.

        Do you maintain a zero inbox daily or weekly? How do you do it?

        • Joseph Lalonde

          Haha, I liked how you put it that we need to get over ourselves and trust God can manage the world. It made me think of what people must have done before the invention of cell phones, mobile internet, and email. Back then, there was no way to continue to get this information while we were away from the office.

          Honestly, I tried doing Inbox Zero and gave up. Rather than give me peace, Inbox Zero gave me anxiety over trying to reach that goal. Here’s a post I wrote on why I gave up on Inbox Zero and what I do instead.

          Maybe this will help you.

          • Travis Dommert

            Thanks Joe. I could relate to your post. I’ve come up with my own method: “Inbox50″ It’s basically the level where I feel reasonably in control without feeling compulsive about it. Inbox100 is where things start to tip for me. As of this post, I’m at Inbox125. Eek. I’ve blocked an hour Wed night to get back to 50. It’s a bit of a crazy dance.

  • Travis Dommert

    Typos: “This mean the filter will apply to ever message.” …then delete this post :-)

    • Michele Cushatt

      Thanks for catching that, Travis! We’ll get it changed.

  • Ken Zimmerman Jr.

    Enjoy your sabbatical, Michael. I do usually take my laptop on vacations but I get up several hours earlier than everyone else, so I check it in the morning and then put it up. One thing that I have been doing lately that does not involve vacation is my phone stays in my pocket at family and friend gatherings. I don’t want to me distracted but fully involved in the function. Thanks for sharing the gmail tip.

  • John West

    Recently I left for a trip and forgot my phone behind by accident. It was a terrifying at first however I began to enjoy not being connected and frankly believe my trip was more enjoyable because of this!

    • Michele Cushatt

      I intentionally left my phone at home for a mission trip to Haiti a couple years ago. I was completely shocked by how unmoored I felt without it for the first 24 hours. THEN, I got oh-so-used to it, and almost didn’t want to go home.

  • Bill Prettyman

    Michael, thanks for sharing your tips for unplugging especially of all business related mobile apps. One other idea that has worked for me is not to check business email at all and not provide any outlet for our team. They will learn to grow and handle issues on their own. I instruct our team to interrupt me only in the event of the building burning down via a phone call and even then call our insurance agent not me! I also tell our team not to check email or voice mail while they are gone and I do not expect them to work on vacation. Also, I will not call them so they will do the same for me.

  • Frank Gustafson

    Funny… I’m reading this while on vacation…

    • Michele Cushatt

      Hahaha. Here’s hoping you don’t see this comment for a few days, Frank! :)

      • Kathleen Thompson

        Yeah, Frank. Enjoy the time with your family!

  • Paul Jolicoeur

    Have a great break Michael, I hope it is full of rest and meaningful time with Gail!

  • Melanie Fischer

    Funny!! I am on vacation as I am reading this post. I have been pondering what is a “healthy” amount of staying connected while submerged in a time of recharge. I have basically been able to limit my time for checking emails then otherwise leave my devices in my room and enjoy a quiet “unplugged” time…unless I am using my phone to take pictures of course. Thank you for these suggestions Michael, I am going to try a few of them also! Enjoy your break!

  • Paul Copcutt

    We have a family camp week every year and the kids were the ones who wanted ‘no technology’ week. That means total switch off and the cell phone reception is bad anyway. A week away is not a great deal of time like a sabbatical so I just play catch up on my return. I love the experience of totally switching off and I have yet to experience a personal brand emergency! Just my toonies worth.

    • Joseph Lalonde

      Going to a place with bad cell phone coverage is a great way to get away from the digital urgency of wanting to answer the incoming phone calls and messages.

  • JoAnne Henein

    My Unplug :: 1. Drive away to an activity to look forward to, especially involving the ocean. 2. Fly away to an international location, visit family & friends – really revives the soul.

    • Joseph Lalonde

      Awesome ways of unplugging JoAnne!

  • kimanzi constable

    Enjoy your trip Michael and Gail! I’ve definitely learned to unplug and only do work during those times allotted since moving to Maui. We’re a mile from the ocean and I can’t check email in there :)

  • Kathleen Thompson

    I love the filtering tip. I’m going to use that the next time. I also like the emergency e-mail account. Mostly what I do is just not look at my phone until the end of the day. I figure if something is truly important, people will text me. And when I do look at it, I skim. Filtering e-mails out will definitely cut down on post-vacation clutter.

  • Joseph Lalonde

    I tend to leave the laptop at home and rarely check the phone. Most things aren’t that important anyways.

    And have fun on your trip! You work so hard you deserve a bit of time off.

  • Kristin Ingram

    I think a cruise is very similar to the Faraday cage. I’m not willing to spend money for the wi-fi service on the boat so as soon as we leave the home port, I switch off my phone and don’t turn it back on again until we return. It is the most freeing thing. I always put an away message on my email but I really like your idea of archiving all the messages. I’ll try that next time.

  • Sharon Spano

    Thanks, Michael, for this great information. I was in Europe in the spring and did a great job of unplugging because I was on a river cruise of the Rhine, however, I didn’t do as well once on dry land. One thing I do on Sundays, almost without fail, is curl up with a good book in the afternoon and rest. The book is often just a prop for a nap, but if I don’t take that time for R&R with my husband and my book, I find I’m not as rested as I should be on Monday.

    Enjoy your time with Gail. You both deserve it. I have no doubt that you’ll come back with yet another great product on how best to travel Europe. So much to see and so inspirational. Think about it!

  • Peace in Timor

    I guess one way of “unplugging” is going somewhere you have no cell or Internet service available… For example hiking or camping… For me I feel confident I can leave work without worrying when I have solid handover notes and a meeting with my team to make sure everything is covered. This should be simple if you have been communicating with your team all along, so they have an idea already of what is going on. That said, I love the tip about deleting the messages in the inbox until the day I get back… might use that one. :)

  • Wesley Wiley

    I’m taking a vacation next week. Thinking of leaving the laptop, just taking one book and journal. Put phone in airplane mode and just use it as a camera.

  • Joy Healey

    Oh no! Saw this just AFTER I returned from 2 weeks “off the matrix” – due to a wonderful 2 week cruise – but with Internet access costing 50p a minute WOW, I wasn’t even tempted.

    Almost finished wading through the rubbish – and yes, most of it WAS rubbish, but I so wish I had seen your toolbox before I went. Look forward to learning what I should have done – and taking another holiday to test it out!


  • Simon Villeneuve

    Wow, great thoughts. Thanks!