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Going 'unplugged' doesn't have to lead to an e-mail meltdown

Afraid turning off your phone or computer for an extended period will cause your inbox to explode? Try it, and you might be surprised -- more relaxed, too.

Kindle Fire e-mail icon
Screenshot by Ed Rhee

This is the story of email and two vacations. Three, really. Because I'm on vacation now, totally unplugged.

Disconnecting is a lesson I learned from my breaks last year. I found that I could indeed walk away from e-mail and not come back with an out-of-control inbox. Maybe you can, too.

Last summer, I took two separate vacations, each lasting one week. During the first, I tried to stay on top of my e-mail. I didn't want to have a relaxing time off only to find 1,000 or more emails awaiting me upon my return.

I'd grab an hour or two each day, when everyone was back from the beach and snoozing during the hottest part of the day. I figured, "Why not?" The family was on downtime, so I could fire up the laptop and knock back at the e-mail. Of course, I always had my phone throughout the day, making it easy to constantly keep up on my e-mail.

It was a success from the standpoint of keeping my inbox fairly empty. By the time I got back, I had around 30 items within it, about the same as when I left. I felt pretty good about that. But I didn't, upon reflection, feel like my vacation let me relax much.

Going unplugged
A month later, I had another week off. This time I went totally unplugged. Once we got to our destination, the computer was off and stayed off. My phone, too. There was no checking of e-mail each day.

I was nervous about what would happen. I'd never taken that much time away from my e-mail for over a decade. To prepare, I made use of an auto-responder. You know, one of those "I'm away at the moment" type of messages that can be set to go out to everyone who e-mails you (though the auto-responder in Gmail that I used -- "Vacation Responder" -- is smart enough not to keep sending those messages to the same people over and over again).

Vacation responder within Gmail. Danny Sullivan

The concept of an auto-responder wasn't new to me. I just hadn't used one much over the years, given my always-stay-connected mentality. Going unplugged taught me just how powerful they can be.

Talk to the auto-responder, because I'm on vacation
This became clear when I finally switched back on after a week of being disconnected, in the airport before the flight home. I figured that was a good time to do my catch-up, on the trip back. I'd pull down all my mail and deal with it as much of it as I could, on the long flight.

The wireless went on; the email downloaded, filling my inbox with around 1,500 items. But before my flight boarded, in less than two hours, I'd gotten my inbox down to around 60 messages. I was amazed, but the auto-responder was a key part of it.

My auto-responder told people trying to reach me to instead contact one of my other Search Engine Land editors, if they had a coverage issue or a related question. I could belatedly witness how well it worked. The original request would come in, then I'd see the person almost immediately send a follow-up request to my other editors. Suddenly, I was out-of-the-loop. Things were being handled in my absence, without anyone needing to wait for a response from me.

It was also amazing how well the auto-responder helped with the "lazy web" questions that come in. People would e-mail asking if I knew an answer to a question about this or that. They'd get my message, then often they'd respond a day or two later telling me they found the answer on their own. Asked and answered, and with me being completely out of it.

Filtering, unsubscribing & conversation view
There were other things that helped. Before I left, I created filters in Gmail to automatically delete messages from some e-mail discussion lists that I'm on. It was sort of a "vacation hold" for them, which I lifted when I got back. I didn't really miss anything by doing this, given that important discussons or topics crop back up.

About two weeks ahead of going unplugged, I also took a hard look at the e-mail coming in and began aggressively unsubscribing from many mailing lists that I'd been added to over the years. Did I really need that boring weekly e-mail from a sporting goods store I once bought something from? Nope. Rather than just deleting that and other e-mails as part of my daily routine, I looked for and used unsubscribe options to stop them entirely.

Another big help was the Conversation view within Outlook. I was already using that view as part of my regular e-mail routine. But it really proved a power tool when dealing with a week's worth of e-mail. Having similar e-mails grouped together made it much easier to go through and dispose of stuff no longer relevant. 

Of course, Gmail users are familiar with Conversation view. It's the default there. It's also offered in many other web-based and software-based e-mail programs (and may be called things like "threaded" or "grouped"). If you haven't tried it, consider switching that view on. Many e-mail services and programs also offer filters or rules you can create to delete certain types of e-mail, as I did with Gmail. Similarly, auto-responders are pretty common.

You have an "off" switch; use it
Don't get lost in tips like those above or others and miss the most important tip of all. Regardless of what email program you use, what special features it may have, only you can toggle your own "off" switch.

Yes, you can let go. Things can work themselves out. During my first trip, I tried to stay on top of everything. Each e-mail seemed relevant. But by letting go, telling those reaching out to me that I wasn't around, my email backlog largely resolved itself.

Obviously, going away from your e-mail is going to be easier if you have coworkers or others who can cover for you while you're gone. But that's how vacation was supposed to work for many of us anyway. You take time off, and coworkers cover when you're away, as you cover for them.

Just because we live in an always-connected world doesn't mean that we always have to stay connected. Nor does disconnecting have to mean more work for when you get back. If you've been afraid of unplugging, I highly recommend you try it, even for extended weekends or those days when you just need a day off.