Although summer vacation season has just about wrapped up, catching up on work after a trip is a problem that can plague employees year round. Despite your "out-of-office" reply (which you've likely contradicted throughout your vacation) and your meticulous pre-trip preparation, there's a good chance that the mountain of work waiting for you on your first day back will undo any relaxation you enjoyed while you were away.
Even if you've been on a working business trip, you'll probably still have a decent number of emails and tasks to sort through upon your return. But having a plan for powering through the dreaded post-travel to-do list — as well as taking steps to reduce it before you even leave — is the key to minimizing your back-to-work stress.
Maura Thomas, founder of productivity-training and time-management company RegainYourTime.com, and author of "Personal Productivity Secrets" (Wiley, 2012), offered some helpful advice for catching up after a vacation or business trip. [11 Tech Gadgets for Your Working Vacation]
Plan for the backlog of work well before you leave. Many workers have found themselves in that "pre-vacation scramble" to get as much done as they can in the day or two leading up to their trips. Thomas recommended prepping your out-of-office work a week in advance, and contacting the appropriate colleagues to make arrangements for your time away.
"If you're heavily involved in a project or working extensively with a particular team, let them know you'll be on the road, even if you still plan to work," Thomas told Business News Daily. "Request that they hold anything that isn't urgent until you get back. This will minimize your backlog."
For voicemail messages and automatic email replies, schedule your official "away" dates for one day before and one day after your actual trip. If your contacts expect a delay, it relieves some of the pressure to answer them immediately before you leave or upon your return. You may very well end up answering those messages earlier, but it's always better to under-promise and over-deliver, Thomas said.
Keep a clear schedule on your first day back. If you'll be gone for more than a couple of days, avoid scheduling any meetings or appointments for the day you return, if at all possible. If other people schedule things on your calendar, block yourself out for your first day back in the office. It will be much easier to catch up on anything you missed if you have the whole day free to focus on those tasks.
Take advantage of "disconnected" time while you're gone. Long stretches of time on a plane or train provide great opportunities to make headway on important projects, Thomas said. If you have any tasks that don't require an Internet connection, consider foregoing the in-flight WiFi option and/or shutting off your mobile devices while in transit. Good tasks for those times include writing, editing, designing, brainstorming, sketching, calculating and planning. Even just processing your emails without an Internet connection is much easier and more productive when new ones aren't constantly downloading. Any outgoing messages will sit in your outbox until the next time you connect.
Approach your inbox smartly. One of the most dreaded post-vacation tasks is going through the hundreds of emails received while away.You can quickly catch up on your overflowing inbox with what Thomas calls the "four-pass process."
- First pass: Sort by subject. For multiple messages with the same subject line, delete everything but the most recent one, and then, after taking all your "passes," read that one from the bottom up. This will likely eliminate dozens of messages in just a minute or two.
- Second pass: Sort by sender.This will allow you to quickly delete or file the newsletters, coupons, advertising and any other mail that isn't from an actual person.
- Third pass: Sort by date received. Work from the oldest to the newest. This may be contrary to how you usually view your messages (newest to oldest), but when you've been out, think about who's been waiting the longest for a reply.
- Fourth pass: Respond. When processing what's left, resist the urge to "skim and skip." It's important to actually deal with each message, because it won't get any easier if you leave the message there to read again later. If there's anything you truly can't handle now, move it to your task list for later completion.
Creating a schedule for before, during and after your trip — and sticking to it — will give you the peace of mind you need to truly enjoy your time out of the office and come back feeling refreshed instead of stressed.
"Catching up on that backlog is a lot easier and less stressful if you actually plan for it," Thomas said.
Originally published on Business News Daily