A digest of all things wϋnderful

It started off with a conversation like this

Dave: “We are going to turn off access to your email while you are on vacation”

Me: “What?!??!! How much access? What about emergency issues?”

Dave: “Yes, your Exchange account will be turned off on the evening your vacation starts and then enabled again when you return”

Me: “What if a server goes down? What if a client needs something critical? What if there is a major disaster that needs to be fixed?”

Dave: “We will be fine for a few days, your only task is to document the process when you return”

So the journey began. I had always kept track of my email on holidays (not obsessively in my opinion) but in moderation to see if there were critical items that needed to be addresses by me. I mainly did this so that I did not have to spend one to two days digging out of a huge inbox collection that would build up while I was away. I also wanted to make sure that nothing was dropped while I was away and there would not be a huge issue awaiting for me upon my return.

As I was closing out items on my last day before holiday I went through the usual processes. I setup my out of office message informing anyone who contacted me via email that I would be unable to respond until I returned and to contact our main office if it was an emergency. I discussed with my team outstanding items and gave them my personal email address to contact me in case there was an extreme emergency. I went through my items in progress, help desk tickets and outstanding sales items. Everything was ready for the transition, except I received an emergency call from a client 20 minutes before the cutoff point. I started to work the issue and gave as much assistance as I could before rapidly writing notes to pass along to another sales engineer.

Into the Great Unknown

Then it happened…..

I received the personal email that my account was disabled. I immediately checked my accounts and sure enough, there was no access. Many things went through my head at this point. I could login with the admin account and simply turn my account back on with no one noticing. But in the spirit of the experiment I resisted this temptation. I did see that I still had access to my Skype and help desk accounts so I can check moderate things but overall my main email was now locked.

During the Lockout Period

  •  Day 1

After going through the entire night without email I awoke with a bit of panic. My usual morning routine is to clear out the email items that have collected the night before, issue responses and in general give a little maintenance to my inbox. It felt really unnatural to not start my day with an activity that I almost religiously do.

My wife was enjoying her morning coffee and in our conversation I kept bringing up the fact that I could not check in on things and did not know the status of certain items. My wife especially enjoyed seeing me squirm as she is very appreciative of the experiment. After about an hour or so, I started to do other tasks around the house and my mind slowly forgot about my earlier panic. By noon I was easing into holiday mode and things were getting easier and easier to forget.

By the time that dinner rolled around I started to feel the need to check on items. I work about an 8 hour time difference from our head office and the early afternoon to evening is when the most activity occurs for me.  Again it really felt like an out of body experience.  I actually opened my iPad and pulled my inbox down in hopes that a refresh would magically happen.  It did not.

  • Day 2

I awoke the second day still missing my morning routine but today came with more ease.   Thoughts of checking entered and left my mind with not much distraction during my day.  Since we did not have internet at the house where we were staying, I was only reminded of checking when my wife’s sister’s kids complained about not being able to check Facebook or download the latest app for their phone or iPad.  We did go into town for dinner this evening and there was WiFi at the restaurant and made you could tell.  EVERYONE had their phones out and were taking pictures of the dinner, posting them to Facebook and other services.   Which makes me ask the question.  Is is more important to have proof you did something than actually doing it?

I did not bring my phone but forgot that I had my Skype account installed on my wife’s phone.  When she connected to the WiFi there was a message on that account.   We argued about me checking it but I defended this by saying that I was still on the hook for personal email and did not have access the majority of the time and a Skype message counted as reaching out through personal mediums for a response.   It turned out to be a client that I have a very good connection with (we had done business when he was on holiday earlier this year).   He had a simple question that needed to be answered.   I responded to him via personal email explaining my email situation and that I could get a response in the next 2 hours if he emailed me his question.   He simply responded “It’s OK, it is not urgent and we will address it next week.  Have a good vacation.”   At that point my mind was completely put at ease that if the most crucial clients accepted I was away then everyone else probably did as well.

  • Day 3

Bliss.   Really that is all I can say.   Things finally reached normality again and it felt like when I was a kids (when there was not or very, very, very, unbearably slow internet.  Think BBS boards).   We spent all of our time outside enjoying the weather at a nearby lake.   We created games from imaginations and surroundings as well as remembering a few old games (for those of you who don’t know CUPS [not the printing service] ours was not as polished as the video though).  Basically it felt like summer holiday should be.   We also had some of the kids mention that they had not been able to have real conversations because either they or their parents were on their phone or tablet most of the time at home.  There has been a recent video going viral on the web that I think does a very good job illustrating this point “I Forgot my Phone”.  A large family cookout that night making Hungarian Gulyás certainly washed away any thoughts of checking email.

  • Day 4

Anxiety.  I thought I would wake up to the same euphoria that I had experienced the previous day but that was not the case.   I had an uneasy feeling of anxiety about what was going to be waiting for me upon my return.  Was there some big issue that needed my attention that had festered for a few days and was not wildly out of control?   Was there a client with an issue that was probably small but due to my holiday causing additional wait time made their mood needlessly sour upon my return.  Don’t get me wrong, my last day was still great but in the back of my mind I always had these feelings of anxiety creeping in.

 First Day Back

mountain of mail graphic

As expected my inbox was stuffed full like a turkey on Thanksgiving.

How much?

Inbox count 1,186.  That may seem extreme to most but keep in mind that part of my job is systems administration and I received a lot of status emails from the various services whether they are running correctly, have a warning or an error still report via email.   All told when the service emails were weeded out I was down to about 350 meaningful messages.  I had considered the “Email Bankruptcy” technique that Wired Magazine suggested but thought that was a bit extreme.  Instead I took the time tested approach of pruning and prioritizing.

How to address them?

  • Outlook Conversation Mode:The next task was how to make sure I answered the most pressing issues first.   I found that Microsoft Outlook’s conversation mode made things MUCH clearer to see as I did not have to go through all the responses of an important email to the “all” list in order to see the root issue and if it applied to me.  At this point I found that there were actually about 41 emails that needed my direct attention that day.
  • Set filters and use flags: As an admin, I already had many filters in place so the most mundane emails could be deleted without needing to be read (systems logs, software updates, notifications).   I then used flags to highlight the most important emails for the first day back, the next few days and answer by the end of the week at a minimum.
  • Let the senders of critical items know there will be a delay: The first step at this point was that I emailed the most crucial saying that I would be a bit delayed in my response due to my backlog from my time off.   Not something I normally do but after reading tips, this seemed like a good idea.
  • Work through your critical items with your inbox window minimized and incoming notifications turned off: Next were the items that I considered to be “on fire”The client that was having the issue had accepted that I was away and was OK with waiting a few days for a response (not the big deal I made it out to be in my head).  The problem was that my train of thought was constantly being interrupted by newly arriving items.  The solution was to simply minimize the inbox window and turn off all new message notifications.   I found my concentrate and ability to process responses rapidly increased.

Time?

I was able to dig out to a relatively stable status in about 2 hours.  I am sure things could be faster when I do this process again as I was doing things for the first time but all in all it was not that bad.

Going Forward

There are a few things that I noticed that I could do to minimize the impact of the email backlog the next time I am away.  Here are some things that I will try in the future to reduce the total amount of email.

  • Unsubscribe or remove useless email: I received a LOT of systems log updates and over the years I have been added to many mailing lists in my company to the point where I am receiving duplicates of mail messages.  On a daily basis this is not bad, I just do a quick delete when they come in and move on with my day.  However I am starting to take the Apple approach to notifications on this issue.  If something is alright and there is no need to give it attention, should I receive a notification?  I don’t think so.  This is what monitoring applications and services are for.   I plan to get a service like Nagios fully configured for all our services and if I want to know if something is OK, I can GO THERE and see that the service is up and running instead of clogging my inbox.  I really only need to be notified if something is wrong or about to cause an error.  I will also be unsubscribing from the long list of online stores that I have ordered things from over the years.  Their ad emails keep clogging my inbox needlessly.
  • Take the same process I used on my return and apply it daily or at least a few times a week:  There were many efficiency items that I discovered upon my return and they effectively let me minimize the time I spent in my inbox.  I will apply some to my daily routine but I also thought about using the entire process on returns from shorter breaks (think Monday morning after you weekend break).  This might relieve some of the anxiety in the future when I go on holiday as there would not be as much backlog when I return.

Success or Failure?

Overall I have to say that the experiment was a success.   I learned a lot about the habits I keep as well as many things I could improve in my daily processes to be a more efficient user of email.   It was not easy, that I have to say, but it was needed and in the end I became better because of it.  There are a few items to address for the next time I do this experiment of if others try it.

  • Always on society – this is a bigger issue than I want to tackle here but it became pretty apparent that when you are unplugged for a few days you really see it from the outside looking in.  How much is enough connectivity and too much.  The lines are blurred but a total disconnect really makes it apparent.  The video I posted earlier demonstrates this very well  “I Forgot my Phone”.
  • Fear and anxiety you will be needed for a critical task and not available or worse yet someone creates more work by doing it wrong a different way.
  • Digging out upon return – It was not as bad as I assumed and the majority of my email was filled with useless notifications.  Unsubscribing and trimming down this set should make for a more manageable inbox on a daily basis as well as when returning from a long trip.
  • The feeling that you are not needed – when you leave and your projects run smoothly and clients are happy this should be a good feeling.  When you return and you ask how everything went and your office response “just fine”.  This again should be a good feeling.  However there is a side affect to all your hard work and preparation, you feel like you are no longer needed and anyone could do your job.   This is obviously not true but there is something in the subconscious that creates this feeling similar to the Andy Griffith Show where Opie and Andy are left as housekeepers when Aunt Bee goes on a trip to Mount Pilot.

Potential Problems?

  • What to do with admins that have access to the Exchange server to prevent the temptation to login via RDP and reset their password or unlock their account?
  • What about forwarding their email before their access is shutoff to a private account and communicating that way?
  • Skype (Phone/Chat Software)? Help desk software? Other independent services if SSO has not been implemented
  • Access to other services that don’t communication via email, IE web services?
  • How do priority items filter through when your email account is shut off?

1 Comment

  1. August 28, 2013    

    It is a weird feeling to unplug and when you return, find the world managed ok without you. When you need to worry though is if on return no one realized you were gone :)

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