danah boyd explains email sabbaticals

Many years ago, danah boyd taught me her fool-proof method for an email-free holiday -- a procedure for switching off your email while on vacation, without offending your co-workers, friends, and correspondents. I've used danah's method ever since, and I swear by it: being able to go on holiday from my email and knowing that I won't be clobbered by a mountain of backlog when I return is literally life-changing. The amount of wear-and-tear I've saved in cortisol-damage from email-stress has probably added ten years to my life. danah's off on another email sabbatical and she's posted a detailed description of her procedure and logic.
I decided to start taking email sabbaticals as a systematic and respectful way of publicly communicating my boundaries. Six months before vacation, I let close collaborators and colleagues know that I intend to be wholly offline during a set of collectively known dates. A month before I leave, I write out to everyone that I work with to make sure that we all know what I need to accomplish before I leave and make sure that we have a check list to get it all done. I also publicly blog that I will be departing, letting everyone else know that they should get in touch if they're going to need something from me. A week before, I message out again warning people. In this way, I systematically make sure that I take care of others' needs before I depart. Communication is key to an email sabbatical. Disappearing without properly making certain that everyone has what they need is irresponsible and disrespectful.

When I am on vacation, I am confident that I have taken care of my responsibilities before I left. I have contingency plans set up for anything I can predict might happen while I'm away. I make sure that my brother, mother, sysadmin, and housesitters all know how to reach me in case of an emergency. But most importantly, I know that my email spool is not filling up with a big To Do list that will haunt me when I'm gone. Do I miss things while I'm on vacation? Most certainly. Inevitably, I will receive numerous emails from journalists covering year-end 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 5 weeks worth of angry emails.

I AM OFFLINE! On Email Sabbatical from December 9 - January 12


  1. Wow, danah’s preparation method seems super arduous. I wonder if it’s more cost-effective to hire a developing world outsourcing service to read your email, reply to most with a form letter, and forward some that are extremely important. What would that cost, $200 a month or something like that, I imagine? I’d really love to take full email breaks myself without missing something important.

  2. I figure if it’s important enough, I’ll hear about it anyway. My “sabbatical” process involves deleting everything the day I get back. Done.

  3. You and danah both have the extreme luxury of not working in large organizations. “Always on” no permeates American corporate culture to an unbelievable extent. If I tried such a stunt, I’d likely be fired before the vacation even started.

    I have done exactly what danah suggested – including six months written notice – to take a specific weekend off the grid. This included asking formal written permission from my boss, his boss, and her boss. The upper manager said, “You don’t need to do this to take a weekend off. Just do it, and have fun!”

    I replied, “Yes I do. If you don’t give me written permission I will not feel comfortable doing this.” She sadly shook her head and signed off on the request. And when I left, she and my backup were the only two people in the company who had contact information for me for the weekend in question.

    I spent about six hours of that weekend with telephone and laptop in my hotel room, because the furious customer – who knew that I was going away and had also acknowledged in writing the arrangements I’d made with others to take my calls – had pitched a tantrum and called the entire management chain. (Of course, neither he nor they ever called anyone that I had said was on call for me.)

    During those six hours, I had an intense sense that I’d seen the problem before – and sure enough, when I had Maintenance check the equipment, I found that an urgent engineering change order had not been applied. When I checked my files for the date I’d entered the ECO into the system, I discovered it was 3am, 25 December.

    So my follow up letter said – in nearly these exact words. “the customer clearly thought the problem was important enough to call me in in the wee hours of Christmas morning to fix it. He also clearly thought it required enough of my personal attention that he couldn’t attempt to have my backup man – a competent engineer who is familiar with the customer’s plant – look at it. Nevertheless, he considered the problem unimportant enough that he couldn’t manage to deploy the change that fixes it for over a year. I fail to see even in retrospect what I could have done to avoid the contretemps. ”

    I got the, “well, you had damned well better be more careful next time!” reply. (Which, in corporate America, means “I couldn’t have done it better either, but I have to be seen being angry with you because I’m a tool of the system, too!”)

    To top it all off, the next time the contract was up for renewal, the customer asked for – demanded, rather – a tidy sum (at least six figures) to be knocked off for the downtime. Fortunately, the bosses remembered: “You mean, that time that we found you were over a year behind in installing changes?”

    The next year, I was able to take my first vacation travel in about five years. I still had to tote along laptop and cellphone, but I didn’t have to answer the cellphone and I could get away with doing email once a day and answering the urgent requests with, “please let XXX deal with it, he’ll contact me if he needs to.” That situation was surely better than what had become my usual vacation of coming to work as usual and entering “vacation” on my time sheet. (For which I’d have gone to jail and my higher-ups would have got off scot-free if an auditor had caught it. Respondeant inferiores.)

    Moreover, a senior VP backed me up after the customer pitched the usual tantrum of, “how dare he take a vacation at a time like this?”

    “With you, it’s always a time like this. I’m not going to apologize for the fact that by company policy my people get vacations.”

    So danah’s technique works – but for some of us, it’s needed even to get a couple of days off once in a great while – or to get to travel at all. I still follow it – but I need to in order to get down to the level of the usual hectic “American” vacation. There is no way that I could ever get to spend five weeks off the grid and have a job in my field at the end of it.

    I suspect that my experience is more the rule than the exception in large organizations. Unfortunately, the sort of work that I do demands capital resources that are available only to a large organization.

    1. While my job isn’t quite as demanding as Kevin’s, I can certainly empathize with him: most of Corporate America doesn’t let drones (or many folks, for that matter) go completely off the grid.

      If I were to set up a vacation auto-reply that indicated all e-mails during my absence would be deleted and to please resend once I’m back in the office, I’m pretty sure my e-mail woes would be eliminated by not having a job to return to.

    2. I spent about six hours of that weekend with telephone and laptop in my hotel room, because the furious customer…

      You aren’t an employee; you are a slave.

      Emancipate yourself. Stop picking up the phone when they call you on your vacation! You chose to pick up, you fitted your own chains, you are your enemy, not the company or customer.

      If you are so psychologically dependent on your phone that you can’t turn it off for a week, get another phone and don’t tell ANYONE at the company what the number is. Lots of people have work phones and personal phones.

      If the company dies while you are gone, it dies. Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds….

  4. I don’t want to gloat, just want to offer sympathy to those who have to deal with this kind of B.S. I work for a very large organization, but we actually get vacations, and management does not bother us on those vacations unless there is absolutely no way to avoid it. Thus far, I’ve never gotten a phone call on a vacation. And we don’t have to warn everyone six months in advance that we’re taking a vacation. We just turn on our autoresponders.

    …Of course, the perk of “getting to have my own life” comes with the drawback of a somewhat lower salary than I could get elsewhere.

  5. Kevin,

    danah works at Microsoft. That’s a pretty big company.

    I’m sorry that your vacation has been thwarted by unreasonable expectations at work. And I’m not being sarcastic here – I truly think you have had to had to work with expectations that are entirely stressful and unnecessary. I think, however, the problem is more with the American inability (imposed or otherwise) to have downtime.

    When a former employer started to go global, they quickly realized that our vacation policies were too stingy to fly in Europe. It was routine for many to take off the entire month of August, for example. Accomodations were made, and the American counterparts were/are envious.

    I think danah is on the right track here.

  6. I’m pretty lucky in that, while I take along some type of computer on vacations; in the past, a laptop, on my last one, my iPad, I’m not required to check company mail. I check in every few days and sometimes respond to a question, but it’s mostly along to catch up on Fark, BoingBoing, weather forecasts, wikipedia checks on stuff we’ve seem that day, etc.

    I kinda enjoy sending in the occasional response to a work question and include a photo of something I’ve seen that day; the Museo del Prado, Prague Castle, the beach table at Cabo San Lucas that I’m sitting at to write my reply, making sure that the beach and Pina Colada are in the picture.

    1. I wandered about that too, but don’t really know what one could do about that except not have an auto responder at all.

      She did mention, among her list of people who have her contact info, her housesitter.

      I think I’ll be sure to add to my future “Out of Office” responses something about “My housesitter has my contact info. She’s also a black belt and total gun freak, but she’s really good about taking care of my pit bulls.”

  7. Good heavens, danah’s system to set up the vacation sounds like far more of a fright than returning to a stack of emails. How ’bout just a mass-BCC email to affected parties at 6mo/3mo/2wk/1day, + an setting an ‘out of the office’ auto-reply? Maybe this, plus trading off duties with a friend/colleague to monitor/filter each other’s in-boxes while the other is on break would suffice?

    Simple solution for Kevin’s disrespectful work situation:
    1. Tell them you’re vacationing someplace with bad cell reception.
    2. Do not answer the phone or return messages.
    (bonus credibility if you own an iPhone)

    — Sean Whose Company Inexplicably Blocks BoingBoing Log-ins

  8. I have 2 simpler methods:

    For work, I have an out-of-office message, and someone else who gets copied on everything. Before I even look at the inbox, I ask him what actually is important enough that he had to get involved.

    For home: I check (and sometimes answer) personal emails anywhere from 1 to 8 days after I first get it. If it’s pressing and I know you well enough that I’d care, you have my cell number.

    So far, works pretty well.

  9. Or, you could just not reply to emails that you don’t want to reply to, and people can get over it if that’s inconvenient.

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