If you’re lucky, the holiday season means a few days away from work and the office—but the soothing, calming effect of that break can be quickly undone when you return to an inbox overflowing with hundreds of emails. Before you head off to spend some time with friends and family, here’s how to make sure you come back to a tidy inbox.
We’ve put together some pointers for the more popular email clients out there, though obviously you might have to tweak them a little depending on the software you use to manage your inbox. Even if you do, the basic principles should be the same.
Mark everything as read, and archive it
A bold, front-foot approach to email here—set up a filter so that everything that comes into your inbox over the holidays is marked as read and then archived. When you come back in January, you’ll appear to have exactly the same number of emails to deal with as when you left.
This does run the risk of you missing something very important, but remember your emails aren’t actually gone—they’ve just completely bypassed your inbox. You can dig back into the archive to see what you missed, or run a search for important messages (from your boss, for example). Chances are if someone’s emailed you about something important over the holidays, they’ll realize you might not have seen it the first time anyway.
In Gmail on the web, click the down arrow next to the search box, then filter messages sent to your email address and apply the mark as read and archive actions. For Outlook on the web, click the cog icon (top right), then View all Outlook settings and Rules—again, use all emails sent to your email address as the trigger. In Apple Mail, set a filter to match emails sent you your address via Mail, Preferences, then Rules.
Create an out-of-office message that actually works
You’re probably familiar with the idea of creating an out-of-office message—one which automatically pings anyone who emails you during a certain time with a message that you’re not actually at your desk—but this year you might want to think about taking a few extra minutes to craft an out-of-office that’s actually effective.
You could, for example, tell everyone that nothing sent to you over the holiday period is going to get read (see the previous idea); or that you’re going to be very selective in what you decide to open when you get back; or that everyone should just email you in January. Another idea is to set your out-of-office message up a day or three in advance, warning people that all incoming emails will be archived while you’re away.
To set up an out-of-office message in Apple Mail, you need to choose Mail, Preferences, and then Rules, then set up a rule to reply to all incoming messages. On Outlook on the web, click the cog icon (top right), then View all Outlook settings, then Automatic replies. In Gmail on the web, click the cog icon (top right), then Settings, then General, and look under Vacation responder.
Filter in the most important messages
This is a variation on the first idea we introduced, and again uses filters and rules to manage your inboxes while you’re away. Rather than filtering unwanted and unimportant messages out though, use the capabilities of your email client to make sure that important messages don’t get lost.
You’ll probably find it’s much easier to identify emails that you don’t want to miss—messages from your boss or from specific conversation threads—than it is to try and build filters that jettison all the less crucial messages to your archive. Emails flagged as important can be starred or kept as unread. You might have to set up four or five filters for this to work, but it’ll be worth it.
Again you just need to dive into the filter and rule settings for your email client of choice. If you’re using Gmail on the web, click the down arrow next to the search box to start building your filter; for Outlook on the web, click the cog icon (top right), then View all settings, then Rules; and for Apple Mail, click Mail, Preferences, and Rules.
Stop sending emails
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that sending emails leads to receiving emails, which is why you can cut down on the number of messages you’re likely to get over the holidays by paring down your email activity a few days before the vacation starts.
Don’t ask for responses to urgent matters just before you leave, for example, and don’t take the time to wish all your clients a happy holiday period unless you do it well before you’re planning to take your own break. It might seem tempting to try and square off any outstanding business before you finish work, but chances are that most of it can wait until you come back.
How far ahead of time you start your email abstinence is completely up to you—it really depends what you do for a job and how important a role email plays in it—but the earlier the better, really. Consider taking two or three days or even an entire week before your break to give up all but the most important emailing business (you could do something else, like organize your desk, instead).