What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I just took a two-week vacation and, even better, a connectivity holiday. I didn't go entirely without e-mail, but living without e-mail isn't viable long term. By scaling back instead, I may have found a way to a saner relationship with e-mail now that I've returned.

From Aug. 8 to 12, I was on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, 50 miles from the nearest cell tower. In other words, it was impossible to make phone calls or connect to e-mail and the Web. I left all my devices in the car.

When I returned to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, I turned on my BlackBerry, downloaded over 1,000 messages and used the following e-mail triage criteria:

  1. If the e-mail was a CC or FYI, I read it, deleted it and didn't respond.
  2. If it was from a vendor, I deleted it without reading it. After my vacation, I would have plenty of time to review products.
  3. If the e-mail was from my staff asking me to help with a project or budget issue, I responded.
  4. If it was from a customer who needed a question answered or wanted to make a complaint, I responded.

For the rest of my vacation, through Aug. 22, I used this same triage technique. I ended up sending about 10 e-mails a day. I made no phone calls. Normally, I probably send out about 300 e-mails and make 20 phone calls.

When I reconnected to a network on Aug. 22, I simply highlighted the thousands of e-mails in my in-box and pressed Delete.

It was liberating.

I know that I left hundreds of vendor questions unanswered. But I also know that I read every e-mail that contained an FYI and that I responded to every customer or staff need. As of early September, I've received only two or three resends from folks who wanted a response while I was on vacation. I've suffered no negative consequences from deleting all those thousands of e-mails sent to me in August.

My ability to send just 10 e-mails a day and keep the peace raises the question: Have we created an e-mail culture that is so overwhelming that we need to spend hours a day just keeping up with our in-boxes? Maybe a bulk delete -- the equivalent of declaring e-mail bankruptcy -- is something I should try now and then as a way of cleaning the slate.

If I lose anything important when I do that -- if there are issues that I failed to resolve or areas where I need to intervene -- I'll receive a follow-up e-mail asking for help.

My experience during the two weeks of my vacation taught me that we are often too quick to send an e-mail, escalate a problem or delegate simple issues. In the days before e-mail, we may have been more productive just because instant communication was not available and we were forced to work out problems on our own.

Of course, all my staffers were very supportive. The fact that I could delete thousands of e-mails without consequence is a tribute to their ability to resolve complex issues independently.

My connectivity holiday extended to complete separation from news, RSS feeds and my blog. All that keyboard time was replaced with family time and the joy of not knowing what time of day -- or even what day -- it was.

I always get a great deal from vacations. Over the years, I've learned alpine climbing skills, enjoyed the time I've gotten to spend with my family, and derived the satisfaction that comes from having to focus on the basics of eating, sleeping and avoiding sunburn.

This year, I learned that an e-mail and connectivity holiday is possible. If you sent me an e-mail in August that I didn't respond to, and if the issue you were addressing is still important, send it again. Otherwise, relish the digital silence!

John D. Halamka is CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System, CIO and associate dean for educational technology at Harvard Medical School, chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network, chair of the national Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel and a practicing emergency physician. You can contact him at jhalamka@caregroup.harvard.edu.

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