Traveling to Conferences by Meggin McIntosh, PhD

Jan 7th, 2014

Recently, I was asked this question by the dean of a large department at a Research I institution:

Why does traveling to conferences take so much out of us when all we’re doing is driving to the airport, parking, going through security, sitting on a plane, staying at a hotel, having someone else fix our meals, etc?

As someone who travels, basically for a living, all I had to do was listen to her question and immediately I thought ‘What’s the question, exactly?’  The answer is in her question, except I also know that she wouldn’t have asked if she hadn’t truly wondered.  Plus, I know how much my students would envy the fact that I traveled a great deal.  It seems luxurious.  And, it is and it isn’t.  So here are some answers to why traveling is so stressful (even though it seems like we are living the life of Riley)…

  1. You have the stress of getting ready to go out of town.  No one just packs up and leaves.  There are days and sometimes weeks (or more) of planning that go into getting ready to travel to a conference.  If you have children, other adults, and/or pets who live with you, then you have the stress of also planning to make sure they are taken care of.  And, there is the planning that is necessary to be gone from work.  Whew…I’m tired just writing about it (because I live it and I KNOW!)
  2. You spend a lot of prep time getting ready to go out of town.  Related to the one above, you need to recognize that you have spent a great deal of time getting ready – which often means you have stayed up late and gotten up early to get it all done.  Of course you’re tired by the time you even get on a plane.
  3. You are forever waiting.  You wait at the airport to check in.  You wait to go through security.  You wait to get onto the plane.  You wait to get off the plane.  You wait to get a shuttle or a cab.  You wait in line at the hotel.  You wait…. Waiting, in general, is not relaxing.  It’s stressful.
  4. You feel the pressure of all the other things that aren’t getting done while you’re traveling.  No matter how many ‘helpers’ you have, there are tasks and responsibilities that are not being handled while you’re out of town, because you’re the only person who can take care of them.  That pressure is draining.
  5. You are not sleeping in your own bed with your own pillow.  Although there are people who travel with their pillows, as far as I know, no one brings his/her own bed.  I must say that most of the major hotels have dramatically enhanced their mattresses and bedding, but it’s still not home.  You may or may not get decent sleep when you’re traveling.  And what if you’re crossing time zones…oh, my.
  6. You don’t have your regular healthy ‘things’ around you.  One of the reasons my husband won’t travel with me anymore is because, as he says, “I like having my own stuff around me.”  When you travel, no matter how much ‘stuff’ you bring in your suitcase, you don’t have everything and even what you bring isn’t in the right place.  I have an entire second set of makeup – but it’s not organized like it is at home.  I certainly don’t have two monitors so that I can be as efficient in my hotel room as I am in my office…and the list goes on and on.
  7. You feel constrained and on edge the whole time you’re on a plane.   These are some of the concerns you might have:  Will I get to eat?  Will I get a beverage?  Who will be next to me?  Can I go to the bathroom?  What germs are circulating?  Why won’t that child/man/girl/teen/geezer/loudmouth (insert your own word) shut UP?!  Are my legs going to be permanently cramped in this position?  What happened to comfortable seats?  Note:  Essentially all of these questions are asked in first class, too, although I do highly recommend upgrading to first class when you can – and if you travel to enough conferences (or for your research) you’ll be able to do so (gratis).
  8. You are traveling for a reason – to present at a conference, attend a session, deliver a paper, collaborate with a colleague, work on your research.  There is a lot of stress around these ‘performances’ and engagements.
  9. Yes, someone else is cooking for you…but is it what you really like?  Is it at the time you really want it?  Is it more food than you could/should eat (but you eat it anyway)?  And if you’re traveling in a foreign country, you may or may not get anything even close to what you would like to be eating.  I traveled to the USSR right after Chernobyl…and in essence, you couldn’t get ANY vegetables except cucumber.  When my husband and I got home, after 24 hours on a plane, we went to a Wendy’s salad bar and ate until we almost burst.
  10. For all of us who love to control as much of our lives as we can, being out of control when we travel is VERY stressful.  Not sure what else I need to say about that.  If control doesn’t matter to you, then you don’t ‘get’ this one.  If you are a person who needs and wants (and MUST HAVE) control, then I don’t need to explain this further.

Let’s just say I didn’t have any trouble writing this set of tips.  As a faculty member, if you are traveling to conferences (or for other aspects of your work) acknowledge that it’s not a walk in the park.  It’s stressful and you need to allow yourself some recovery time and some prep time.  There will be tips offered in some of the future Top Ten Productivity Tips for Professors that will address some ways of doing so.

And for strategies to help put pockets of time into your writing, check out Putting Pockets in Your Professional Life: 52 Tips to Implement Immediately. This booklet is for professionals who are frequently rushing from meeting to meeting, promising and then not delivering, or wondering if they will ever “catch up.” In this booklet, readers will find tools to support them in our often-crazy world so that they can live their professional lives more peacefully and productively.