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2004-12-23 17:28:05

E-Mail Doesn't Take a Holiday

For those unhappy about devoting their first back-to-work hours to a tedious slog through an overflowing in-box, there are other strategies for dealing with postvacation glut.

However tough it is to return from vacation, it's tougher still to return to an e-mail in-box filled with hundreds, or even thousands, of messages that have piled up in your absence.

Brian McLendon, a publicist at Random House, is bracing himself. He will be on vacation next week, when his office in Manhattan is closed. Since many others will also take that week off because of the holidays, he figures he will return to a light load: 200 to 300 messages rather than the 1,000 or so he usually faces after a week away.

"I have my coping strategy," Mr. McLendon said. "I know it is coming, so I prepare for it. I don't answer my phone until lunchtime." Instead, he hunkers over his desk, deleting spam en masse, sorting by sender and date, and separating informational e-mail messages from those requiring action.

Of the 1,000 e-mail messages he typically receives after a week off, 200 of them, he said, are spam. Another 150 are what he really hates: "chime-in" e-mails, or messages copied to several people, each of whom replies with a thanks, a comment or an acknowledgment.

For those unhappy about devoting their first back-to-work hours to a tedious slog through an overflowing in-box, there are other strategies for dealing with postvacation glut. An obvious one is to clean out the in-box while on vacation, using a laptop, hand-held device, hotel computer or Internet cafe.

"Today's reliance on e-mail has changed the nature of vacation," said James E. Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University.

If you do clean your in-box, he said, you're "defeating the purpose of vacation, which is to get away from the office and do something different."

If you don't, "you have to work twice as hard when you come back," he said. "And while you are responding to those, new ones come flooding in." In some ways, he said, "you are punished for taking vacation, by out-of-control e-mails."

Diane Danielson of Brookline, Mass., lost control last year when she decided to prevent a pileup during a vacation in the south of France, where she had Internet access temptingly at hand. She intended only to clear out her junk mail, but while she was at it, she innocently answered a message about rescheduling a speaking engagement.

"It created this big, stressful thing - four days of negotiating back and forth" about two people's schedules from six time zones away, said Ms. Danielson, founder of the Downtown Women's Club, a networking organization. "It would have been better if I had never looked at my e-mail until I returned. And if I missed an opportunity, so what?"

The next summer, also in France, she ignored her e-mail until she returned. "It was great," she said. "In my view, vacation is when you don't wear a watch, you don't have anyone checking in on you."

Many, though, feel the opposite. For them, failing to keep up with their e-mail is stressful. "You become very nervous if you are out of pocket or out of touch," said Ira Schacter, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in Manhattan. In pre-BlackBerry days, he crashed his company's server when 8,000 e-mail messages piled up while he was on vacation.

(Even today, not every in-box has infinite capacity. Some people clean out their in-boxes because they must. In-boxes that are filled to the limit, often with large picture files, can crash a computer, slow it down or reject new messages.)

Now, four years later, Mr. Schacter works feverishly to keep pace. On a recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, he muddled through when he had no access to e-mail by having his secretary cull his e-mail messages and fax him important ones once a day. He still devoted his first day back to his backlog.

This month Jeff Abraham of Pittsburgh tried to tread a middle ground during a long weekend in Montreal with his wife, Heloise.

He considered taking his laptop because he so despises the overflowing in-box he knows will be awaiting him. "It is easier to get it over with than to deal with the onslaught when you get back to work," said Mr. Abraham, vice president for marketing with the Education Management Corporation.

But he decided to forgo the laptop because "it was supposed to be a romantic weekend without the kids, and typically e-mail and romantic weekends don't mix."

By JOYCE COHEN from The New York Times

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