Six months after leaving the cushion of a full-time job and steady paycheck to go freelance, I was faced with my very first big ole decision: to set an out-of-office… or not. Truth be told, it wasn’t much of a choice since I was hitching a flight to Morocco, where I’d spend a few internet-less days in the Sahara Desert, climbing sand dunes and falling asleep under the mesmerizing myriad of stars.
Logically, I knew my entire freelance hustle wouldn’t crumble because I was unreachable for a day — but still, my anxiety pulsated with unrealistic thoughts: What if the executive editor of the New York Times wants me to turnaround a piece in a day? What if my largest client doesn’t hear from me, so they give all of my work away? What if, what if, what if?!
As the day grew closer, I worked longer hours, tied up all loose strings I could and penned an auto-response. And guess what? Nothing happened.
I was able to be fully in the moment for one of the most incredible sunrises I’ve ever seen — while riding a camel, nonetheless — and ended up pitching four stories that got approved after the experience. Now, I give myself permission to truly log out of my work and enjoy vacations.
What gives me more peace of mind than anything else is that trusty OOO that offers important info, next steps and options for anyone who graces my inbox. I’m not the only freelancer who adopts this policy either, since taking time to disconnect is good news for productivity and overall happiness.
Three out-of-office examples for the next time you’re heading out on an (email free) adventure:
1. A standard OOO that helps manage expectations.
Though there were days — many decades ago — where a writer’s job was clear-cut, the same isn’t true anymore. In fact, journalists wear many hats by reporting stories, executing editorial strategies, presenting at events and the list goes on.
Wordsmiths can also work from anywhere — and often do — either in pursuit of a digital nomad lifestyle or just to maximize their flexibility. It’s an experience freelance journalist and podcaster Suchandrika Chakrabarti knows firsthand since she teaches, speaks at conferences or otherwise, is away from email.
She maintains a standard OOO that lets people know she’s not instantly available. By setting this response, Chakrabarti says she sets a precedent with her clients, allowing for smart boundaries and turnaround times.
“As freelancers, we mainly work with non-freelancers, and they find it hard to imagine our lives. In an office environment, if a colleague isn’t responding to an email, you might check their calendar or walk over. If a contact elsewhere isn’t responding, you might assume they’re in a meeting. Freelancers aren’t so accessible, and our ways of working are seen as mysterious,” she shares.
“So my OOO just lets my contacts know that I’ve got other things going on. Managing expectations with good communication keeps remote working relationships healthy.”
Subject: I’m away from my emails today.
Body: Please be patient — I’ll respond as soon as I can. This is an automated message.
2. An OOO that shows personality/humor.
When digital and content marketing writer Robin Catalano takes a much-needed getaway with loved ones, she lets humor lead her out-of-office. Not only is it her personality, but she found that people were less likely to ignore her auto-responder if she made ‘em laugh.
Otherwise, she’d be bombarded by messages that read ‘I know you’re OOO but…’ or ‘Don’t read this until you’re back…’ — both of which are distracting.
“I understand that sometimes we just want to get something down in a message before we forget it, but we can use email scheduling, task lists or calendar reminders for that. I wanted to be clear that my vacation time is sacred, and if they really want efficient service, clients shouldn’t expect me to sift through a mountain of their emails when I get back,” she explains.
When you’re planning your trip, she suggests giving long-term clients a two-week notice, and no matter what, don’t look at any emails, even if you don’t intend to respond.
No, but really: “While most emails will be garden variety and you might be tempted to take a quick peek to confirm everything is status quo, there’s no faster way to ruin a vacation than by reading an email from a cranky or needy client,” she stresses.
Subject: I’m on vacation.
Body: Dear clients,
I will be on vacation from July 1 through July 15. To avoid dirty looks from my family, the frustration of finding a good WiFi connection while on a backroad to Sorrento, and, well, working when I should be taking a big mental nap, I will not be checking email. In order to prevent my inbox from melting down in my absence, I ask that you hold additional emails until July 16.
I look forward to coming back, refreshed and ready to hit the ground running on your projects, and will touch base with you after I return.
3. An OOO that allows for “urgent” responses only.
Amy Gorin, MS, RDN is both a freelance writer and the owner of her own nutritional company out of New York City. This means she’s not only on the hook with editors who assign her stories, but she also responds to inquiries from journalists who seek her expertise as a nutritionist.
When she travels, she sets the OOO below — with the subject line being key. Because it’s eye-catching, she thinks people take note of it, instead of it getting lost in email chaos.
Subject: Where is Amy Gorin?
Body: Thanks for your message! I’m out of the office and will return on X date. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. If you’re a reporter on deadline or if your message is urgent, please respond to this message with ‘urgent’ in the subject line. I will do my best to get back to you quickly!
Tip: When Amy is returning from a trip, she uses the flight home as an opportunity to organize her inbox. Knowing she has this time to look forward to allows her to live in the moment of her vacay:
“I don’t need to purchase web access to do this. The email responses are saved as drafts and are sent once I reach land and have my phone off of airplane mode,” she recommends.