Dec 14, 2012

Avoiding Burnout: How to take a vacation from your email (and more!)

If you're like me, you have an assortment of devices that beep, buzz and blink at you all hours of the day with emails, tweets, and more.  If this is the case, you're probably reaching a point where you don't feel like you can just step away and get some peace and quiet.  As a former email addict, I'm here to tell you that it's possible to escape this tornado of digital stimuli, but it's not easy because you're not just dealing with technology, but probably fighting an addiction as well.

Note that I can only speak to what has worked for me after I burned out (burnout in this case meaning when my stress got to a point that I just couldn't function anymore), so your mileage may vary.  After my second burnout at Google (which, I'm happy to say, was almost six years ago, so I think I've figured out how to avoid it), I realized that my massive swings from "work work work" to "burnout" to "stare at the wall and drool" was not only unsustainable, but it was making me miserable and killing my overall productivity.  So I started experimenting with ditching various communication media, and with all of the joy and excitement that these amazing devices bring into my life, it's hard to describe how awesome it is to be able to step away from them, but I'm going to try to anyway.

First, and foremost, I really do believe that cold turkey is the only way to go if your technological interactions are getting the best of you.  No one in their right mind tells an alcoholic "Hey, just have a small drink," so as a recovering info addict, I'm here to tell you that you really need to quit.  100%.  As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step.  After you've done that you can act to deal with the problem.

Here are a number of tips and tricks that I've found to be effective, particularly around work-related stuff. Most have to do with the mechanics of stepping back, and some have to do with the emotional repercussions that will hit you like a brick to the head.

The core assumption of this post is that you're trying to take a vacation from work.

Disclaimer: I'm sure that my career as engineering rabble rouser at Google is different than yours.  Add salt to taste.

A week before you start your vacation

Set expectations: Warn people that you're going offline and won't be responsive.  You might want to ask people to not contact you during this time as well.  This probably includes:

  • Sending an email to people at work who may want to contact you letting them know you're going to be offline
If you're trying to take a vacation from personal email/social media/etc as well, this may also include:
  • Sending an email to frequently-contacted friends from your personal email account letting them know you're going to be offline
  • Tweeting that you're going offline soon
  • Writing a Facebook, Google+, and/or blog post letting people know that you're not going to be around

The day before your vacation

Repeat the above, reminding people that you're going to stop checking things at 5PM today.  Picking an exact time not only gives people a concrete time to expect you to disappear, but also acts as as a forcing function to make you step away and not keep reading "one more thing."

The moment your vacation starts

Turn off automatic sync on your phone

No, really.  I use text messages only with my wife and close friends, so I enable only text message sync (Google Voice in my case) and calendar sync since I still want to see my calendar, but I disable all calendar notifications too.  This worked so well at calming me down that it's now the default state of my phone--my wife and a few close friends can always get at me via text message, but no one else bugs me this way.  My phone doesn't buzz and flash and basically distract me all the time.  I'm now the master of my phone instead of the other way around.

Set your away message for your mail accounts(s)

Here's a typical example of one of my away messages (somewhat snarky because when I told my friends that I wasn't going to check work email on my vacation, many of them laughed in my face.  Yeah, I had a problem):

    Greetings, programs!

    I am out of the office on vacation and will not be checking email at all until 8AM on Monday 11/29.  I intend to read all of my mail as usual when I return, but I won't even be peeking at it in the meanwhile.  Not even at urgent messages.  None.  Zero, zip, nada, I'm going cold turkey for nine days.  Think I can't do it?  Well, you're not alone and I intend to prove you wrong :-)

    Despite my lack of net connectivity during this time, I can be reached in case of emergency on my cell phone.  If you don't have my cell number, then I assure you, you're not having an emergency that I can help you with.  If you do have my cell phone number, then I would encourage you to make sure that you understand the definition of "emergency" before calling.

    That said, if you do need help, odds are that one of the following people can help you:

    - For Data Liberation Front-related matters contact "Name Two" <>.

    - For press-related matters, please contact "Name Three" <>.

    - For anything else, please contact my assistant "Name Four" <> or our site director, "Name Five" <>.

    - For foosball-related advice, please contact "Name Five" <>.

    Thanks, and here's to nine straight days of no work email,


Now close your mail clients on your laptop and do something, anything, away from your computer.

The Hard Part

Those are the basic mechanics of preparing for the process.  The mechanics are actually the easy part.  The hard part is getting over the dopamine high that I get from getting all sorts of fun emails and tweets and facebooks(?) etc. that reminds me that I'm Important (well, I'm not really important, but these things make me feel important).

This is what happens to me just about every time I take a vacation and quit email (tho it gets easier each time).  Let's say that Friday is my last day before going on vacation:

Day one (Saturday): I go through serious withdrawal--I feel disoriented and distracted, constantly nagged by the feeling that I'm missing something, or that something will blow up while I'm not looking.  I pull my phone out of my pocket every 5-10 minutes to check my mail notification, realize that I have no mail notifications because I turned off sync, and--oh yeah--I'm not checking email--then I put my phone back in my pocket.  I remind myself that I'm serious about this and go off to do other things, like work on my house, nap, watch movies, cook, catch up on reading--basically something to replace the mail/media fix.  I can't just drop a habit, but I can REPLACE a habit.

Day two: Much better, but still a little twitchy.  Check phone every few hours.

Day three: Forget where I work, what my Twitter password is, and what the @ sign means.

Day three is when my vacation really starts.

This is the reason that when I take a vacation to go somewhere, I take off of work three days before I actually leave on my vacation.

A few ways I rationalized NOT doing this in the past:

Rationalization: If I stop checking work-related mail/media stuff will break

Response: Yes, stuff will break, but most things will get fixed within a week (which means that if you're gone for more than a week, most crises will be resolved except the ones that happen in the last week of your vacation).  Anything that breaks hard will result in (worst case) someone contacting you or you having to fix it when you return.  Treat this as an opportunity to find weak spots that you can fix for the next time you take a vacation away from email.

Rationalization: But I'll have a gigantic pile of shit to deal with when I come back.

Response: If you're gone for a week, spend 4 hours catching up on your email/social media the night before you intend to "restart".  If you're gone for more than a week, lie about when you're coming back--for example, if your vacation ends on Sunday, say you're coming back on Tuesday and spend Monday holed away somewhere catching up.  Write emails that you save as draft and send later.  Same goes for tweets etc., then send them all Tuesday AM and start your day with an empty inbox.

If this still feels overwhelming to you, feel free to let people know that you're going to delete all mail (and ignore all tweets/facebook messages, etc) when you get back.  Put this in your away message and blog post too.  I personally find this a bit extreme, and since I have a good system for dealing with huge volumes of mail (see below), I still process my inbox when I get back.  Even after being away for almost a month, I managed to go through all my important mail in under five hours.  I also make heavy use of mail filters so that I can ignore tons of unimportant crap.

Rationalization: But I've got a million things going on and I don't know what I need to finish between now and vacation.

Response: I'm a huge huge fan of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" (GTD) and recommend reading it. If you can get into this process and keep yourself at inbox zero (which you may think is impossible, but it's not), then you can leave at least knowing what's in your queue and what can wait.  I've read the book three or four times now, and it took me over four years to get to a point where I'm on the GTD wagon more than I'm off, but any system is probably better than the one you have right now (and yes, no system is a system).

The Good News

I first did this process for 9 days over Thanksgiving many years ago (when I was teetering on the verge of burnout) and it was amazing--I came back more focused, relaxed, and productive than ever with the side effect that I was much happier in general.  I've continued to do this for every vacation I've ever taken since, including one that was 24 days, and I'm about to do it for 18 days over the Christmas holiday.

The Bad News

I discovered a few things in the process of doing this:
  1. I really was addicted to importance and stimulus.
  2. I'm not as important as I thought I was (yep, pow, right in the ego).

There is a never-ending torrent of crap that I can react to.  I can be more productive and effective if, instead of freaking out and keeping on top of everything, I choose what to react to and when to react to it.  This means that I do less work, but the work that I do is way way more effective.

Note that I used to treat my inbox as my TODO list that anyone can add an item to by emailing me.  This was a terrible idea and I had to come to terms with:
  1. Not using my inbox as a TODO list, but shuttling action items to a separate folder that I work out of, and
  2. The fact that it's OK to just archive (or delete) messages that I don't absolutely have to deal with.  This was crazy hard because I feel like a jerk if I don't respond to everyone who emails me, but it's just not something that I can do and live a normal life, so I've chosen not to.  If I haven't responded to an email that you sent me, sorry, I'm a jerk.
Well, that's about it for now.  I'd love to know what you think, and even moreso, if any of this works for you (esp. any suggestions for improvement).

Oh, and take a copy of Clay Johnson's The Information Diet with you on vacation.  When you get the overwhelming urge to check your mail, pick it up, leaf through a few pages, and then whack yourself on the head with it (seriously though, you should read the book).

Good luck!

Thanks to Rick Klau, Vanessa Fox, Matt Cutts, Clay Johnson, John Bracken, Baratunde Thurston, Marcin Wichary, Joe LaPenna, and News Foo 2012 for ideas, suggestions, and inspiration to write this post.


Unknown said...

Interesting read. I'm dealing with the same thing: I'm going on a 15 day holiday break next friday but always feel the need to check my e-mail and respond to it.

I was in NY last summer and kept checking my e-mail (disabled sync before I left, kept on doing manual syncs ). I hope this breaks goes better for me. I'll try your guidelines!

Amit said...

That's great! I had too much work-related stuff but I didn't have a problem with personal email, so I focused on disconnecting from work related emails:

1 - Annual vacation for 2-4 weeks, with no laptop. (This was before smartphones so no laptop = no email.) This forced me to automate, delegate, or shut down projects that relied on me. When I came back, that work didn't come back; I was able to tackle new things.
2 - Keep work and home data separate. Separate laptops, separate phones, etc. I don't have login credentials on my home machine to access work data. I can take my personal phone with me without having access to work email or anything work related. If I'm not working, I don't keep my work phone with me. Only a few people have my personal phone number.

For the most part I check email & twitter two or three times a day instead of having notifications that prompt me to check all the time. If I find I'm checking more often that's usually a sign that I'm bored or frustrated or stuck with my project, so I look for that sign and then step back and try to figure out why I'm stuck.

Unknown said...

A while ago I stopped using Twitter because it demands immediate response, and I switch off all the phone notifications apart from calls all the time, even when I am working.
Because you're right the only way to stay healthy is to choose your own time to respond. I still spend too much time on facebook, that's where I saw the link to this post, but only a 10th of what t was at its peak.
The sad part is that I don't read or respond to enough ASF email anymore.
PS Nice that you managed to seek attention for a post about attention seeking, and respect for admitting that ego is part of the problem.

Have a great vacation :)

Alan Skelley said...

I like how "Name Five" occurs twice in the responder email. I know who that is!

Julie said...

Hmm... if you can do it, maybe I can too. As part of a NY resolution, I've blocked out time each day on my calendar for the stuff I have to do each day, to allow myself to focus on one at a time without interruptions. But it would probably help a lot if I gave myself some vacations from email too--maybe on weekends, since none of my clients would be emailing me then anyway.

The Bad Boy Scientist said...

I like this vacation technique but your analogy with alcoholism is not quite right. In Europe they teach 'alcoholics' to drink in moderation with good success. We don't know how it compares with AA's abstinence is the only way approach b/c AA, being anonymous, doesn't gather stats. This suggests that it may be possible for addicts learn to 'consume electronic media' in moderation.

For example just learn to say "No" to people making demands on your time (professional, personal, community, etc). Ironically, it is much easier to say 'No' to an e-mail or SMS than to a phone call. And it is MUCH easier to say 'No' to a phone call than a person standing in your office.
[Note: any mass e-mail or SMS should be ignored unless A) you're the only one who can deal with it and B) it is important for YOU that it be dealt with. If they can't bother contacting you directly and specifically, then you don't need to reply.]
Well, gotta run, I want to wash cars with my son in law... only I can take care of this sunny January activity ;)