Ready for your break? Crafting a vacation email message

It’s that time of the year again: summer has officially started, so hopefully you’re one of the lucky ones who gets to enjoy a few weeks of vacation! But… I can already feel your dread for that inbox upon return. Hundreds if not thousands of emails to sift through.

Despair not. With a little preparation, returning to that mailbox doesn’t have to be as bad as you imagine. Here are three easy steps to ease the pain and prepare that perfect vacation email message.

1. Before: filters are your friend

A little preparation during the week before your vacation can go a long way. It doesn’t have to take much time either:

  1. Monitor your mail in the week(s) before your holiday.
  2. Notice which mails are never important. Not only the obvious ones like newsletters you don’t actually read. Also those from people who always put you in cc but you never read nor need their correspondence anyway.
    Now set up mail filters according to what you’ve learned. Let your mail program send them to a specific folder (“review post-holiday”), mark specific mails as important or delete some of them entirely.

Getting this right can make a tremendous difference in the amount of emails that will be staring you in the face upon return.

2. Departure: an effective vacation email message (auto-responder)

This is the obvious one, but how you set it up can have a lot of influence on how much mail you’ll have to deal with when you come back. Here are a bunch of ideas on email-reducing auto-responders:

  1. Surprising subject line. Make the subject of your mail not something obvious like “Out of Office blablabla”. Most people will instantly delete such a message. If you want your recipients to read any of the below, get creative so they will actually open and read your auto-responder (e.g. “In case you don’t hear from me, this might be why…”, “I’m currently sipping cocktails”, “Do you know that joke about…”)
  2. Your stated return date. Add one or two days to your actual return date if at all possible. This will allow you to catch up on your mail, without people expecting you to already be back. You can even add your return date in the subject line, so you’re sure people will notice.
  3. Read-only policy. Tell people you will only be reading emails sent during the entire period. Unless they forward the mail again with a certain prefix, you’ll assume a reply is not necessary anymore. In most mail clients you can even distinguish between external mails and internal company mails, so you could apply this “policy” only to internal communication from colleagues.
  4. Put it on the sender. Auto-reply with: “If you haven’t heard from me by date x, could you please resend your mail if it’s still relevant? Thanks so much!” You can then briefly scan through all mails and pick out the ones you think need a response based on subject, knowing those you might miss will get resend to you anyway.
  5. Revert to phone. Tell the sender you will not be replying to all email you get during your vacation, but… if they reply with their phone number, you’ll give them a call as soon as you’re back. This saves a lot of back and forth mails and shows you do value communicating with them.

3. After: make it last

You don’t even want to think about this moment right now, but the day will come: you return to the real world and have to get back to work. There are a few things you can learn from your vacation email overload to make day-to-day life just a tiny bit easier as well:

  1. Newsletter cleanup: post-vacation is a good moment to unsubscribe from any mailing lists you’re not reading anyway. With your inbox stuffed from one or more weeks of unread mail, it’ll be easy to judge which newsletters you’ve really missed and which ones you couldn’t care less about. This is the moment to unsubscribe!
  2. Filters (second act): in similar fashion, seeing weeks worth of mail at a glance (instead of everything trickling in throughout a day) can give you new insights into some additional and useful filters you might want to set up. Do this now.

That’s it. Pack your bags, you and your inbox are ready for a well-deserved break!

1 Comment Ready for your break? Crafting a vacation email message

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