Do you find catching up tedious when you return to work after a holiday? I do. It took me a while to do something about it. I'd even start dreading my return to work on the last day of holiday. On my first day back, I'd open my email inbox and see tens, if not hundreds, of new messages. Then dozens of notifications in Slack, and GitHub, and Trello, and so on.

In recent years, I've drastically reduced that anxiety by reducing the number of notifications. It's not perfect, and I'm still working on it, but it has served me well. Here's what I do. I hope it may help you, too!

Make it obvious you are unavailable

Set an email auto-responder. Update your status and/or name in the chat app to "out of office until...". Mark yourself as out-of-office in the calendar and automatically decline all invitations. Announce your absence to colleagues, customers, and whoever else might be trying to contact you.

This deals with humans. Now onto services and transactional emails.

Remove duplicate notifications

Turn off emails from third-party services. Most services already have in-application notification systems. If I first see the email and follow the link to the service, that usually clears the in-app notification. If I first see the notification in the app, the email is redundant and will take me time to process later for no good reason.

I used to think that disabling email notifications would help only during time-off, but I've come to appreciate it even during work. It's resulted in less mindless clicking through emails.

If you've been using email as your only inbox, disabling those notifications will break that process. That brings me to the next point.

Multiple inboxes, pull-based vs push-based notifications

I turned off emails from GitHub a decade ago. When I am ready to review code, I open the website and look at the notifications page for review requests. Going one step further, I might ignore notifications and go directly to the pull requests page of a repository and decide what to review there.

On projects using Trello, I've found the activity log of the board very valuable. It's always there and in chronological order, so I can catch up any time. That also makes notifications less important.

Overall, notifications introduce a sense of urgency. I get interrupted and feel the need to act on the new information. Switching to "pull-based" system removes the time component and gives me more control.

Identify what's worthy of your attention

You don't need to be part of every discussion and make every decision. I've found that "out of sight, out of mind" is a good counter to the fear of missing out.

Sometimes I reply to a Slack thread asking for my input, but many other people do as well. The replies and notifications continue well past the point of any of the new messages being relevant to me. The context menu has an action called "Turn off notifications for replies". After that, I am free.

Similarly, I may have contributed to a discussion on GitHub, but have nothing more to add, because others have it covered. I go to the notification settings of the issue or pull request and click "Unsubscribe". If my participation is still needed, someone will mention me in the discussion and I'll get a new notification.

You can mute or leave Slack channels you don't use. You can stop watching GitHub repositories you don't work on anymore. It's okay to let go.

Check notification settings for each new service you use

Over time you inevitably sign up for new services and the number of emails creeps up again. This is because every company insists on sending emails for every event. They also send marketing emails about product updates.

I've started checking the email settings of every app right after creating an account and disabling communication by email.

Mark all as read

I've rarely done that, because I'm afraid to miss something important. Then again, important things tend to re-surface.

Be considerate to others

Now that you're on top of your inbox(es), help others out. My strategy for that is delay and summarise.

Delay. Check if the person is working before sending them a message. Try to find a solution on your own. If you cannot, take notes and wait for the person to come back to discuss with them.

Summarise. When a colleague comes back to work, write down a few bullet points with the most important things that happened in their absence. Include links to more context if they want to dive into some of the topics. I like to mix all kinds of updates. Here is what that summary might look like, with placeholders:

  • [Person] joined the team
  • We found a solution to [problem that occurred before you left on holiday], here's a [link] to the details.
  • We are currently working on [new feature]
  • [Person] announced [news important to everyone in the company]

Further considerations

The accumulation of emails and other notifications during time-off was an obvious pain point. While avoiding that pain was the motivation of the actions I described, the outcome for me has been better focus on a daily basis.

There is more room for improvement. On days when I get too distracted at work, I completely close Slack and the Mail program. That obviously doesn't reduce the number of messages, but I can read them in batches, the same way I approach code review.

A further step in that direction would be to disable desktop notifications and only look at my inboxes a few times per day.