Holiday! Celebrate! By working?

This week, I have had the unadulterated luxury of being on holiday. And not a travelling holiday either: a plonk yourself next to the pool, sunset drinks, working on your tan, proper vacation. Although it’s been great, these kinds of breaks are not my usual fare. I am much better at seeing and doing than I am at sitting still.

2016-05-18 19.17.28
Not a bad place to sit still really…

Plus, like most scientists, I couldn’t quite shake what Dr Climate refers to as holiday guilt — the idea that I should really be working rather than lounging around. While I know this is common for most people, it seems particularly rampant in academics.

Obviously, too much work and not enough play is bad for your mental health and work productivity. But, if you have to address your gnawing conscience, is there some good that can come out of a little bit of work in between swims?

What type of work can be done on a deck chair?

Now, perhaps like you, my basic work week comprises of five main types of tasks:

  1. Correspondence, administration and other email-based jobs
  2. Doing of science, including coding, plotting, analysing and frowning at tables and graphs
  3. Reading and keeping up with literature
  4. Writing and reviewing manuscripts
  5. Other seasonal jobs such as grant applications, lecture preparations etc.

To my mind, Type 1 tasks are the thing you need to get away from most when on holidays, so they can be instantly scrapped unless it’s really urgent. Same goes for Type 5 tasks.

Type 2 tasks, at least for me, require a specially focussed, non-holiday part of the brain. They’re also prone to being black holes of time, whereby you spend four hours thinking “maybe if I plot like this”, or “what if I calculate that?”. This is excellent fun but does not make you a great travel buddy.

That leaves reading and writing. These two task types are on most scientists’ daily to-do lists, but can often be bumped for more urgent (or dare I say easier) tasks of the 1, 2 and 5 variety. Both also require some mental space and freedom to absorb new knowledge, and think through ideas and scientific arguments.

A personal holiday challenge

In an attempt to pre-empt the holiday guilt, for this trip I set myself a small goal of writing the final section for a long-neglected manuscript, and catching up on some relevant articles that were languishing in my reference manager.

Being a long-suffering ‘optimistic homework‘ person, I decided the key was to set small goals, rather than expect myself to write an entire new paper and read 100 papers in 6 days.

Another key component of my ‘work in bathers’ plan was to set time limits. An hour after breakfast, or 45 minutes before dinner seemed enough to make me feel as though I had achieved something without sacrificing too much holiday time.

As I sit here on the last day of the holiday, listening to the birds and the wind in the palm trees, I can report that my goals have been met with moderate success. I have read almost all of the articles that I wanted to, and even managed to write most of that final section.

The fresh air and freedom has also focussed my mind on the goals in a different way. Unsurprisingly, the articles I read have given me an even longer list of articles to read. While writing the final section, I also realised that there is another way to approach the problem that could lead to more interesting results.

But this end result is, to be honest, bittersweet. The final manuscript will definitely be improved as a result of my poolside work, and the fresh air has enabled me to think in a way that is hard to reach in the office.

But by keeping my head at the computer, I now find I am missing the inspiring sense of starting fresh that often comes when you take a real break. In fact, my holiday guilt has actually worsened as I plot out what needs to be next.

On balance, I still think it was better to do that little bit of work this week, to progress even slightly, rather than leave the laptop at home. But only just.

What do you think? What is your approach to working while on leave? How much sand does your laptop accumulate?

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