I know, I know, it’s healthy to go on vacation and leave work behind. But when you travel often, you have to redefine vacation.
I first learned how to redefine work from my one-time bosses Paul and Amanda, the wonderful folks who manage King Hill Farm in Penobscot, Maine. Running a small organic family farm is a way of life rather than a 9-to-5 job, so Paul and Amanda let me in on one of their secrets to avoiding burnout:
Identify the tasks that you enjoy the most. Then, stop thinking of them as “work” and save them for the end of the day or for weekends, when you’re most likely to be burned out from the tasks that feel the most like “work.”
This isn’t the only good way to arrange the day, of course—at the Youth Garden Project in Moab, Utah, my awesome supervisors Jess and Rhonda (who now run Easy Bee Farm) alternated less-fun tasks with more-fun tasks, keeping morale high all day. This has been my go-to method when I’m teaching at UW-Madison, but lately I’ve found Amanda and Paul’s method useful while traveling.
I’ve perhaps always been prone to driving myself to burnout—I burned out on competitive running in college, and even burned out on college altogether (I graduated early thanks to extra classes I had been taking on the side). So, a few years later when I finally headed back to school, I wasn’t sure how long I’d last. Luckily, that old ‘extra class on the side’ habit kicked in and bought me a year in Paris. Still, throughout graduate school, I’ve felt burned out while ramping up for big exams or deadlines and so I’ve run off to the wilderness just before hitting the final stretch.
Since reading doesn’t feel like work if my brain isn’t blinded by stress, it is the perfect task for a working-vacation.
Here are a few week-long backpacking and hiking trips where I met my academic and personal goals:
Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks
(before spring term exams 2013)
The key to success on this trip was, I believe, the weight and bulk of the books. Hiking lots of miles while carrying hardcover books in addition to your camping gear makes you really want to get good use out of them. Otherwise you’re sore for no good reason. I don’t know if it was just luck, or if I somehow knew what I was doing when I chose which books to bring, or if it was being able to calm my mind and focus away from school + surrounded by the wildly spectacular desert landscapes of these parks, but some of the theorists I read on this trip became cornerstones for my thinking and guided the direction my research would eventually take.
Lesson learned: Be honest with yourself about how much you can do, and bring appropriate technology.
In my case, that usually means just notepads, pens, and books that can take some sand and rough handling.
If you have devices that will need to be charged, test out your solar charger beforehand in similar conditions if possible, or plan to car camp somewhere you can plug in.
Cappadocia Valley, Turkey
(before field exam reading list was due 2015)
Before I left for this trip, I committed to a field of study (autobiographies written by women who lived through the Rwandan genocide), bought or borrowed all the primary sources I thought I’d need, and mapped out a plan for how many pages a day I would read per day. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but that initial investment and plan meant that at the end of the week, I would at least be able to make a much-more informed decision than if I had stayed at home, hemming and hawing over all the books in the library. While everyone else was napping in the hot afternoons, I was reading on the shaded terrace of my hostel. I spent my birthday lying under an apple tree, reading. (I later did get bit by a wild horse, but also a kind friend took me out to dinner, so that’s a net positive day.) Making this a ‘working’ vacation ended up being the perfect motivation to take advantage of hiking in the cool early mornings without feeling guilty for chilling in the shade while it was sweltering.
Lesson learned: When need to make a big decision or meet a tight deadline, getting away allows you to focus on just this one task. Then, you can be highly productive if you make a detailed plan, stick to it, and adjust your schedule to optimize the best times for exploration.
Capitol Reef and Grand Staircase Escalante
(before dissertation proposal was due 2016)
(just after this photo, we stumbled into a dead cow blocking the trail and had to climb gingerly around its desiccated body)
Looking back, maybe the real key to success on these trips is the hot, dry climates. Books and notes are safely preserved in a backpack and ‘siesta’ time for others neatly translates to ‘work’ time. My time living in Utah marked one of the happiest periods of my entire life; now I wonder if returning to landscapes reminiscent of Utah gives me a sort of peace and clarity that help me focus in the final stretch of a big project.
My often-hiking-partner (and long-ago college roommate) Kiva may be the other key. Seriously, though, if you’d rather travel with someone, it is essential to communicate with your travel partner so that they not only understand your goals and your daily plan but are able to leave you in solitude for the chunks of time you need to execute it.