A 12-Hour Time Difference: How Traveling Helped Me Manage E-Mail

by Nick Waterhouse

We’ve all come to the conclusion that e-mail sucks. Everyone and their brother has figured out a “perfect” inbox management technique. From auto-responders to batch and unsubscribe programs such as Boomerang and Unroll.me, I’ve tried them all. Surprisingly, nothing has worked better for me than taking an extended trip through Southeast Asia.

I am not going to pretend I am some public figure who gets 1000s of e-mails a day, but, like a lot of you guys, I do receive 100s of daily e-mails even after religiously unsubscribing from junk. But with wanting to cover a lot of ground over the course of a year, I refused to let my inbox dictate my evenings. I took this trip to help rid some of the bad work habits I had at home, not reinforce them. Plus, my evenings are much better spent with a Beer Lao and new friends.

After being overseas for a few months, I am happy to say that the problem of managing my e-mail has solved itself without the use of any fancy techniques or tools. I used to be a big fan of auto-responders and used an e-mail template similar to one Tim Ferriss recommends but have recently steered away from this tactic for a few reasons.

First, auto-responders clog up inboxes. If someone doesn’t need something immediately, there is no need to clog up their inbox with a slightly pretentious “I’m too busy for you” response. Second, if something is actually urgent (medical emergency or death-in-the-family urgent) than someone wouldn’t be e-mailing anyways. Before traveling, I always make sure at least one close friend or relative has a way to reach me in case of emergency.

If I know I will check and respond to e-mail every 48 hours or so, an auto-responder is unnecessary. I think my lack of an immediate response can be a good reminder that e-mail shouldn’t require immediate attention. Plus, people get used to my typical response time and will stop worrying after a few exchanges. If I know there is a chance I won’t have any internet for more than 3 weekdays, I will use a very basic auto-responder including the date that I will be back on e-mail and always thanking the person writing for their patience. Or, a short “Sorry, I was having e-mail issues” usually replaces the need for an auto-responder. A little white lie won’t hurt anyone in this case.

Unless intentionally avoiding a wifi connection, you would be hard pressed to go 3 days in any country in the world without finding one. Over the last few months I have had a solid wifi connection on buses in Malaysia, jungles in Thailand and on a floating restaurant meters away from the oldest rainforest in the world. Although a constant connection can be a huge productivity killer, it is possible to find one if necessary.

I usually check, or batch, my e-mails in the mornings after breakfast. I am currently 12 hours ahead of EST and 15 hours ahead of PST, which is perfect for my e-mail schedule. During my morning e-mail session, I can see all of my (US based) e-mails from the day before. Any long and loopy e-mail chains have answered themselves and I am able to quickly delete or sort all of that day’s junk and ‘no response necessary’ e-mails.

After narrowing a full day’s response required e-mails down in a matter of minutes, I can efficiently and intelligently respond on my own time. There is not someone waiting for me to get back to them immediately so I always make sure my responses are thoughtful and accurate to avoid another e-mail on the matter. Once I am satisfied with my responses, I send all the e-mails at once before signing off – usually for the rest of the day.

I literally process hundreds of e-mails in one go rather than checking my inbox five – ten – twenty times throughout my workday as I did back home. On top of that, I usually maintain a 24-hour response time for all of my e-mails that I deem a response necessary.

Currently, I am lucky to not have a boss to answer to back home but know many people that travel while working remotely for someone. In this case, make sure your employer is aware of your schedule and desire for efficiency before traveling abroad. If you are able to stick to the 24 hour window and still complete high quality assignments, it should be a non-issue.

When I inevitably return home and back to normal working hours, I plan to continue to use most of these techniques. The most valuable resource we have is time, so why not use it wisely?

As Neil Gaiman said in his now famous commencement speech for the University of the Arts,

There was a day when I looked up and realized that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.”

Whether you are aspiring to be a writer, or are just someone trying to get ahead, I doubt that being a “professional e-mail replier” is going to help.

If these techniques don’t apply to you and you want to check out some of the tools I mentioned above, I have compiled a brief list for you. But don’t forget, a little self-control and determination go a long way.

Do you travel a lot and have a great system for e-mails? Do you have an auto-responder that really works without pissing people off? Let me know in the comment section below.

Tim Ferriss’ Autoresponses – Tim Ferriss has a lot of great blog posts about e-mail management. While a lot of these posts are now dated, this is his most recent and an example of auto-responders he uses currently. All of us aren’t public figures like Tim and as I said above, I think they can sound a bit pretentious. I wouldn’t recommend using these unless you really get too many e-mails to browse through once daily.

Boomerang – Specifically for gmail users. Enables batch sending, batch receiving and e-mail tracking. I find this a very easy to use tool and still use it even after getting on a once-a-day checking routine.

Unroll.me – Do you ever feel that no matter how many newsletters you unsubscribe from, your inbox is still full of them? Unroll.me allows you to instantly unsubscribe from any newsletter or junk mail you regularly receive.

Neil Gaiman Commencement Speech – A very inspirational speech from a great writer.

Nick Waterhouse is the founder of AirBuds, Ltd. and BackpackingWithaBusiness.com. When not starting new projects, he is exploring far-off lands or making music with his friends. Feel free to contact him at BackpackingWithaBusiness@gmail.com.

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