A Change of Scenery

Photo by Teanna Morgan on Unsplash

Last weekend I was quite productive. I was more productive than I have been in a long time. Over the course of a five-day weekend I wrote and published a blog post, read a book I bought over a year ago, edited half of my own book, as well as rode around 50k on my brother-in-law’s borrowed bike.

And I did all of this while feeling like I was taking time off and relaxing. I don’t say this to brag about how capable I am. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I want to figure out what it was that made the weekend so productive so that I can repeat it. Why could I do so much more on this vacation than I normally do on vacations, and why was I able to do more while “relaxing” than I do on weekends when I don’t take any time off? And what lessons can I learn from that?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

The weekend was a surprise vacation that my wife planned for me with my brothers and parents. My parents were driving their camper across the country, and they picked me up on the last leg of their journey, from Chicago to Denver. After spending a few days with my family, I flew home.

In doing some thinking after I got back, I think I’ve found three things that made the trip such fertile ground for productivity; planning, distance and novelty.

Planning

Serendipitously, the week after I returned The Art of Manliness published an article on how Ernest Hemingway would plan his leisure time (A Lesson From Ernest Hemingway in Why You Should Plan Your Weekends). He wanted to make sure that he got the most out of life, including his “free time” and so he had some structure to it. It occurred to me as I was reading this that that is precisely what I had done on my trip. I hadn’t sat down with a planner and planned out what I would be doing at specific times, but leading up to the vacation I had figured out what I would like to do while on the trip.

I knew I would have some time when my sister’s family would be busy or my brothers would be at work and I would be left to my own devices. So, I thought that I could work on some of the projects I had been making slow progress on during those times, so I gathered what I would need to work on them. Sure enough, several hours each day I found myself unoccupied and could grab one of the projects and start working on it. I was prepared for it because I had planned. And because I had planned to have several things to work on I was able to bounce between them if I got stuck or bored doing the same thing for too long.

Distance

Because I was so far from home, I had fewer interruptions too. Certainly, I had interruptions. I was visiting family I hadn’t seen in over a year, but many of the can-you-open-this-pickle-jar-for-me or why-does-my-phone-say-it’s-not-on-the-wifi type interrupt just weren’t there because I was absent from my family. (That’s not to complain about my family. I love them, and I’m happy to help them with whatever they need, but those types of interruptions are focus assassins). The added friction of my physical distance kept me from those mundane interruptions and so the times I was able to work were more focussed than normal.

Novelty

And because I was in an unfamiliar place I was forced to think about things in a new way. That seems dramatic, but I’ve noticed that as I go through my day I tend to think as well as act on a routine. When I drive to work in the mornings, I usually think about the same things along the way. Familiar landmarks remind me of what I was thinking about the last time I passed them, and then I begin thinking about the same things all over again. But when I’m out of my element I have to think about even such boring tasks as getting a cup of coffee, I have no muscle memory for where the mugs are. I am unburdened by the subconscious associations of my environment, so I feel like thinking new and novel thoughts is that much easier.

Takeaways

To try to capitalize on these observations I am going to try, before taking a vacation or even a weekend to ask:

Plan: “What do I want to walk away with from this time?”

Distance: “Am I able to silence my phone or go on DND? Can I set expectations with people to avoid interruptions?”

Novelty: “Are there parks or cafés (now that things are starting to reopen) that I can go to? Is there music or sound machines I can use to drown out familiar background noise?”

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