I’m not ready to write this article.
Sometimes I write about topics I know well, so I can share wisdom (don’t laugh!) or advice learned from experience. But I also like to write without knowing the outcome, so I can share what I learn as I go.
Unfortunately, the main thing I’ve learned this time around is: I suck at this.
Best laid plans…
Let me back up. My plan was to write a simple article about working while traveling, or during other changes of circumstance, while I was traveling myself.
Easy, right? Simply use my acres of responsibility-free traveling time to explain how I managed to remain incredibly productive while the environment changed around me.
Unfortunately, weeks later, I’m already home… and I’m still writing this article. Clearly, whatever I planned to share can’t be that good.
But on the plus side, at least I can share what not to do.
For minimal results: mismanage your expectations
Here’s what I forgot: I didn’t have my usual responsibilities… but this didn’t mean I had no responsibilities. I still had to buy food, cook, eat, do laundry, make choices, explore, handle jetlag, socialize in new surroundings, and—most of all—adapt to constant change.
Time often seems to fly by when nothing is changing. One reason for this is that our brains have less to process when we’re in a familiar environment. The thousandth time I sit at my office desk, my brain barely pays attention, leaving plenty of spare capacity for work. But in new circumstances, our brains actively process everything. It’s literally tiring to simply be somewhere new.
And yet I expected to be more productive than usual while I was away. That wouldn’t be a problem, except it led to a spiral of failure: being even slightly less productive than I expected caused me to beat myself up for not meeting expectations… which itself wasted yet more time.
All change must be managed
If it’s tough to work while traveling—which is an unusual circumstance that we’ve planned—it’s harder still when our lives are disrupted by an unforeseen difficulty, such as an illness in the family.
When we have to schedule hospital visits along with all of our usual responsibilities, we probably won’t have the same sky-high expectations I took on my trip, but the lesson is the same:
When circumstances change, we have to manage our expectations accordingly.
If the circumstances are changing in a predictable manner, such as going on a trip, that means setting time aside to think in advance about what will work for you.
Personally, this will usually involve setting expectations lower. I know from experience that I have a tendency to be over-optimistic about what I can achieve, and that clearing low bars usually motivates me to go higher.
But neither of these are universal truths. Perhaps you tend to be overly pessimistic, and you are motivated more by failure than success. Either way, use your self-knowledge to set expectations that will motivate you whatever happens.
And if the change in circumstance is sudden, or the immediate future remains fairly unpredictable, we have to remind ourselves to take a minute and reassess priorities.
Plus, try some of these
Setting expectations was the most important lesson I learnt this time, but this isn’t the whole story. Here are a few other ideas I experimented with during the trip which helped me—slowly—become more productive as it went on:
- Try sticking as closely as possible to normal routine. Set aside ten minutes to actively plan how your preferred routine could possibly work in these new circumstances.
- Flip the normal routine. Do you normally work best in the mornings? Try an evening session!
- Experiment with different lengths of time. At home I often squeeze in a few minutes of work here and there, but I found I needed to set aside longer periods of uninterrupted time while away.
- Make lists of different types of work. Sometimes new circumstances are great for more creative work—being somewhere new can trigger fresh thinking. Or, if your brain is tired from handling all the change, perhaps this would be a better time for busywork. Try work from each list and see!
- Ask for help. I’m often so concerned with ‘not being a burden’ that I resist getting help from others—or I never dare to ask in the first place. But when problems arise, most people are very understanding. Perhaps you can ask for a little more leeway, or someone else can step up and take something else off your plate? Is there anybody you could ask to help out with anything? Now might be a good time.
As in so many areas of life, I’m far from an expert at this… but I’m getting better. Next time I’m thrust out of my routine, I’ll be ready. Or, at least, I’ll be more realistic.
How do you manage your expectations when circumstances change? Do you have any tips for staying productive while traveling? Share with the community in the comments.
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