A Learning Approach to processing emails after returning from vacation

Anyone who works in an email-reliant organization knows the pain of dealing with emails after a vacation of more than a few days. Hours, perhaps even days, spent dealing with hundreds or thousands of emails that have piled up.

Herein, I’ll describe an approach to processing emails with the goals of:

  1. Catching up on important decisions
  2. Learning about your team
  3. Quickly moving on to more important work

Most email is time-sensitive and will be irrelevant by the time you read it after vacation. Spending hours or days trying to catch up is a fool’s errand, prompted primarily by Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

My audience here is anyone who is generally relied upon for decision-making, especially team leads and those responsible for other people’s work.

How to process email after vacation

  1. All automated emails (GitHub, Jira, server alerts, most likely anything you have a rule that moves into a separate folder): mark as read. Don’t even click into those folders

Now that you’ve removed what was perhaps >50% of the noise, let’s move on to the important part, wherein you become a human filter for a few minutes.

Next, quickly scan through the rest with the goal of creating 2 buckets:

  1. Important decisions that were made and which you need to be aware of
  2. Decisions not made because they await your input

Just about everything else is junk.

Here’s why: if they’re truly important, they’ll come around again in one form or another, soon. You’ll get another email, or a phone call, or someone will bring it up in your daily standup as a blocker. This is critical: you need to approach this step knowing that really important stuff will announce itself again; otherwise, it’s not important.

I will grant one exception here, and that is if you think there’s an opportunity to learn by detecting patterns for the time you were out. For example, maybe you think you can learn something by scanning your “alerts” folder (if you have such a thing) and find stuff to ask your team about during standup: “I noticed a lot more alerts than normal this week. What happened?”

Important decisions made

This one’s easy. Scan email looking for phrases such as “we decided”, “I decided”, “the decision was made”, “we’re moving forward with”, etc. In addition, before you left for vacation, there were possibly a handful of topics that were approaching decision making, and you’ll notice those from the subject of the email and know to pay attention.

Some decisions will come from above; others will come from your own team. The latter interest me most.

When you find one, decide on the spot:

  1. Do you heartily disagree and think you have any ability to influence an already-made decision? If not, move on
  2. For decisions your team made, reinforce healthy behavior by acknowledging it to the group. Reply immediately, praise, and move on.
  3. I hesitate to even write this, but it’s probably not realistic to omit: If you think this email will take time for you to chew on later, mark it as unread, but know that every time you do this, you’re burdening your future self. Limit this aggressively.

Decisions not made

This is the most interesting and probably most important because it’s a rare chance to learn how your team acts in your absence. This is the part where you focus on learning.

Create your bucket of emails where your team did not make a decision because you were gone. Some of these deferrals will have been the right call, but others are an indication that your team was perhaps not confident, informed, empowered, authorized, or able to make a decision that they otherwise should have been able to make on their own.

You want to dig in here. If you’re going to spend hours or days on post-vacation email, spend it on learning and strengthening your team.

For each of these un-made decisions, figure out what the blocker was on the decision.

  1. Did your team fear consequences if they made the wrong call?
  2. Did your team not have all the information they needed and thus deferred the decision?
  3. Did your team not have physical/virtual access to something (network connectivity, etc) that prevented them from making a call?
  4. Did your team lack authority?

The point here is to get at the nature(s) of absence of decision making. You’re trying to determine ways in which they are too dependent on you, ways in which you’re painfully necessary (not a good thing), and especially ways in which your team has learned helplessness.

It may take a long time to resolve these. But it only takes minutes or a few hours of reading post-vacation email to start the important work of identifying those problems. Then, make a concerted effort to resolve them.

Over time, watch as your team becomes more empowered and less reliant on you. In 6 months, take another vacation, and follow this process again. If you’ve done your job well, you should see an increase in decisions made without you, and a decrease in decisions relying on your input.


If you’re thinking “shouldn’t I be doing this all the time anyway?”, the answer is “Of course.” But during vacations, you should be completely inaccessible, and you can really observe your team in action when you’re not present. If you are not completely inaccessible during vacation, that’s a different problem that you need to fix.

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