How to Catch Up on Work Emails After Vacation

Whether you flew to a new adventure, took a road trip, or opted for a staycation this year, when you returned to your desk, you were probably greeted with a deep inbox of unread emails. How do you tackle an overflowing inbox after vacation?

In a LinkedIn survey with more than 10,000 respondents, 17% said they deal with unread emails after a break by “marking all as read.” Isn’t there a better way to catch up on emails after vacation than faking it? Yes, definitely. Here are a few strategies for sorting through your inbox.

3 Ways to Prepare Your Inbox Before You Leave for Vacation

As you are preparing to leave, here are the proactive steps you can take to minimize email overload when you return.

  1. Write a clear, concise out-of-office message. Use your out of office message to accomplish a few things:
  • Communicate the date that you will be away, and the date (plus one) you will return to work. 
  • Connect senders with an appropriate colleague. For example, “For immediate assistance, please contact (contact’s name) at (contact’s email).”
  • Set an expectation for senders. Since it’s unlikely you’ll respond to every message the day you return, let senders know when they can expect to hear back from you. This can help minimize follow-up messages.
  1. Include a link to schedule a call in your away message. Make it easier for senders to book a call or meeting with you when you get back into the office by including a scheduling link. For instance, you may write something like, “If you would like to schedule a call with me when I return, please select an open time on my calendar.” Then you can hyperlink to a scheduling tool like Microsoft FindTime or Calendly.
  2. Extend your away message one day longer than your trip. Want to clean up your inbox in peace? Make your first day back a catch-up communications day. Considering extending your away message for one additional day (beyond the technical end of your vacation). With your away message in place—even while you’re back from vacation—you can catch up on your inbox with fewer interruptions and less pressure to respond to incoming messages.

3 Ways to Clear your Email Inbox Faster After You Return from Break

If you have been out for a week or longer, before you start reading and replying from the top of your inbox, spend 30 minutes getting organized: prioritize, clean and then process. (This will likely save you hours.)

  1. Identify your priority people. Whatever your role, you have a set of people you prioritize your communications with—these may include your boss, your top clients, and the colleagues you actively collaborate with on projects. Sort your inbox by sender instead of date. Now search for those people. Resist the urge to immediately respond. Instead, drag all of these threads into a priority folder; You will work through them all in a bit.
  2. Clean out the crap. Have you ever cleaned up your living room by moving the mess to a spare room? Or cleaned out a closet by donating everything you haven’t touched in a year? This tactic is similarly helpful. Your email account may already filter out marketing messages, but there are still internal and external messages such as subscriptions and notifications you can easily get rid of. You likely don’t need to read any of the LinkedIn notifications you received while you were out, so delete them all. Some of your Teams notifications can go into your Priority folder, but most of them can be deleted. This may even include newsletters or notices that you would normally choose to read. In this case, you might delete these messages or move them into the “Read Later” folder.
  3. Bulk process what remains. Everything left unopened in your inbox needs to be looked at eventually, but only after you process your priority folder. Before you start, scroll down to the first unopened item on the first day you were out, then change the date order to put the oldest on top. This effectively hides any new mail coming in, and will allow you to process email from oldest to newest (FIFO: first in, first out).

Now go into your priority folder, and work from newest to oldest (LIFO). Remember, if you did this right (return date +1) your out-of-office message will still be active. Once your priority work is done, go back to your inbox, and start working on messages in the order you received them (oldest first). Working in this order helps you follow along with conversations better. (Note: For emails involving multiple cc’s it is often better to read threads in their entirety before jumping in.)

Depending on your inbox, this process might take a few hours. In that case, turn off your out-of-office message and reset your sort order to the newest by date. If it goes into the next day, be sure to turn off your out-of-office, but keep up with your incoming email before working through older messages. You can work through the “Read Later” folder in the coming days.

Managing an Overflowing Inbox

Did you return from vacation to an overwhelming inbox? Start by prioritizing your senders, delete all unnecessary emails, and file things to read later into their own folder. When you begin to respond to your priority messages, it can be helpful to take a “last in, first out” approach. Although it seems counterintuitive to start by reading the most recent messages, it can help you quickly determine what still needs your attention and what has already been handled in your absence.

Good luck in your pursuit of inbox zero!

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