The next time you go away for vacation, particularly if it's to an international destination, do yourself a favor: Don't check email or voicemail. At all. Zero, nada, niente.
Before you roll your eyes and click away, allow me to state my case in favor of going off the grid.
Recently, I took a two-week trip to the U.K. and Italy with my partner Nick. Voicemail wasn't a concern; no way was I checking it. But I wrestled with whether or not to log into my email account during the trip. On previous travels, I'd check email in the morning and occasionally at night. It seemed like a practical compromise. As a Gmail user, I chose to limit my vacation auto response only to people in my contacts. I worried that by auto responding to every incoming email, I'd also be validating my email address to potential spammers. As a result, I felt compelled to check email on vacation, in case I received a message from someone not in my contacts--for instance, a potential new client.
There's a huge downside to this strategy.
First of all, people tend to send you little (or big) problems in email. How do I do this? What do you think of that? Can you help me? Nine out of ten times, these problems tend to work themselves out without your intervention if you simply aren't available.
Secondly, you run the risk of getting pulled into arguments and other unpleasantness back home. On a prolonged trip to the U.K. two years ago, I found myself drawn into an ugly squabble that troubled me for days. It was completely unnecessary and could certainly have waited until I was home. The argument pulled me away from where I was at the time and, worse, from the vacation state of mind I had been enjoying so much (and needed so badly).
Here's another problem to the strategy: By not auto-responding to every incoming email for fear of getting more spam, I was giving spammers control over my vacation. How absurd is that? Spam is going to make its wormy way into your email inbox no matter what you do.
So for our recent trip, I took the following steps before, during, and after:
1. I gave everyone I work with at least two weeks notice that I would not be available at all during my vacation. I gave them the specific start and stop dates.
2. I gave my immediate family, a neighbor, and a few close friends our travel itinerary and the names and phone numbers of the hotels in London and Italy where we'd be staying. I gave people a way to contact me, but I didn't exactly make it easy for them.
3. In Gmail, I created a vacation auto response for all incoming email, not just those from people in my contacts. My message clearly stated I was on sabbatical and when I'd be available again. (You don't want to say you're away on vacation, for security reasons.)
4. I created an outgoing voicemail greeting basically saying the same thing.
5. I didn't travel with my laptop. I did take my iPad, but I only used it to research information relative to the trip, to book train tickets, and so on. The rule I made was that I'd only use the iPad for entertainment (like watching a movie on the flight over) or to learn more about where we were or where we were going on the trip.
6. I told everyone I'd be gone two days longer than I actually would be. My goal was to give myself the weekend to ease back into reality and get over the jet lag. Then, after those two days were up, I spent about two and a half hours catching up on email. Yes, it was a slog. But I didn't care.
I realize going off the grid for one or two weeks (or even more) isn't going to work for everyone. But guess what? During my time off, the world continued to spin quite nicely without my participation. For some people, this letting go might seem threatening; for me, it was empowering. I took complete control over my time off, instead of giving it away in little pieces. Not to get all new agey on you, but I said yes to myself and no to everyone else.
I also wasn't pulled into a potentially big problem that, after a day or so of back-and-forth emails, ended up amounting to nothing at all. In fact, I didn't miss anything important by not checking my messages. Instead, my mind stayed where it needed to be: in the moment and on vacation.