The first time I returned to work after taking 12 weeks off on parental leave, my brain felt like mush. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What do I do here again?”

I’ve heard from other parents that this is a normal feeling, and luckily, it wore off after the first few days of catching up. But after an extended break from work, it’s natural that the most dreaded and heavy part of returning to work is catching up.

It’s unrealistic to read every message sent while you are out or to expect yourself to have context on every project or conversation quickly.

With that in mind, I’ve set out to make it easier to catch up this time. I’m about to head out on a 16-week parental leave to have my second child. Here are the things I’ve been doing to prepare and that I’m readying for while I’m out to make returning to work less daunting.

Deleting all of my emails while I’m away

Twice now, when I’ve spent extended time away from work, I’ve deleted my work emails rather than go through them when I return.

I’m not the first person to delete my emails. Far from it. I was inspired by an article I read back in 2015 about Ariana Huffington giving her Huffington Post employees the option to delete their emails while on vacation. She was inspired to do it by a German car company who did the same.

When I posted asking if others deleted their emails while they were away on LinkedIn, I got responses that made me feel less abnormal in this approach. In case you need a little encouragement, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • This approach led to overwhelmingly positive feedback. Even though folks were surprised I deleted my emails, I received a lot of praise for it as well. I’ve seen several others adopt the approach, and the external partners I work with (the people I would be emailing) have never had an issue with me deleting emails. Chase Warrington, the Head of Remote at Doist, has a similar approach. He shared, “I was also worried people would be upset, but instead of frustration with this decision, I’ve ONLY received positive feedback on the practice. Everyone dreads the post-vacay backlog, and while I’m sure some people are silently frustrated when they don’t get the response they are used to, I think the majority of us are empathetic and supportive of this move.” Chase takes it further and does the same for chats and voicemails.
  • Over-communicate ahead of time that you’ll be deleting emails. Rease Rios, the Director of Content at Qase, deletes her emails if she’s out of the office for more than a week and, ahead of time, adds a note to her email signature so that the people she works with regularly are aware that she’ll be off shortly.
  • Opt for labeling and archiving instead. If deleting emails is taking it too far for you, another option is to label them all and archive them. Ryan Speaker, the Customer Support Team Lead at Virtru, created a new email folder while he was on parental leave and marked them as read and archived. This is another way to achieve the same feeling of not needing to wade through emails when you return.

Making a to-do list for when I return

The first few months after having a baby can still be a reality where you’re very sleep-deprived. Knowing that I’ll have a newborn and a toddler at home, I’m not leaving anything to memory — I am writing everything down ahead of time.

In the weeks leading up to my parental leave, I start collecting a list of things I’ll want to check in on or reference again as soon as I’m online. It may seem obvious now, but it likely won’t be in a few months.

Here are some of the things I’m keeping on that list:

  • Documents to check. We have several project documents and documents for asynchronous check-ins at my work. I’m keeping a list of the ones I’ll want to jump back into to gain context quickly when I return.
  • A list of my recurring reminders. I keep recurring reminders in Todoist for things like prepping for weekly meetings, sharing monthly reports, doing small routine tasks, and anything else that comes up on a regular time frame. I’ll be removing the due date from all of those when I’m offline, so when I’m back, I have a note to set those up again in the first week or so that I’m back at work. (Read more about how I set up my to-do list.)
  • Go over my top priorities at work. One of the things I’ve done in the last year is genuinely work on workload planning. Part of that is having a singular view of all my projects and the priorities they roll into. When I get back, I can start by reviewing those priorities to ensure they are top of mind, then going over them with my manager to confirm that they are still accurate.

Getting a list of key meetings/announcements to catch up on

I’m lucky enough that this last one is common practice for when someone at Buffer is out on family leave — we make sure to keep a list of crucial meeting recordings and announcements so that the person returning can look at that list instead of sifting through everything to look for what is most important.

Several people on my team will add those recordings to a shared document so that I can start watching them or reading them once I return. As a company, we also record every All Hands meeting, so those recordings will be available once I’m back.

This step relies on having someone you work with be willing to collect all of those items for you, but if you can make it happen, this goes a long way to focusing your attention on what you need to catch up on most.

The key is focusing on the essentials

Ultimately, what I’m doing in my approach is removing as many things as possible that I might need to catch up on and trying to keep it concentrated on quickly seeing the essentials. This is powerful because instead of spending too much time catching up, hopefully, I’ll be able to gather context and start working on impactful projects again quickly.

I’d love to hear in the comments — how have you dealt with catching up after an extended period from work? Or how are you preparing for your own parental leave?

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