Top 10 Tips for Managing your Email over the Holidays


Completely unplugging may sound enticing. And if you have a role, boss, or company that allows you to do this, then more power to you! But this approach just isn't a realistic option for many people - especially those that work for corporations or are business owners.

I have read many articles that suggest you create an "Email Free Holiday or Vacation":

  •  Just set an "Out-of-Office" message.

  • Ignore every incoming Emails while on holiday or vacation.

  • Don't respond to anything.

  • After you return, just Delete every Email you received.

OK... That may be nice for some people..

But I work for a big company, have a demanding job, a team of people that work for me, and enjoy receiving a paycheck.

I may be somewhat of a silly optimist at times, but I am also a pragmatic realist when it comes to the realities of the corporate environment.

Ignoring (or deleting) my manager’s urgent Email when something happens to “blow up” over the holidays is what in the corporate world we call a ‘CLM’, or ‘Career Limiting Move’.

Enjoyable?  No

Necessary?  Unfortunately, sometimes.

That said, it is still important to unplug, relax, and spend quality time with friends and family over the holidays or while on vacation.

Now, if you have a role where you can avoid checking your Email entirely - more power to you (and I am jealous)! Enjoy your time off and off-line!

But if you are like many of us, this just isn’t an option.

I’m not advocating spending a lot of time reviewing or responding to your Emails.

But some studies have even found that "not checking" your Email at all can actually result in more stress and anxiety then performing occasional checking!

And now with the power of smartphones, you don’t need to even drag around your laptop or find an internet cafe to review your Emails.

So, here are the Top 10 Tips for Managing your Emails over Vacations and Holidays (and not go crazy doing it)!


1) Clean-Out as much “junk” as you can before you leave

Before you leave for vacation, block-out dedicated time to perform an extended Email triage session.

And remember, the less you have in your Inbox when you leave, the less you will have when you return!

 2) Set an “Out of Office” Message

Setting your “Out of Office” message is a simple process, but is something that many people forget to do.  

In your Out of Office message, make sure you provide:

  • The Dates you will be out (both when you leave and when you return).

  • How often you expect to be checking your email (or clearly state if you will NOT be checking your Email).

  • Who/Where to contact for routine questions (such as a customer support number or a helpful website).

  • Who to contact if something urgent arises.

  • How to contact you in an emergency (only if you wish to list this).

Also, don’t forget to set your "Out of Office" message in not only your business Email, but also for any personal Emails you use as well.

Here are two good articles on how to set your Out of Office message for two of the main Email systems (courtesy of Email.About.Com):

Setting an Out of Office for Outlook

Setting an Out of Office for Gmail


3) Don’t forget to set your extended absence message for your voicemail(s) as well!

Remember those things called office telephones?

Yes, they don’t get used as frequently anymore, but they are still important communication devices relied upon by many people.

Just as you need to set your Email vacation reminder messages, also set your work phone voicemail to an “Out of Office” message.

As with your Email "Out of Office" message, make sure to specify the days you are gone, who to contact in your absence, helpful resources, and if you will (or will not) be checking your voicemail.

And don't forget that you can set an "Out of Office" message for your mobile phone(s) as well!

You can screen for calls from critical people (e.g: your manager, your significant other, your mom!). 

But let the rest go right to voicemail.  

When the caller hears your Out of Office message, they may decide to not even leave a message at all!  

Problem solved!

4) Set your holiday or vacation reminder message to begin on the last day you work, NOT the first day of your holiday or vacation.

When you set the "Out of Office" message for your Email or Voicemail, set the reminder to begin on the last day that you work, not the first day of your holiday or vacation.

For example, if my time off begins on Monday, December 21st, I start my Out-Of-Office message on Friday, December 18th. I usually enable it towards the end of the day - a few hours before I leave.

This way, if anyone Emails (or phones) me towards the end of my last day (or over the weekend), they receive the Out of Office message!

This little adjustment can save you from a lot of last minute issues and Emails. It also sets the expectation that your vacation or holiday begins when you leave the office at the end of the day, NOT at the start of the following week!


5) Before you leave, define what qualifies as an “Emergency” with your manager, peers, and team members.

Make sure to have an honest and open conversation with your manager, peers, and team members about the importance of honoring the holiday season or planned vacation. Ensure everyone understands that they should not be sending (or responding to) unnecessary Emails.

Encourage your team members, whenever possible, to hold non-critical items until you return.

Clearly define what classifies as an "emergency”.

The expectations here can be very different depending upon if you are speaking with your manager, your peers, or to people that work for you.  

The key is to set clear guidelines. This includes listing and documenting specific situations as examples of "emergency" vs "not an emergency".


6)  Detail exactly how to contact you in an Emergency

Before you leave on vacation or holiday, make sure that those that need, can contact you in an emergency.

This is sometimes called a “bat signal”, and is a way for you to reach you when you are away.

Examples of an emergency “bat signal” can be:

  • An Email that contains a specific subject line

  • A call to your personal mobile phone

  • A Text message

  • Your Home Phone (or even your hotel contact info. if travelling).

But again, if you state up front you will not be available, then don't be available!


7)  Define a Delegate to manage situations during your Absence

Sometimes, you can rotate a designated person to be “on call” over holidays.

This can be an assistant, coworker, or an employee that you trust.

This can also be a "developmental opportunity" for a direct report.  It is a way to show your trust in their expertise and judgment.

This person will have the responsibility to triage any emergency issues that may occur.

There are also some people that don’t celebrate all (or any) of the holidays, or that celebrate different holidays.  

If allowed by your company, offer them a “comp day” in exchange for the responsibility of "covering the fort"!

You would then list them as the designated contact for "emergencies" in your Out of Office message.

Alternatively, you can even grant them “delegate access” to your Email account. But this must be something you are comfortable doing, as well as allowed by your company policy and technology capabilities.

When you return from holiday or vacation, review all items that arose while you were gone. Discuss how they responded and their current status. You should also provide any "constructive advice" on how they could have been handled or answered differently for next time (that means telling them what they did right, and how they can improve even more for next time!).


8)  Send out a Proactive Out of Office Email to Critical Contacts One to two Weeks Prior to the Holiday

If you have any critical contacts, clients, or suppliers that rely on your availability, send them a brief message a week before you leave on vacation or holiday.

Clearly outline your plans and availability. If necessary, provide them with who they can contact in your absence, or (if necessary) how to contact you in an emergency.

This is also a nice opportunity to wish them a happy holiday season and thank them for their business!

By sending this out about a week or two before you leave, this gives them the ability to contact you with any outstanding questions, issues or concerns.

It is always better to get something out in the open and resolved BEFORE you leave, than to have to deal with a “crisis” during your vacation or over the holidays!

Kudos to Mike Vardy of the Productivityist for this idea, from his article:

The One Email You Must Send Before You Go on Vacation


9) Perform a Daily, Brief, Email Triage Session of Yesterday’s Email:

If you must do an Email review while on vacation or over the holidays, keep it fast and efficient.

Here is an expedited Vacation/Holiday Email Triage process:

  • Pick a specific time of day.  Perhaps during your morning coffee, an afternoon break, or the early evening.

  • Set a very limited time period, such as 5 or 10 minutes for your session.

  • Set your smartphone's countdown timer to ensure you keep yourself to no more than this time.

  • Quickly scan through any new Emails from yesterday. Why yesterday? Because many things will often “resolve themselves” if you give them a little time. And nothing should be so urgent that it can’t wait 24 hours. (Note:  If you are in a business critical role, you should have provided a way to be contacted for a “true emergency”).

  • DELETE anything that you can, if you know it is pure junk, spam, or completely unimportant.

  • Scan for Emails ONLY from critical people or customers, or with critical subject lines.

  • IGNORE EVERYTHING ELSE- Don’t open other Emails (which will mark them as “read”). This will just suck you into non-important issues and slow your ability to triage Emails when you return.

  • If there is anything truly critical, respond to those Emails only. If possible, forward it to someone designated to handle that area.

  • If you do respond, make sure your responses are short, concise, and focused. Provide a quick answer, or ask if the issue can wait for the end of your holiday.

  • And once again, don’t read, respond to, or address anything else!

That’s it!

In summary:  Just perform a condensed triage session where you review yesterday's Emails, quickly delete pure junk, scan for anything critical, reply only if you must, and ignore everything else.

This will keep that little voice in the back of your brain quiet and calm, and keep you on top of any truly important items.


10)  Stick to your Plan!

Whether your plans are to check your Email once a day, every few days, or to take a complete hiatus from Email, make sure to stick with your plan!

Nothing is more confusing than getting an “Out of Office” message stating that someone doesn't have access to Email, only to get a reply from them 20 minutes later!

If you say you are going to be unavailable, then be unavailable!

As long as you left appropriate instructions for emergency situations in your absence, rely on those avenues to get things resolved.

Very likely, the person that sent the Email already read your instructions and made a determination if they are fine for the issue to wait your return, or if they are going to follow the defined escalation path.

But if you step in outside of your defined process, you will actually make things more complicated for everyone involved.

The client/customer won’t know if they should be working with you, or your designated contact.

And your designated contact may have already been contacted and working to address the issue, so you will be duplicating work.

Just step aside and let the process work!

And by following your plan, you will also be honest to yourself, your friends, your family, and your work.


11) BONUS Reminder:  Don’t forget to reset your Out of Office Email and Voicemail settings when your return.

Some Email systems automatically turn off the "Out of Office" message at the end of the holiday or vacation period.

But others still require you to turn off the message manually.

Just don’t forget to ensure that when you return to work, you turn-off your "Out of Office" message.

And don’t forget to also reset your Voicemail Messages as well - both for your business phone and your mobile phone(s).

Nothing worse than Emailing someone and receiving an outdated “Out of Office” message.


What is your process for managing Emails over the Holiday?

Do you have any specific tips or recommendations?

Feel free to join the conversation below.