Probably the toughest thing as the holidays approach, besides picking out perfect gifts for those closest to you, is figuring out how to handle e-mail over the period away from work. If you're able to take a chunk of time off – not everybody, of course, can – you have to decide how much contact you want with work and analogous obligations over the holidays.
David Grossman, a Chicago-based leadership and communications consultant, took a splendid, refreshing, total break from e-mail this summer during his one-week vacation, and he urges workers to try to take a real vacation from e-mail during the December holiday period. "I survived and thrived," he says of that July vacation. "It was fabulous not to check e-mail. I could focus on what was important in that period: My family, and recharging."
Mr. Grossman has one e-mail account, so when he took a break from e-mail it was not just from work, but also from friends and others who might have contacted him. There were moments at the start when he wavered and almost succumbed to peeking, but after resisting he found that the urges didn't return through the remainder of his time off. "I had to remind myself of my goal – to be with family," he says.
Mr. Grossman has studied e-mail practice, and recognizes going cold turkey may not be right for everyone. Some people like to check regularly, perhaps once a day, when away, since it makes them feel better and reduces the stack of unread mail in the inbox on their return. But he reminds you to make sure that's really true, and the reason isn't ego: "It's ingrained in us to check our e-mail regularly. It's also about our identity – our identity is caught up in work and e-mail, in feeling needed."
Some individuals, he notes, actually want time with e-mail on their holidays as an antidote to being with family around the clock. Others believe they can't turn off because their work is too important and their colleagues or clients need them. But Mr. Grossman's clients and staff needed him; he felt, however, the staff in particular benefited from him walking away from work and indicating he trusted them to handle issues that arose. It wasn't a total communications lockdown, anyway. No e-mail, but if something came up his staff could phone him. That never happened, however.
During the holiday break it is probably easier for you to shut down e-mail than during a normal vacation period because so many other people are away from work and e-mail anyway. So try it; consider it a practice for your summer vacation. Here are some tips from Mr. Grossman:
Prepare: You need to make sure your clients and colleagues know what you are planning; a system is in place that clients understand to handle anything that comes up; and the appropriate people know how to reach you beyond e-mail. This prior prep, he found, was as important to him as his clients and colleagues: "I knew my clients would be taken care of. I knew if there was a problem, I would get a call."
If the entire staff at your workplace is off for the holidays, clients may not have another option for whom to contact, as they did when Mr. Grossman was away but his office still operating. He says the key words to get across to those who might contact you are "an emergency or something urgent." He believes that will prevent them from calling on the minor stuff. "I think there is an unspoken wish here that you may even need to articulate: You want some R&R and time with family – away from work. Let people know you want a real holiday break." If you're the boss, expressing that value gives staff the opportunity to do the same thing, which he believes will pay off for them and you over time.
Decide when you will turn e-mail off: Mr. Grossman actually was sending and returning e-mail until he got on the plane for his trip to his vacation destination. It comforted him, making him feel things were in shape when he finally did turn off his e-mail. Pick an exact moment when you go into holiday mode and e-mail shuts down – and abide by it.
Resist the urges: You will want to check e-mail, at least in the early days, and the strategy is to remind yourself that you have systems in place to handle emergencies – and that you are doing this for a dual reason, to be with family and to refresh. Also, consider the urges to check e-mail as a good thing, not a bad thing: "It's a sign you are stepping outside your comfort zone, doing something different," he says.
Decide when you will return to e-mail: Some people will want to look at e-mail on the plane back from vacation. Others take time the night before the return to work. He prefers to go into work early and leave himself free of appointments for those first few hours to push through the inbox.
He suggests starting with deleting SPAM, newsletters and other such material that you can do without reading. That gives you an early victory, as the stack diminishes dramatically. Then, from names of senders and subject lines, determine which are the most urgent e-mails, and start with the most recent in a string, since the issue could have already been resolved. He suggests in a few hours you can be through most of your inbox, with less urgent issues put off for another day.
So join him and shut down for the holidays. "I can't wait. It was so liberating – once I got past the angst. And it's probably the best present we can give our family – the best present is our presence," he says.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter