Vacation season has officially begun. For many of us, this means a higher volume of out-of-office replies when we email our colleagues.
Despite this, you can almost guarantee that some people will get back to you long before they’re scheduled to return to work.
Much has been written on today’s 24/7 work culture and how it’s eradicating the already blurred line between personal and work time. Whether we work at our company’s headquarters or at home, we’re never really “off the clock” anymore thanks to mobile devices. We know we shouldn’t interrupt family dinners, weekend activities, vacations and even our sleep with constant work communication, but we do it anyway.
I recently read a piece on The Muse about how to stop obsessively checking your work email. The author, Dr. Suzanne Gelb, outlined four root causes of this behavior:
1. Fear of missing out
2. Worrying about what others will think
3. Wanting a distraction from boredom or stress
4. Wanting to fill an emotional void or seeking human connection
Most people fall into one of the first two categories. We want people to see us as dedicated, conscientious workers who respond quickly and never miss an opportunity. Some of us put this pressure on ourselves; others have bosses and/or clients who make them feel they should always be on call. No matter the case, it’s more or less expected that we’re reachable anytime, anywhere.
Though I’m not a compulsive email checker, I often read, file and answer emails when I’m not expected to be working. My boss doesn’t ask me to do this; rather, she often specifies that I am not to answer her until I’m back at work. Yet I can’t help it. I think, “It will only take me a minute to answer this,” or, “Let me just confirm this appointment so I don’t leave the other person hanging.”
It’s hard to break the habit of working 24/7, especially when those you interact with begin to count on it. You can and should break the habit, though, if not for your own sake, then for the sake of your friends and family. (No one wants to be third wheel to you and your smartphone.)
Here are a few tricks that have helped me to loosen the chains my inbox has on me, even if I’ll never be able to cast them off entirely:
1. Put your smartphone’s settings to work.
No matter which email app you use, you should be able to adjust the settings so it doesn’t notify you every time you get a message. (Note: Email-blocking programs like Inbox Pause exist for this purpose.) I set my iPhone’s standard mail app to check for emails every hour, and I try not to manually refresh it in between.
That way, I’ll at least be aware of any messages that come through after I leave the office. If they are truly urgent, I’ll respond to the sender within 60 minutes. I set my boss and team members as “favorites” so their messages are the only ones that send an immediate notification.
I also love my phone’s “Do Not Disturb” feature. I block incoming notifications between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. so people sending emails from other time zones don’t interrupt my sleep. Don’t try to be a hero by answering 3 a.m. messages. Not getting a good night’s sleep will only hurt your performance the next day.
2. Set an email limit on weekends.
Work can inevitably trickle into the weekends. During your company’s busy season or a big project, it might not be feasible to avoid your inbox all weekend, but you need time to relax and unwind, too. I won’t open my email app more than twice on any weekend day. Even then I’ll rarely answer anything until Monday morning.
3. Obey your out-of-office reply.
When you start to see that inbox number creep up on a day off, it’s tempting to start answering messages to avoid email overload. If your automatic reply says you’ll answer when you return, then answer when you return. You’ll create more work for yourself if you set a standard of replying when you’re out of the office.
If you foresee any emergencies popping up while you’re gone (as they often do), include a trusted colleague’s contact information in your O.O.O. reply. Then, he can filter out what’s truly an “emergency” and contact you to deal with it if necessary.
This skill has helped me stop working all the time. Treating every email as if it’s urgent is a surefire way to let other people control your time. Repeat after me: You do not have to answer every email right away. Some things—most things—can wait until the next day, but you must train yourself to distinguish between what you should deal with immediately and what can wait.
For me, questions about current projects and scheduling meetings/interviews are top priorities. Everything else (other than emails from my boss) takes a back seat. I file those messages away in a separate inbox folder to answer when I’m ready, and for the most part, no one follows up or questions my “delayed” response.
In some industries and positions, it’s not possible to ignore your inbox for too long. That’s OK. The point is to allow yourself a little breathing room, a short respite from the constant workflow. Taking a break from after-hours/weekend/vacation work, even just for an hour, can give you the fresh perspective and focus you need in order to do your best in the workplace.
Nicole Fallon is the assistant editor of Business News Daily, a resource for small-business owners and entrepreneurs. Follow her on Twitter @nicolefallon90. A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.