Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Vacation Experiment: Deleting All Work Email As It Comes In While I Am Away

I am on vacation. A true vacation, the kind where I won't look at work related items until I get back in the office. No work reading, writing, or (in the case of expense reports), arithmetic. And definitely no work e-mail.

Not only am I not going to even look at work e-mail, but to avoid the pointless and soul-crushing backlog of messages I'd find on my return in two weeks or so, I've done the following, all captured in this auto response message people who e-mail my work address get:

July 9, 2015
If you are getting this after 12:31 pm on Friday July 10 and before Monday, July 27, 8 am, know that I am automatically deleting the message you just sent. 
I'll be vacating -- truly and surely -- work thoughts, work office, work e-mail, work state of mind during the two work weeks that fall in that window. 
Consider me digitally vaporized, as it were, from this inbox.  My laptop will be secreted in a secure location over 200 miles from where I will be. My phone's data plan will be turned off, its Wi-Fi shut down; it'll be just a phone, one that I won't answer unless I know the person behind the number I see incoming and also know that the person is friend or family confirming where we will eat or what we will drink or when we will go and who else will be there. 
And because I am digitally vaporizing myself, so too will be your incoming email.  To avoid a backlog of messages on July 27 at 8 am, I am setting an inbox rule to automatically delete anything that comes in. If you are writing me on something urgent, resend it on July 27th. Though chances are very likely that you will have resolved the item before then and what I will be missing is a long chain of messages that at the end reveal the problem is solved. 
I know this may seem rude, inconvenient at best, for me to tell you that I'm deleting what you've sent with a request that you resend it. But consider this: with the backlog I would've had on July 27th, you very likely would've been sending me a beseeching reminder by the 28th or 29th or 30th anyway, were my response still needed. So this is better. You know that I am not going to see your message at all unless you send it on the July 27th, when it will arrive fresh to my eyes, on top, and not sitting there two weeks old and buried among the zombified deluge of the unread. 
And if my response is not needed, then what difference does my deleting the message make?
Paste this -- bit.ly/1qEx6Pv -- into a browser  for a note on the rhetoric of auto responses.
Nick Carbone
Director of Digital Teaching and Learning
Bedford/St. Martin's Imprint, Macmillan Education
nick.carbone AT macmillan DOT com

Now I really do not know whether this will go over well with all recipients, but at least it's honest. And as a strategy, it makes sense. Conservatively 200 messages times 10 work days is 2,000 messages. Why lose a whole day or two just sorting through that when there will be other, more important, work to be done?

I suppose some you reading this may hesitate to try it for fear of being viewed as irrelevant and replaceable; will bosses ask, "if (to use me as an example) Nick can ignore fully two weeks of email, including company pronouncements and announcements; colleague queries and requests; and customer beseechments and entreatments, just how useful is the schmuck?"

Two things on that, and why I think this policy makes sense. First, the practice demonstrates efficiency, not indifference. Important things will rise more quickly to the top of my attention this way and get taken care of more quickly. Second, I don't kid myself -- of course I'm replaceable. Looked at one way, I am, like everyone with a job, a hiring line, a budget item, human resource, by definition not permanent nor stable because people and their jobs change. People retire, the work goes on. People leave for better jobs, the work goes on. People are fired, the work goes on. People die (which in my case, were it to happen, would be, I admit, tragic and untimely), but work goes on.

So it goes.

But in the end, work works better when it's workable, and this new vacation from work e-mail method allows me to do more of the work that matters when I get back. And that's important to me, the professors I work with, and the company I work for. So I think this will work.


Anonymous said...

Our consumer drivin business at my university would never allow this. If a student or worse a parent reported that message a lot would be said, and one or it nice! I hope it works for you. Neither option about vacation e-mail if good. Leaving it until you are back is overwhelming and reading it while you are gone is intrusive. Enjoy the unplugged vacation!

Ed Gehringer said...

OK, so this puts us back to the same situation we were in 25 years ago before anyone had access to their e-mail on the go. Back then, I always felt under so much pressure before leaving (everyone had to know what they were supposed to do while I was away; if anyone might need to contact me, I would have to pro-actively contact them before I left) and returning (I wonder how many days it's going to take me to catch up; did anyone make an important decision while I was away that I might have wanted to influence?). When I began to be able to take a laptop with me, I felt such a sense of relief. Yes, I have sometimes turned on a vacation processor to tell people I might not respond. I have set a lot of stuff aside for when I returned. But the ability to keep in touch and know that nothing important will elude me makes it so much easier to relax. And I can use that data plan on my cellphone to find things to do, places to visit, and download audio tours.

There may in fact be a way to filter mail so that distractions are kept to a minimum. Leave it to Google (or someone) to write an app for that.

dkeppy said...

This leaves me contemplating a DDOS maneuver like a rule that sends a response to your auto response, creating a dueling servers situation whereby, ultimately, I can send you an email from another machine which your system hasn't the the wherewithal to delete.

I am currently stymied by just one detail: what could be important enough to warrants its being there, to your surprise and admiration, in your inbox, at 12:01 AM, July 28?

Nick Carbone said...


I suppose if auto-deleting messages while away were to become common enough practice, someone might write a program that makes messages undeletable. But then, it would be something the IT department would take up, beyond my ken as a humble user doing what I can with the tools Outlook allows me.

Usually when I get back from being away and have 2,000 or more messages, the only ones that need my immediate attention are ones where for some reason I am the only person who can answer something. And so asking people who have those kinds of questions or needs to wait til I get back or to resend so that I'll find it better seems a kindness, really. It makes it much clearer and surer how best to get what attention is needed, without guessing on whether I've caught up or found their email in the accumulating storm of messages. At least that's the hope.

What would make me most happy to see, thrill me, would be requests to help with thinking through an issue -- product design, new technology feature, how to use something existing -- through the lens of teaching and learning.

Nick Carbone said...


I've tried writing rules that sort messages while I'm away into folders -- messages where I am on the to: line go into one folder, where I'm part of a group (All Editors) into another, from particular people into another. It got to be too manual and too hard.

But when I looked at what I did on return -- massive deletions of things that have passed -- I found that really only a handful of things ever really, really needed a response from me. So that's where I'd spend time eventually, after clearing out the stuff that I didn't need to respond to.

So I really wanted to try something simple, that didn't require writing lots of inbox rules and then undoing them later.

Leslie said...

I wonder if Anonymous's concerns could be addressed by simply including something like, "If you feel you have a true emergency that requires an immediate response, please contact fooboss@foo.com."

Nick Carbone said...

Good point, Leslie.

Margaret Price posted a link to blog entry by danah boyd on the same topic and approach, one I hadn't seen until after posting this: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20130604194415-79695780-taking-a-vacation-this-summer-take-an-email-sabbatical

boyd's variation is more deliberate than my impromptu -- letting key people know in advance, having alternative contacts people can go to for immediate help, that kind of thing.