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.