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Checking Emails on Vacation

Posted in Thoughts, Work

Common advice for people going on vacation is to just don’t do it. Seeing that most workers have a lot of trouble unplugging from work as it is, keeping the email app closed is one strategy to stop yourself from doing work when you’re supposed to be relaxing.

Except that there’s some merit to checking-email-while-on-break as well.

The idea of not checking email is really just a technique to prevent you from taking any work-related actions. There’s nothing inherently bad about keeping up with company proceedings, but the danger lies in actual engagement; email has a way to suck people into activity. The keys are to set the right expectations and to train yourself to ignore urgency.

To the former, I’ve recently converted to a out-of-office email autoresponder person. I had previously thought it might be rude to let people know you’re on break and won’t respond, but I’ve realized that it’s more important to let folks know why you won’t get back to them. It also helps to publicly announce your delegation of responsibilities: it allows folks to help themselves to others who are in the office, and it reminds people that since there are others who can help, to not expect a response from you.

The latter is something that takes willpower and honestly a bit of practice to get used to. Many of us who like our jobs feel a strong sense of responsibility, and staying responsive during vacation time is—at least in theory—a way to show dedication. That said, however, I’m reminded of a piece of wisdom an engineering manager gave to me1:

Organizations are self-healing

His point was that things have a way of resolving themselves. People step up, requirements get modified or dropped, and code will get written. The sign of a healthy organization is that not having someone for a few days or weeks (or if they move on altogether) is painful mostly in the short term. Over time, that gap in knowledge and ability and work accomplished will mend itself, and things will hum along as usual. If anything, it’s a bit humbling to realize that your presence, while important, is unlikely to be critical.

So if you can internalize and control that need to take actions based on email, I find that it’s perfectly reasonable to check it during those vacation downtimes. In fact, one advantage I find in checking email regularly—albeit much less than when I’m working—during vacations is that I don’t get a ton of email buildup. I’ve seen people spend days to read and sort and organize and figure out their inboxes when they return from a week-long trip, and I’d rather be up-to-speed faster so I can get back to doing something constructive.


  1. The context was slightly different, however; at the time, I was worried about the effects of me transferring to another team in the company.