Did you take an email vacation for Labor Day?

If not, why not?

While we all know the importance of taking vacations, the benefits can be negated if it simply means we have that much more work —  and that much more email — to deal with on our return. That’s why some people are taking what they call email vacations (or, if you prefer to sound more couth, email sabbaticals) where they do the electronic equivalent of taking all the mail that piled up over the vacation and throwing it in the trash.

One of the main proponents behind the email sabbatical is danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. “The idea is simple: turn off your email and delete it. Set up a filter and send all messages to /dev/null (a.k.a. the Trash). Send a bounce message telling people their message wasn't received and that they should resend it after X date or send you the contents via snail mail (for those who want to get the message off their plate of to-dos),” she explains. “This isn't just a typical out-of-office delayed response message, but a very clear sign that the message was not — and will never be — received.” She also provides a process for setting it up to, as she says, avoid pissing people off.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO for the city of Asheville, N.C., offers a less-drastic method that uses a helper — a colleague at work, for instance — to sort out important email for your return.

A less-planned, post-facto version is “email bankruptcy,” first described as a fantasy in 2002. Email bankruptcy is deciding after the fact to delete all email messages older than a specific date, and emailing everyone to announce this decision and asking them to email it again if it was important. (Of course, this could cause a cascade as a series of people all take this action.)

In fact, a 2012 study by the University of California, Irvine, found that people who do not look at e-mail on a regular basis at work are less stressed and more productive. While the researchers looked at only 13 people who stopped using email for five days (they had trouble finding people who were willing to give email up), the study found that subjects spent longer periods of time focusing on a single task, shifted between computer windows much less often, and had lower stress levels.

Some companies, such as U.S. Cellular and e-Verifile, have “no-email Fridays” where people aren’t supposed to send email and instead are supposed to, gasp, talk to each other. Volkswagen, the German carmaker, stopped its BlackBerry servers sending email messages to employees outside work hours, and Ferrari also restricts email, reports the Financial Times. And one company, the French Atos, goes even further. It bans internal email altogether, instead using instant messaging and social media, with the goal of being email-free this year

There is also “No Email Day,” which was scheduled for March 3 this year (the first one was November 11, 2011, last year’s was December 12, so presumably next year’s will be April 4). On the other hand, like Atos, it encourages people to use social media instead, which seems to defeat the purpose.

Naturally, it’s unrealistic to expect that people can give up email altogether (the #noemail contingent aside). Critics of the Atos plan say it will simply splinter the communication to multiple systems, while Gartner analyst Jeffrey Mann writes, “Although the concept of no-email is provocative and attractive on many levels, a narrow focus on eliminating the use of this one tool is unlikely to have a long life.” In addition, implementing a no-email day requires plenty of communication ahead of time to get buy-in for the idea.

The goal, supporters say, is to build awareness and mindfulness so that email isn’t simply an automatic reaction. And Mann agrees with that. “Although we do not expect that enterprises will focus on eliminating email as a goal in itself, the deeper implications of adopting more flexible and social ways of working will influence enterprises for some time.,” he writes. Instead, he suggests, businesses should identify business processes where email is unnecessary or unhelpful and provide better alternatives.

It may be too late for you to take an email sabbatical for Labor Day, but hey! Columbus Day is coming up.

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