Mike Stenberg, Head of Digital Marketing at Siemens AG, is a long-term personal user of GTD®, and has implemented it on several teams that he has led or consulted for.

Returning from vacation to find an email inbox with hundreds of unread emails is a familiar situation these days. Not only that, but as everyone seems have to been waiting for your return, new conversations quickly flow in on top of the backlog, and getting anywhere near to inbox zero is a constant hassle in the first week after vacation. The relaxation of the recent holiday can go up in smoke pretty quickly.

This summer I have tried something new. An experiment to minimise the hassle and get me back to a clean inbox as soon as possible after my return. I created a very simple rule that moved every incoming email immediately from the inbox into a folder called ‘vacation’. This helped me resist the desire to ‘accidentally’ check email in quiet moments on the beach and get pulled out of my holiday mindset. It was a small change, but it worked for me because it required a conscious decision to scroll down to the ‘vacation’ folder to do some reading.

On my return to the office earlier this week I was looking at a clean inbox. Happy days! By disabling the rule, you immediately receive all new emails which you can easily clarify with your standard five-phase GTD® routine.

So what to do with the vacation folder? Ignoring it was not an option for me.

I set a blocker of 30 mins in my calendar for my first day back to get that folder to zero after vacation as well. Sorting by ‘sender’ and/ or ‘conversation’ I got rid of newsletters, LinkedIn contact requests, and email threads that don’t include any next action or project in seconds (by using CTRL + D on the conversation group header). Emails which still required a follow up or included actions were moved back into the inbox to be clarified there.

It might sound utopic, but I was in fact done with a couple of hundred emails in approximately 30 mins. I moved about 10-15 emails back to ‘in’, and from there easily clarified them into in my system with appropriate projects and next actions.

Pro tip: if you are feeling courageous you can also put in you out of office reply that the sender should resend their email after your return if the topic is still current. For topics requiring immediate attention you could indicate that you are available by text (if you are willing to do so). That would give you air cover if you did in fact choose to ignore the vacation folder upon your return. In my experience the conversation in the organisation has often moved on quickly from the original request, and in many cases no action is required two weeks later.

A few days into my return, I’m declaring my experiment a success. I was able to ramp up to full speed with much less stress than in previous years, and have managed to preserve more of the benefits that a relaxed mind can bring to old problems in my work.

How about you? Would love to learn from your experience. What methods have you developed over time to bring the momentum of a splendid vacation back to work – and keep focused on your higher horizons?

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