Balance

Cure for the holiday inbox hangover

Special to The Globe and Mail

Working during the holidays. (proxyminder/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Patricia Katz is a Saskatoon-based consultant who writes the Pause blog and e-newsletter. So as you might expect, she will take a pause from updating those – and, more generally, from her e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts – during the upcoming holidays.

If you relish a similar chance to refresh, she and two other consultants I contacted have some advice on actions before, during, and after the holidays to make such a break effective, including the suggestion that you refuse afterwards to look at any e-mail sent your way during the time off.

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Ms. Katz asks herself who she needs to connect with before the holidays in order to not be bothered while away. For example, she will be running an important program for a client in January, so they discussed what preparatory work is required before the holidays.

Jason Womack, a California-based productivity consultant, delved through his send folder a couple of weeks ago in a pre-emptive strike to learn who he has been in contact with lately, and then advised them that he would be off starting this coming Monday, so if they needed something from him in the near future they should let him know immediately.

Mike Song, a Connecticut-based consultant, sees the pre-holiday break and the start of a new year as an opportunity to review how you handle e-mail. Peruse your deleted e-mails, and note who are the low-priority senders who have been gobbling up your time. Then create filters that will automatically forward that mail to other folders – junk, for those to which that sobriquet fits, or specially created folders for items like mileage points that you should only scan once every few weeks. “Probably 30 to 40 per cent of your e-mail is from low-priority senders. And attacking that now means it won’t pile up during your vacation, when it will bug you on your return,” he says.

At the same time, despite the pre-holiday crunch, he urges you to upgrade your communication with high-priority contacts from the one-way e-mail mode to more interactive forms. Initiate a Skype video call, in which you see each other, exchange holiday greetings, and chat about holiday plans. Or opt for instant messaging, with its back-and-forth connectivity. “Any two-way communication builds camaraderie,” he says.

As for an away message, Ms. Katz suggests it convey a human touch, probably with some humour, such as: “Toasting my toes with Santa on the fireplace.” At the same time, she believes it should declare you won’t look at e-mail during the holiday – or, more importantly, afterwards at any that arrive during the holiday period – and ask the person to respect that approach by saving any messages until you return. “It takes some courage to scroll through e-mail when you return and trash them,” she admits.

But the issue, the consultants note, is that we often insist we won’t look at e-mail during the vacation but then accede to temptation and novelty, which suck us into work and devalues our previous efforts to dampen e-mail. “When people are honest and transparent, it leads to a pause that doesn’t surprise anybody,” says Mr. Womack.

At the same time, when I asked him whether I should look at e-mail during the vacation – usually I try, often fruitlessly, to limit myself to once a day – he says, “that’s a black and white question that only has a grey answer.” Indeed, he suspects your family members will tell you to be off e-mail totally during the vacation, but if you follow them 24-7, would probably catch them at some point at a screen.

Mr. Song counsels you to turn off your e-mail: “Just relax. Recharge your batteries. Don’t worry about e-mail and focus on your personal life.” If that’s too tall an order, he suggests just scanning e-mail, but not responding. In that vein, he suggests before the break setting up a personal account where family members and close friends can contact you, but not business associates.

When you return to work, the e-mail box will likely be jammed. The solution is triage, attacking highest priority matters first. But Mr. Womack says you can make it less pressured by advising colleagues in advance you will take a day or two to get back up to speed.

Mr. Song expects to come back to a few hundred e-mails in January, and will reply to as few as possible – only those that truly require a response. That’s important because studies show e-mail begets e-mail, so the less you send the less you will receive back. He suggests flipping through the inbox, putting flags on the top 10 to 20 messages. Then sort the inbox by flags, so those rise to the top, and deal with them first. With the rest, schedule two-hour blocks of time to handle them.

Ms. Katz suggests before you hit the e-mail stack, join your colleagues for coffee. Find out what has been happening. She points to a friend, a university official, who was frustrated by the immense e-mail backlog after a vacation, deleted them all, and opted for coffee. She got up-to-speed quickly, few people ever approached her over e-mails she had deleted, and for those who did she simply asked for a resend.

If it’s any consolation, most other people will be off or on reduced hours when you’re away, so this holiday will be easier in handling e-mail than your next vacation. Consider this a test run for that bigger challenge.



Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life balance column.

E-mail Harvey Schachter

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