I’ve spent a lot of time travelling over the past fifteen years. While I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to see so much of the world, it definitely tends to sound cooler than it is in reality. I’ve almost seen lots of places: out of the window of meetings and workshops, through the taxi window, during a quick walk to get breakfast or before heading back to the airport. When you’re a working parent, travel is often something you do as quickly as you can so that you can get home. I never add on a day or two to sightsee or to have some sort of break. I just want to get home to my family as quickly as I can because I’m away from them so often.
Today I’m in New York for a workshop with only a planning meeting for an hour this afternoon and a workshop dinner this evening. My friend is sitting next to me doing her work. My phone is pinging with ‘have you had a chance to look at…’ and ‘when you get a mo can you just…’. I’m aware that actually my to-do list is not small, and there are some serious time pressures on some of the work. I know that the time between the meeting and dinner is going to be taken up with work for sure.
But this morning I woke up early and went to a coffee shop with my notebook and pen and did some writing. My friend, Alina, took me to Zabar’s for breakfast, reliving her time living in the city when she was a grad student. I mooched about Barnes and Noble and bought a new book on writing. And now we’re sitting in the gorgeous Joe’s Coffee Shop, part of Columbia University. A glass cube overlooking the corner of Broadway and West 120th St, with warm, blue October skies shining on us.
Finding space for non-work while travelling for work isn’t impossible, but it needs a strategy. What works for me (so far) is:
1. Make the most of the journey. I have a 2 1/2 hour train ride to the airport, and I try to spend that getting caught up on emails, reading work papers and doing work-related writing. I try not to spend most of it looking at Instagram, refreshing the Guardian’s latest news or playing Yahtzee. That way, when I get on the plane I can concentrate on watching films, closing my eyes and drinking wine. Some people work on planes. I may do some work if it’s a very long flight, but I think air travel is crap enough on its own without having to answer emails. I watched ‘Ready Player One’ yesterday and loved every minute of it.
2. Make the most of the time before breakfast. I am not one of nature’s morning people, and making the most of the time before breakfast doesn’t come easily to me. But it’s usually a time when people will leave you alone and you can relax in the quiet. I’ll often sit with my journal or a book and a coffee or, if I can, go for a walk. If I were at home, I’d be getting the kids ready for school or I’d be on a train, so a little bit of quiet time on my own is a joy.
3. Set up a ‘X Trip’ folder on your desktop. I try to put everything I might need for the trip in one folder on my desktop. This serves a couple of purposes: it means that I’m organised and can get to what I need without too much hassle, but it also forces me to assess what I think I can actually accomplish while I’m away. If I look at my planner and genuinely think about where I’m going to fit that work in around the margins, it helps me lower my expectations. Less time scrambling to overwork = more time to take a deep breath.
4. Lower everyone else’s expectations. When did we start thinking that it’s ok to do a full week’s work on top of doing a full week’s work when away? My out of office is on, which means I’m not going to keep up on my emails. I only have a couple of hours of free time around a workshop, so I can’t do 8 hours work. I try to manage expectations before I go, so I don’t get hassled too much when I’m away. I’m lucky in that I’m senior enough now to be able to get away with this, and not everyone is in that position. But it’s people like me who put pressure on others to do what should be seen as the impossible. If I say no to overwork, it helps others do the same.
5. Plan your fun and be grateful for it. I have a (small) list of fun things I’d like to do that I know I should have space to do. I did a bit of a ‘recce’ in advance, so I knew the neighbourhood, and I set time aside for fun. Like with work, I try to lower my own expectations and to be realistic with what I can do. It means I can enjoy the little bit of time I have without being stressed out about not doing the millions of things I could be doing if only I had more time. I have been flexible today – this lovely coffee shop wasn’t at all on my radar, for example – but I knew I wanted to spend the time before the meeting writing in a coffee shop. Which one it is didn’t really matter. It’s a real privilege to be able to do this, and I’m very grateful for it.
Someday, when my kids have grown, I’ll get to add a bit of time onto work trips. For now, though, this is a nice balance.