Saturday, July 17, 2010


I just came back from a vacation with my family. This was meant to be the time for some family fun, relaxation, and, most of all, not working.

Yeah, right.

While I dutifully activated my extended absence voicemail greeting and an "Out of Office" automatic email response, and could have therefore easily disconnected from the mother ship, I did not do so. In reality, I checked my work email several times a day. I reviewed 3 papers (only the most urgent ones though), several of my students' write-ups (various reports and abstracts), corresponded with two of my incoming graduate students about courses and paperwork, as well as reviewed final pre-submission versions of two manuscripts and one preproposal (a.k.a. white paper) on which I am a coauthor. Amidst all the frolicking in the pool and chasing my kids, I am also ashamed to say I spent a fair amount of time thinking about a proposal I need to submit shortly.

I totally have a workoholism problem. And perhaps an Internet addiction problem. It's hard to tell them apart, really.

Last year on vacation, I tried to wean myself completely: didn't bring my laptop and was determined to spend the entire vacation without checking my email even once. But doing so is like quitting smoking -- if those with whom you hang out smoke too, it is very hard to stop. I cannot get my husband to go Internet-free for any significant amount of time. He is not crazy about checking work email, but he plays online games and is a much more eclectic surfer than I am; at the end of the day, most of what I think, write, and surf about is science: doing science, funding science, being a woman in science... My name is GMP and I am a workaholic. And a dork.

My last-year's attempt to go unplugged bombed. I first cheated with a prehistoric computer I found next to the reception desk -- no doubt for the likes of me suffering from web withdrawal. After a few days of sneaking to the reception, I gave in, admitted failure to unplug to the world -- i.e., to my husband, who then gave me a smug "I told you so" -- and I demanded time on the hubby's laptop.

This year I didn't even attempt a reprise of the "Great Vacation Unplugging", as I knew I couldn't do it. However, I was hoping that spending time with the kids and plenty of books would be enough to help me detach. I spent a lot of time with the kids and loved it, but a number of kid-centric activities such as diaper changing, fixing meals, or watching Spongebob reruns are mind-numbing, so I was free to engage in pursuits of the mind in the background. None of the books, which all came highly recommended, were able to completely captivate me. So I ended up spending a lot of time thinking about work and doing work...

Anyone else out there suffering from inability to detach from work? Or simple email addiction? My guess is these are quite widespread and often interwoven. I invite you to share some of your best practices for getting unplugged and recharging. (Isn't it ironic how "recharging" requires one to "unplug"?)

Do you think a constant focus on work gives you an edge over the peers who get to relax? Or is it, beyond a shadow of a doubt, nothing more than a one-way ticket to Burnoutville?


Dr.Girlfriend said...

If it feels like a chore then it is work and you need to quit.

For me the chore of being a postdoc and grad student was benchwork, and for my own sanity I need to strictly limit the time I spend do experiments - however desperate I am for results.

I enjoy writing up and proposing research and doing literature reviews. When I am on vacant I no longer feel the need to ban myself from doing stuff I enjoy simply because it is part of my job.

There is a fine line between a hobby and a job, and the lucky ones are us who get paid to do something we enjoy. One of my hobbies is taking classes, which is probably why I loved grad school so much.

Simple rule of thumb:
If you derive pleasure from the act of doing it then vacation is a good a place as any to do what you enjoy.
If you are doing out of a desperation to reach a deadline or keep up, then cold-turkey is the only way to go.

irongrrl said...

I agree with Dr. Girlfriend's simple and effective rule of thumb.

As for my personal experiences, I am definitely an e-mail addict during daily life. I think I got this habit from my group and my PI during grad school, and now it persists beyond grad school. But when it comes to vacation, I am the definition of unplugged. Once I step off a plane (or out of a car) at my vacation destination, it's almost like a switch goes off and any desire to do anything related to work instantly evaporates. I might have been reading, thinking, and planning on the plane, but I never bring a laptop, because once I get off that plane, my brain is on vacaaaaation, and I have not a care in the world. The very last thing I want to see is a computer.

I am very grateful that I can so completely and easily shut off from work during vacation, because even if I go somewhere for only two days, the experience is always extremely relaxing and very effective at re-charging me. I love my work and can be a bit of a workaholic, but vacation is sacred.

prodigal academic said...

I am a total email addict. I get twitchy if I can't check it. I do try to not bring work on vacation with me. If my mind goes there, I let it, but I don't actively sit down and think about work while I am supposed to be on vacation.

When I am on vacation, I try to spend some of the time someplace where I can just think about my surroundings. In the old days, this meant awesome hikes, vacations to the middle of the Amazon forest, and the like. Now, we do family trips to the beach--I find contemplating the waves relaxing and meditative.

I bring plenty of reading material (often things I haven't gotten around to) in case some of it is boring. I don't count interesting science reading that is not-work related as work (like _The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks_ which I totally will bring with me on vacation this summer!). We watch movies or TV series on DVD (after the kids are down, but we are starting our 3.5 year old on movies soon). We play games (cards mostly, but our current family fave is Settlers of Catan).

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I follow Dr. G's motto, too. In fact, this year I *did* find that many of my PUI-related activities were becoming, well, WORK instead of fun.

So, at the recommendation of a colleague, I instigated a no-campus policy on weekends. That is, I do not go into campus Sat/Sun. No matter what.

Being at a PUI allows me to do this. My research is not such that I have to check on reactions each day. And my students can certainly survive with just email contact from me. I'll elaborate more in a post tomorrow.

chemprof said...

I also find it really hard to disconnect. Two years ago I took the first vacation where there was no email access or cell phone coverage. It took a couple of days to get used to it, but then it wasn't hard. In a week I read all 4 novels I brought with me and we came home completely relaxed. I've done this for at least one week every year since. Eventually it gets easier to ignore the computer even if it is there. Now if I'm on vacation, that is it, and email etc. can wait.

Beaker Half Full said...

I also obsess about my email and work when I'm supposed to be having a day/week off. Since I can't go cold turkey just yet, I find that just reducing my email and work related activities is better than beating myself up for not stopping altogether. I try to do a little less each time and eventually, I'll wean myself off completely.

I tried the no internet/cell phone access vacation a long time ago like chemprof mentioned. I totally failed at that and worked on a manuscript during the vacation. Not the whole time! Just a little.

Cherish said...

I got an iPod this year and took it on vacation rather than my laptop. This was great as I couldn't do anything without wireless (so only at the hotel). I was able to check email, but couldn't spend a significant time doing any work...although I spent some time reading a paper. :-)

grumpy said...

It's actually a little tricky for me because, while I'm inclined to just give into the addiction, I find my friends and family have their feelings hurt when I am busy obsessing over a manuscript or whatever instead of hanging out with them 24/7 during vacations.

not sure where the balance lies...

Meadow said...

Nicely written post.

I'm addicted to email and work too. Especially since most of my vacations are linked with conferences. Its been this way for so long, I don't know what I'd do if I took a vacation that wasn't somehow connected with work.

SciMom said...

I find it a necessity to keep up with the emails at work while on vacation. This year SciDad and I took our iPads, signed up for a limited International data plan and went to England with the kids for two weeks. We didn't bring it on our outings but in the evening we checked in. Since we knew we had a limited amount on the plan, we kept internet searching to a minimum. The fact that I could follow what was going on at work while away was critical to me not burning upon re-entry after the vacation.

Balancing Act said...

I was reading your post and laughing because while I traveled a couple times this summer, I never went on vacation. Yesterday I had one work-related task to accomplish and decided to spend the rest of the day with my family, because I hadn't spend time with my family other than in the make-sure-the-house-is-not-on-fire sense. At one point yesterday I found myself reading a journal, but I was enjoying it, so I didn't berate myself. And then a letter in the journal got me thinking about something relating to a grant. So, I took some time to write up some notes for future reference for the grant. Wait, oh. One day - one day! - I gave myself to not work and still I couldn't help myself. Oh, well.

Likewise, my anchor does not unplug and even when he's on vacation - ie getting vacation pay because he is taking time off - he still takes work calls and works. For the first half-dozen years we were married when we went to visit his folks and a conversation went: "Where's Anchor?" "In the other room working." They would get pissed off. Now, they've learned to live with it.

Dr. Girlfriend's rule of thumb is good, though.

Februa said...

Ill also give the seal of approval to Dr. G's rule of thumb, especially since it justifies a lot of the work I do on vacation (all the fun stuff I actually like doing!).
As for my email addiction, Ive found the only thing that works to bring it down to a once a day or once every other day check is only having access to dial-up internet (which means do not take my laptop or ipod with me anywhere I go, as wifi is everywhere now!).
Grumpy above raises a good point too - Ive "heard about it" from friends and family when Im "working" on vacation...and not sure how to get that balance right

Anonymous said...

Burnoutville. To me the whole point of vacation is to unplug. But then again, I'm European...