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If you know my work, you know I’m no fan of checking email on vacation. A recent email exchange I had with a friend reminded me why this is such a damaging habit.

Me: When can you get this done?

Friend: I’m on vacation, but maybe tomorrow.

Friend, on a new topic: See below. I am in mountains. So forwarding.

Me: OK, I’ll send it along. May I suggest that you either STOP working, put an out-of-office message on and deal with this stuff when you get back, or stop PRETENDING you’re on vacation?

Friend: I suck at vacationing.

Friend: They wouldn’t have service on this trail that we’re hiking today if you weren’t supposed to check email. 😉

Me: Well, you don’t get to only halfway deal with these things by saying, “I can’t deal with this stuff right now because I’m on vacation.” Because you clearly aren’t. This stuff can wait until you get back. I suggest you put an out-of-office message on, and STOP check your messages. But if you must check them, resist the urge to deal with the “quick stuff.” Read it if you must. But anything requiring a response should wait until you’re “officially” working.  I think you’ve inspired a blog post. 😀

What my friend was doing isn’t uncommon. Lots of people think they’re keeping their inbox under control by sending those “I’m actually on vacation right now …” kind of responses.

But this approach isn’t great for anyone. The original sender might feel compelled to apologize for interrupting you, but they shouldn’t. By checking email on vacation, you’re conveying the message that you’re not really off work.

You, however, are the person who suffers the most when you keep one eye on your inbox while on vacation.

You Need to Recharge

It’s easy to tell yourself that reading and answering a few emails here and there doesn’t really take that much away from your vacation. But that’s simply not so. Even a little bit of time spent checking email on vacation takes you mentally away from everything you are supposed to be enjoying. And at least part of your mind is likely to stay back at the office even after you close your email and get back to vacationing.

This does real damage to your productivity. All of the things that make you good at your job — your creativity, good judgment, perceptiveness, you name it — are resources and abilities that need to be replenished. When they run low, you have to rest and “fill the well.” But you can never truly recharge if you’re never fully away from work.

Another reason vacation time is so valuable is that it gives us a fresh perspective on nagging problems or challenges. When our minds get some time to relax and engage in other things — whether we’re hiking through a forest, lying on a beach or riding our favorite roller coaster — we often reap the rewards of epiphanies or breakthroughs once we turn our attention back to work. But, again, you can’t look at something from a new perspective if you never get away from it.

How to Unplug

The only productive way to handle email while you’re on vacation is just what I told my friend: Set your out-of-office message and stop checking emails while you’re on vacation. If that feels a little scary right now, here are a few things to remember:

  • Too often, people stay chained to email because they assume their boss, colleagues or clients expect quick responses even while they’re on vacation. But those assumptions might not be accurate. Don’t be afraid to request (and establish!) clarity around expectations on availability and response times.
  • Do you feel compelled to check your inbox while you’re off because you’re nervous about the mountain of email you’ll face when you’re back at the office? Instead of checking email on vacation, a better strategy is to learn how to more efficiently catch up on your emails when you are back at work. Check out my past blog with some tips on dealing with email after a vacation.
  • If you think that doing a good job requires never being away from email, remind yourself, as many times as it takes, that sometimes the best thing you can do for you work, is not work! Checking email on vacation may make you feel conscientious, but you’re actually sabotaging yourself.

Remember that if you check email on vacation, your work is not “invading” your personal time. You’re inviting it in!

I hope this article has inspired you to not invite email along on your next vacation. To learn more about the value of vacation time and how to maximize its benefits especially if you are a leader, check out my second book, Work Without Walls, An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work