How to Take an Email Sabbatical

by danah boyd

Last Updated: July 7, 2011

We all need time off. Like serious time off. Time when we feel like we're able to truly rejuvenate without the little panicked voice chirping away in the back of our heads fretting about the backlog of things we are going to have to deal with when we come in. Information overload can be a very taxing issue for many people. Luckily, many services allow us to go zen without making us feel guilty. Most of us can scan Twitter without obsessing over all that we missed. And there's simply too many blogs to think about all that we haven't read. Unfortunately, email is the one app that we feel guilty about turning off. Why? Cuz the interface is designed to put you on a hamster wheel, rarely ever succeeding at letting you reach empty. You feel accomplished when you get to inbox zero. And then you sleep and it's all back to haunt you. For this reason, I recommend taking an email sabbatical.

At its most crass level, an email sabbatical is when you make all of your email bounce. But you can't simply turn off your email without pissing off countless people in your life. Thus, an email sabbatical is actually a series of steps to let you step away from your inbox guilt-free and return to an empty inbox upon your return.

Step 1: Schedule a vacation. Not a long weekend. Not a few days in the countryside. A vacation. A minimum of two weeks. Serious time off. Time away from your computer, time away from your devices, time to find sanity.

Step 2: Communicate with all collaborators. I start telling close collaborators about my vacation about six months ahead of time. I make sure all collaborators know when I'm gone three months ahead of time. I'm conscious of every to-do that I've committed to, every responsibility that I vow to complete before vacation. And I continue to remind folks that I will be gone from Time A to Time B. I make sure that no one will depend on me while I'm gone so that I don't screw anyone over.

Step 3: Public pronouncement. About six weeks before I go on vacation, I make some loud public pronouncements to let folks know that I will be seriously offline and unavailable during my vacation. Warnings are the key to happy relationship maintenance, even with folks you haven't thought about.

Step 4: Warn folks via email. Roughly two weeks before I'm to leave on vacation, I turn on a standard vacation message to warn people that my inbox will become a black hole starting in X days. I make it very clear that if they need anything from me during my vacation that they need to ask ASAP. I also tend to take this time to send a message out to all collaborators and colleagues telling them that I'm about to go on vacation and if they need anything from me, now's the time to ask.

Step 5: Technical setup. I'm an old skool UNIX geek so I've got one of the most hideous procmail files you've ever seen. I use a crazed procmail script to filter all messages to /dev/null and to send an entertaining bounce message to folks saying that my email is dead and that if they want to get in touch with me, they'll have to resend their message when I return. I usually write a snarky message about how if it's really important, you can call my mom. Few folks ever call my mom, although some have. You don't have to be a UNIX geek to kill your email. You can do it in most programs by using the filter tools available and sending things to the trash. It won't delete things as permanently as my method, but it will work. I typically turn on my death trap message 24 hours before I leave for vacation without actually deleting the message, knowing that folks who waited till the last minute will panic when they see the message and call me.

Although I turn off my main email account, I also create a vacation webmail account. I give that contact information to my mother, my brother, my best friend, my housesitter, and my sysadmin. They all know how to reach me in case of an emergency. In some trips, I give my contact information to a key colleague or to my boss in case of something of dire urgency. They all get it and use it responsibly. I tend to check that backup email every 2-5 days while on vacation, depending on how remote I am. This is meant for emergencies only and is used primarily to let my mother know that I'm still alive.

Step 6: Take a vacation! I prefer to go to really remote places. I love using Instapaper to download large parts of Wikipedia that detail the region that I'm in but, for the most part, I use very little technology. Well, except for my Kindle. That gets used more during vacation.

Step 7: Re-entry. When I come back from vacation, I write to all of my core colleagues before announcing that I'm back to see what they need from me. I often set up meetings before I leave so that everyone is certain to get my full attention when I come back. And then, after I've made certain that my time is spent catching up with collaborators, I announce that I'm back.

Communication is key to an email sabbatical. Disappearing without properly making certain that everyone has what they need is irresponsible and disrespectful and people will get pissed off. But it's surprising how well folks deal with the idea that you're taking time away when you properly warn them.

Because I use procmail and don't nuke my log files, I've examined the headers of the messages I've received while gone. And when I looked at the headers of messages that I missed in the past, I noticed a funny thing. The first few days are full of friends writing test messages just to see what my bounce message will be. And then it dies off. While I get hundreds of personal emails per day on a normal day, I get less than a dozen while I'm on vacation. Folks actually tend to respect that I'm away.

Do I miss things while I'm on vacation? Most certainly. But I'm OK with that. Inevitably, I will receive numerous emails from journalists covering time sensitive stories about teens, people wanting me to review journal articles, students wanting help with their term papers, and perhaps an invitation or two. I do feel guilty not personally responding to these people to say that I'm unavailable but that's precisely the point. I need to let go in order to truly take a break and refresh. Are there going to be people pissed off at me because I'm on vacation? Sure. But I'm also used to getting pissed off emails everyday from all sorts of people yelling at me for my attempt to explain teen life. Part of me feels a guilty pleasure knowing that I will never see X weeks worth of angry emails. Generally speaking though, the folks who bitch about my email sabbatical are folks who don't know me. My boss gets it; my collaborators get it; my friends get it. And they like me a lot better when I've taken a vacation recently.

Anyhow, I hope that this inspires you to think about taking time away from your computer. You'll appreciate it if you do.