Making a bit of time for non-work when travelling

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling for work over the past almost twenty 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.


This photo is from a trip I took to New York this time last year for a workshop. I’d arrived late the night before and only had a planning meeting for an hour in the  afternoon and a workshop dinner in the evening. My friend, Alina Rocha Menocal, was sitting next to me doing her work. My phone was pinging with ‘have you had a chance to look at…’ and ‘when you get a mo can you just…’. I was aware that my to-do list was not small, and there were some serious time pressures on some of the work. I knew that the time between the meeting and dinner was going to be taken up with work for sure (which it was…).

But that morning I woke up early and went to a coffee shop with my notebook and pen and did some non-academic writing. Afterwards, Alina took me to Zabar’s for breakfast, telling me stories about 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 then we sat 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. We caught up on our work, and we did it in a way that made us both happy.

fearless writing

Finding space for non-work while travelling for work in these conditions isn’t impossible, but it needs a strategy. What’s worked for me (so far) is:

  • Make the most of the journey. If I’m flying out of Heathrow, which I usually do, 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/twitter or playing a game on my phone. That way, when I get on the plane I can concentrate on watching films, drinking wine and reading a novel. Maybe even closing my eyes at some point. Some people work on planes. I may do some work if it’s a very long flight, but I think air travel is more than crap enough on its own without having to spend the time answering emails. On the flight to New York, I watched ‘Ready Player One’ and loved every minute of it.
  • 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, even if it’s only in the hotel, or if I can, go for a walk. If I were at home, I’d be with the kids getting ready for school or I’d be on a train, so a little bit of quiet time on my own is a joy.
  • Set up an ‘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 more 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. How many things can I realistically read? Will I really get that written? Less time scrambling to overwork = more time to take a deep breath.
  • Plan your fun and be grateful for it. I sometimes will have a (small) list of fun things I’d like to do that I know I should have space to do. I’ll do a bit of a ‘recce’ in advance, so I know the neighbourhood where I’m staying or where I’m working (if they’re not the same), and I’ll try set time aside for fun. 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 try to be flexible too, depending on how work is going and how much energy I have, but also what opportunities might come up – 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 working in a coffee shop. Which one it was didn’t really matter. It’s a real privilege to be able to do this, and I’m very grateful for it.
  • Lower everyone else’s expectations. When did we start thinking that it’s ok to ask people to do a full week’s work on top of doing a full week’s work when away? How has this been normalised? My out of office is on, which means I’m not going to keep up on my emails. I tend to only get a couple of hours free time max per day (not usually consecutive hours) when I’m travelling for work, and I can’t do 8 hours work in that time. And as I head closer and closer towards the mid-century mark, I do actually need to wind down at some point or else I’ll get ill. 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 do 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 – a work in progress, to be sure, it may hopefully help others do the same. 

To be clear, work travel is disruptive. It throws work and home routines out the window. It leads to a backlog of unanswered emails and other work. It tends to generate a lot more new work. Most people, myself included, don’t factor this well enough into their planning. It’s how working nights and weekends becomes a necessity, despite the cost to family time and to health. And I’ve yet to see an organisational workload management system (for universities anyway) that even acknowledges ‘travel’ as a category let alone one that allows for ‘catch up’ time. For those of us who have to travel to do our jobs, kids or no kids, this is tougher than often is acknowledged. So anything to make life easier is welcome, as far as I’m concerned.

Someday, when my kids have grown, I might find it easier to add a bit of fun time onto work trips to rest and enjoy the view. For now, though, this approach gives me a nice balance that tends to work for me.

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