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How to Set Up a Gmail (Out of Office) Vacation Responder Email

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:MediumLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Your Ultimate Guide to the Best Gmail Tips and Tricks.
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Taking vacation time is important if you want to stay sharp and focused. This is especially true for the small business owner, who may have many roles to play in their business.

Unfortunately, in today’s connected world email can make it seem like you’re always working, even when you’re trying to take a break. You probably carry your phone or mobile device with you, even on vacation. Where your mobile device is, there’s email. Where there’s email, there’s work.

Constantly checking your business email is no way to get a proper rest on your vacation. There’s a better way. Set up a Gmail vacation responder. A Gmail vacation responder sends an out of office Gmail reply to anyone who sends you an email during the defined time.

Use the out of office Gmail reply to set client and colleague expectations. Use it for vacations, or any other time you will be away from the office. Remember, getting an out of office message is far better than getting no reply at all.

Gmail Out of Office Reminder
Set up a Gmail vacation reminder email (graphic).

This tutorial provides step-by-step instructions for setting up a vacation response in Gmail. It also provides you with some vacation email best practices. Finally, I’ll touch on how you can ease your transition back into work when your vacation is over.

How to Set Up an Auto Response Email Using Gmail

In the screencast above learn how how to quickly set up an automatic Gmail vacation responder. Or, read on for written instructions to help you set up a Gmail out of office message, best practice tips to follow, and more:

1. Turn the Vacation Responder Message On

Let's setup your vacation responder message in Gmail. Here's how to do it step-by-step:

Step 1

From within Gmail, click on the Settings symbol. You’ll find it in the top right of the email screen.

Gmail Vacation Responder - Settings Buttton
Settings buttton.

Step 2

From the dropdown menu, click the Settings option.

Gmail Vacation Responder - Settings
Select settings.

Step 3

The Settings screen displays. Scroll to the bottom of the Settings screen to find the Vacation responder options.

Gmail Vacation Responder - Toggle
Toggle on and set first day date.

The default is for the Vacation responder to be off. To change that selection, click the Vacation responder on toggle button.

Type the date when your vacation starts in the First day field. You can also click in the middle of one of the date fields to bring up a calendar. From the calendar, select the date or date(s).

Step 4

Unless you don’t know when you’ll be back, I recommend also filling out the Last day field. The Last day field determines the last day that your Gmail vacation responder message will be sent. To fill out the field, click the check box to activate the Last day field. Next, type the date or use the calendar to enter the date.

Some email experts recommend adding a few extra days to your return date. This buffer could give you an extra chance to catch up before people try to contact you. This tactic can backfire if someone knows your actual return date though. So, be careful with it.

Gmail Vacation Responder - Last Day
Add the last day date.

Step 5

Now it’s time to create your actual out of office message. Start by giving your message a subject line.

Remember, the subject line is one of the most important parts of an email. Some recipients won’t read past the subject line. So, you want to convey as much information here as you can. I type “Limited Email Access until 8/18” here because that tells the recipient what they need to know.

Gmail Vacation Responder - Subject
Fill in your email subject line.

Step 6

Since you can’t predict who receives your vacation responder message, you can’t address your vacation reply to an individual or group. It’s best to just type your email body.

Next, type the body of the email. It’s always a good idea to include an alternate contact in case there is an urgent problem that needs to be dealt with quickly. If you have several projects, you may name a different contact for each project. Let your backup contacts know that they may receive extra messages while you are gone.

Gmail Vacation Responder - Message Body
Write the body of your email message.

If you use a Gmail signature template, your Gmail signature will be applied to your vacation responder email. For more information about signature templates take a look at:

Step 7

Finally, you’ll notice a checkbox at the bottom that allows you to limit the auto response email to people in your contact list. I recommend selecting this option. You don’t want your vacation reply to go to email newsletters you’ve subscribed to or to junk emails you receive.

Gmail Vacation Responder - Limit Auto Response
Select the option to limit the auto response.

Once you are satisfied with your out of office Gmail message, Click Save Changes.

Note that Gmail only sends the vacation responder message to a recipient once every four days. If a recipient ignores your vacation reply and sends you more than one email in a day, they won’t receive your Gmail out of office message over and over.

2. Test the Vacation Responder Message

Once your Gmail auto response email is set up, you may wish to have a friend help you test the feature. To test your message, ask your friend to send you an email on the first day that you are out. 

If the vacation responder is working, your friend should receive your out of office message. If they do not receive the vacation message, repeat the steps above until vacation responder email is properly set up.

3. Turn the Vacation Responder Message Off

If you did not enter a last day for your vacation responder email to end, turn off the auto response email manually after you're back from vacation. Return to the Settings screen and scroll to the bottom. Click the Vacation responder off toggle button.  

To learn more about Gmail, review some of our other tutorials including:

Vacation Responder Best Practices

Like any other email you send, your Gmail vacation responder represents your small business. You want it to look professional and convey a positive image.

Although this tutorial applies specifically to Gmail, you can use many of these best practices with other email systems.

Here are some best practices to follow to make sure that your Gmail out of office message leaves the right impression:

  • Humor. You may be tempted to make a snarky out of office message such as the out of office emails listed in this HubSpot article by Lindsey Kolowich. Unless you are very sure that this type of response will be well-received by your clients and colleagues, don’t leave a funny vacation email. It’s too easy for humor to backfire.
  • What to include. Your autoresponder message should include the following information: the dates you’ll be gone, when you’ll be back, and what the reader can do in an emergency. It’s also a good idea to include a rough estimate of when they can expect a response.
  • Format. Use proper email format in your auto response email. To learn more about proper email format, review our Tuts+ tutorial, Howto Master Proper Business Email Format - and Avoid Professional Disaster. Since you can’t predict who receives your vacation responder message, you can’t address it to an individual or group.
  • Template. If you have a signature template set up for your emails, using it here is an important part of your branding. This is especially true if you are a small business owner or freelancer. 
  • Backup contact. It’s a good idea to direct your email recipient to someone else who can answer questions. Choose someone as a backup who is familiar with your projects like a colleague or virtual assistant (VA). Don’t forget to ask your backup if they can handle your calls while you are gone.
  • Other systems. Once you’ve completed your Gmail vacation responder, don’t forget to note your absence in other tools such as on your Calendar or in any project planning tools where you are listed as a resource. This step will prevent people from scheduling you for meetings during your time away.
  • Resist temptation. While you're on vacation, you may be tempted to log in to your email remotely and answer a few messages. Don’t do it. If your contacts realize that you are answering messages they will assume you are available. Others won't respect your time away from work if you don’t respect it yourself.

Once you’ve set up your auto response email, you’re ready to enjoy your vacation. But, like all good things, your vacation must come to an end.

Here are some ideas to help you ease back into work.

A Handy Checklist for When the Vacation is Over

With a vacation email set up to notify your contacts that you are unavailable, you can relax and enjoy your vacation.

Once your vacation ends, you want to be sure that you return to work refreshed and ready to go. Unfortunately, those first few days back can be rough unless you have a plan.

Here’s a handy checklist to help you ease back into work after being out of the office:

  1. Turn the Gmail out of office message off. There’s nothing more annoying than continuing to receive a vacation email long after the person has returned. If possible, this should be one of the first things you do when you get back to the office.
  2. Scan through your messages before you respond. A quick review of messages lets you know what to expect. It can also reduce your workload if you discover that a sender has already answered their own question.
  3. Prioritize your return messages and tasks. Don’t try to do it all on your first day back. Take note of any true emergencies or obvious junk messages. After you’ve dealt with the emergencies and deleted the junk messages, answer the other messages in the order in which they were received.
  4. Check your calendar for any upcoming meetings. Schedule time to prepare for any scheduled meetings. You may be tempted to focus on just cleaning out your inbox when you get back to work, but this can leave you unprepared for other aspects of your work.
  5. Don’t panic. It may take you several days to catch up. That’s normal. If you deal with emergency questions first, most of your clients and colleagues will understand if they have to wait a day or two for you to get back to them.
  6. Leave work on time. Too often we return from vacation and undo all the benefits of a good rest by overdoing it in the first week back. No matter how backlogged your workload seems, leave work at a reasonable hour and try not to stress about your email inbox.

Although this tutorial is written specifically for Gmail users, many of the points on this checklist can also be used by those who use other email systems.

What Does Setting Up a Gmail Vacation Responder Mean for You?

With a Gmail vacation responder, you don’t have to be “plugged in” all the time. Your business will survive your time away from work. By setting up an auto response email properly in Gmail, you can make sure your vacation is a true break from work and let your clients and colleagues know what to expect while you are gone.

Keep in mind that your emails, including your Gmail out of office message, are part of your branding. You will want to follow vacation responder best practices so that your message is as professional as possible.

Once you return to work, there are some steps you can take to make the transition from vacation easier. Start by turning off your Gmail out of office message and prioritizing messages to respond to.

Do you answer email during your time out of the office? Why, or why not?

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