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Three strategies for coping with the 650 e-mails in your inbox after a vacation

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Linda Duxbury is a rare vacationer: She completely detaches herself from her e-mail. When she's on holiday for more than three weeks, her automated reply tells senders that, not only will she be cut off from her e-mail, but she will also delete everything in her inbox when she returns – unless they resend their message the day she gets backs.

The reason she does this is because most problems, she has found, will be dealt with while she's away. "Not only is it not stressful, it feels really good deleting them all," says Prof. Duxbury, who specializes in work-life balance at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The rise of e-mail as the default form of communication for business began even before Ms. Duxbury started studying its impact on work-life balance 11 years ago. Today, the prevalence of mobile technology such as smartphones has only exacerbated e-mail overload, making it harder for people to restrict how often they check their inbox. Worker bees have to devise cunning strategies for that critical first day back from vacation, whether it's a long weekend or an extended holiday.

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For Andrew Lovett-Barron, a Toronto-based designer, maintaining your e-mail account is like avoiding financial debt: Letting messages accumulate in your inbox means drowning in a pile of electronic correspondence.

"If you let too many e-mails backlog, you lose the ability to effectively communicate," says Mr. Lovett-Barron, who recently started his own interaction and design business.

Like most people, he is never detached from his e-mail, even on holiday. During a recent trip to New York, he read all his e-mails but couldn't always respond immediately, so he made a list and prioritized, replying to the urgent messages and flagging those he could tend to when he returned home.

Mr. Lovett-Barron gets upward of 50 e-mails each day, 20 of which require a direct response – a task that takes about an hour a day to complete. Since receiving a constant barrage of e-mails interfered with his workflow, Mr. Lovett-Barron set up his server so he only gets e-mails every 15 to 20 minutes. "So I receive quite a few at a time, but I don't [get] this constant glut," he says. "Having a consistent one-, two-, three-hour chunk of work, to focus on a single task, is quite valuable."

While on vacation, Grant Buchanan, a partner at law firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto, checks his e-mail once a day in the morning, so it doesn't intrude on his family time. Before anyone is up, he'll sit down with a cup of coffee and go through his messages on his BlackBerry.

On the first day back to work, he shuts his office door and aggressively goes at what's left in his inbox. "When I turn on my computer, there is almost nothing that I haven't already seen. It's already been done once, expedited, dragged, whatever," Mr. Buchanan says. "It's not like I've been out of touch for three weeks and you come back and have thousands of e-mails to go through."

His coping strategy while at the office is creating folders to organize messages and deleting them once he's finished with them.

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"People are so busy now. I think there's a loss of civility. E-mail is easy," says Prof. Duxbury, who received 650 e-mails while away recently on an eight-day trip to Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. "It requires, in many ways, less thought. So we just do it by e-mail."

Maria Taylor, who manages a diversion program for young offenders in Toronto, logs on to her work e-mail the night before she returns to the office. "It's calm, it's quiet, I'm at home and I go through and see what's important."

It can be a daunting task to whittle away at pages of unread e-mails, she says, a chore that can leave you wishing you hadn't come back to the office. "Everybody goes through this with vacations. They get back and go, 'Oh, I need another vacation.'"

She gets about 30 e-mails a day, some of which are questions from young offenders and their parents, who often expect a quick response unless they know she's away.

Ms. Taylor's M.O. is to start from the first message she received, and work her way up to the most recent. "Often there's a thread, and if you go to the last e-mail, you might miss some of the centre and you start responding, and then realize that you missed something in an e-mail and you look like an idiot."

Mr. Buchanan has solved this problem by taking the opposite approach, starting with the most recent e-mails and working his way back. "If you're away for 10 days, a lot of the time, if you're really lucky, problems will solve themselves," he says.

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For example, an employee will present an issue and others will chime in, sending e-mails back and forth – clogging his inbox. But someone might come up with a solution. Then all Mr. Buchanan has to do is delete the e-mails related to that thread.

"Whereas if you start at the bottom, you find yourself reading every single e-mail related to that issue until you finally get to the punchline, which is you didn't have to deal with it that day."

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