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How I Return From A Month-Long Vacation to Inbox Zero

The worst part of a stress-free vacation is returning home to a stress-inducing, overflowing email inbox.

Well, not for me. I return to inbox zero.

In fact, I'm currently preparing for a month-long sabbatical from work. And while many are asking me how I'll manage 3,000+ unread emails upon return, I'm not the least bit concerned. And it's all because I've hacked my own little process for managing my email workflow post-vacation. It goes a little something like this: 

First, I create a folder - or in Gmail terms, a new label.

I typically name it something that reflects the vacation - in this instance, I'm prepping for a month-away in Spain, so I'll call my label "Spain Sabbatical 2015." 

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Second, I set up a filter that recognizes any emails being sent to *@company.com.

For me that's *@hubspot.com. By using the asterisk (*) instead of my actual email, I ensure that all email aliases that I'm on are also included, for example:

  • name@company.com
  • team@company.com
  • department@company.com

This captures all emails I could possibly receive to my inbox. Then I apply two simple rules: have these emails skip my inbox and place them in my created folder. 

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I've now effectively ensured that when I return from my vacation, my immediate inbox will be at zero. 

Having my emails skip my inbox allows me to:

1. Return from vacation with email anxiety nice and low.
2. Prevent myself from neurotically checking my email when I should be relaxing.
3. Immediately start responding to new emails, getting right back into the game.

But I also want to manage my unread emails efficiently upon return. So ... 

Third, I add a second filter that deletes irrelevant emails. 

We're all on various internal email distribution lists. For me, many of them are time-based and therefore irrelevant / out-of-date by the time I'm back from my trip.

For example, I usually receive a series of daily or weekly metric updates. As long as I can see the most recent metric email showing me overall progress, there's no need for my vacation folder to have 40 repeat daily digests. 

So I create another filter, this time calling out specific words that appear in the emails that will be out-of-date by the time I return. For these emails, I apply a rule to have them deleted automatically versus going into my vacations folder.

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Now when I return from vacation, not only is my inbox at 0, but my vacations folder is free of any expired emails. 

Finally, when I return from vacation, I strategically handle unread emails.

After enjoying the screen that says I have no new email for a moment, I then turn off all my filters so that my inbox will begin reflecting new, incoming emails as usual.

As that happens, I hop into my vacations folder and start scanning for any emails that may have "important" in the subject line. I'll also conduct a couple key searches for my manger or key team stakeholder's to look for any notes I should respond to first

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Once these more time-sensitive messages are addressed, I'll simply allocate a couple hours a day to respond to the remaining emails in this vacations folder. That way, I'm not only back-on-track quickly, but am able to immediately start helping my team without all "email catch up" time getting in the way. No email overload to overwhelm me.  

Looking for more tips on how to achieve inbox zero? Check out these strategies used by email pros like Tony Hsieh, Merlin Mann, and Brian Balfour.

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