Most email is so inconsequential that we ignore it most of the time anyway. Open rates on emails hover somewhere between 20 and 40 percent.
After less than a week at Lake George this summer, Matthew Harrigan came back from vacation to find 596 unread emails waiting for him. It took the managing director of Grand Central Tech, a New York City-based startup incubator, a full day to get through his inbox — and most of it was garbage.
“Just over 12 percent is all that I’m reading,” Harrigan said. “The rest I’m just deleting.”
It’s a digital trap that quickly drains the reservoir of relaxation from time off. But there is a way to escape the post-vacation email hangover. What if Harrigan and millions of workers all decided to skip the exhausting, futile ritual of sifting through hundreds of mostly unimportant messages? Why not just disregard the emails received while away altogether, forever and always?
Come Tuesday, after the three-day Labor Day weekend, follow these simple steps: Open you email software, select all and archive. It’s that simple.
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To those who practice Inbox Zero or like to maintain a certain level of digital decorum, this might sound rude, bordering on insane.
But there’s a way to avoid the vacation email deluge without offending the wrong people or missing a critical task.
Most email is so inconsequential that we ignore it most of the time anyway. Open rates on emails hover somewhere between 20 and 40 percent. Those stats go way down the longer a message sits in an inbox: A 2011 study by Mailer Mailer found email’s half-life to be six hours. That’s because a lot of the email we get, especially at work, has an expiration date. Someone wants something in a given period of time. Often that time passes while we’re away on vacation. This makes sifting through an inbox full of old messages all the more pointless.
Yet we justify the time spent reading (or at least scanning) piles of old messages because of the potential to uncover a can’t-be-missed request. For many of us, those emails don’t exist. Increasingly, internal office communication happens via group chatting tools like Slack or Hipchat.
Catherine Campbell, who runs the marketing firm Bright Planning, suggests hiring a virtual assistant like Zirtual. Or, at some offices, a colleague might cover your inbox for you.
If handing over your inbox feels too intimate, use the out of office auto-reply to your advantage. Campbell coaches her clients to “break out of the standard box” of imagining that any email could be urgent: “If this is an emergency …”
Her advice: “Actually redirect them to where they need to go.” That might mean offering a co-worker’s contact information or including a link to a company’s FAQ page.
Some people, like the venture capitalist Brad Feld, go for a more direct approach. His auto-responder for vacations lasting longer than two weeks declares the following: “I will not be reading this email. When I return, I’m archiving everything and starting with an empty inbox.”
If that cavalier approach sounds stressful, consider using an email-organizational tool, like Mailstrom, that helps nuke messages en masse.
Harrigan wishes he could have an out-of-office message more like Feld’s, something like:
Thanks for your note. I will be out of town until X date, and won’t be checking my email. When I return on X+1 I will delete all email I received while I was gone that is not bank/billing related. Otherwise I, like you, spend a full day frantically reacting to what I meant to leave behind when I went on vacation and spend the last day(s) of my vacation dreading that that day is coming. I’m sure you know the feeling. SO, if you’re receiving this message and it’s urgent that you hear from me, please write me anew on X+1 date and I will gladly respond as soon as I can thereafter.
After hearing about Feld’s approach, Harrigan decided to try something closer to his dream auto-response for his next vacation even if the tactic makes him slightly self-conscious. Harrigan worries people might find it too presumptuous, like he is too important for their silly little messages. But he swears it comes from a good place.
“All I’m trying to do is look out for people,” he says. “When we’re on vacation let’s not send each other emails.”