Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Minimal Travel Core

Traveling is an important part of being an academic. It's an incredible privilege to be able to go all over the world to places like Fredrick, Maryland*, where I am right now. Travel is also a difficult part of the job. Having to fly around and be immediately brilliant everywhere you land can be exhausting. In graduate school, I liked to think about conference and related travel as "practice" for the "real" job, when I would have to do the same thing at much higher frequency. In the eight-ish hours I spent after leaving my home before arriving at my hotel, I had some time to think about what I've learned.

During travel practice, I've come to see work-travel as a constraint optimization problem. Having a good work-travel experience is all about finding the minimal set of things I need to be happy away from home and satisfying those constraints given the other constraints imposed by having to fly and be away from home.  Finding a good minimal core may involve training yourself to have fewer constraints in general. (For instance, travel has become easier ever since I stopped using shampoo or face wash. But these are stories for another time.)

What I've learned is that for me, having a good time while traveling is all about ensuring that my body has as similar conditions as possible to when I'm home in terms of food, hydration, and activity. For sleeping, I also try to replicate my home sleep environment as much as possible. After much iteration, I have developed the following minimal core for traveling:
  1. Food. Ever since I realized how much eating at the right times improves my life, I  avoid going anywhere without carrying backup food. I usually have more than three meals a day, so I try to bring along 1-2 bars (my current favorite is Kind bars) and fruit. Trail Mix is also nice.
  2. Moisturizer. I used to take it as a given that flying is bad for your skin. Ever since I found the right moisturizers I realized this is not the case. My current system is to moisturize my face before short flights (I like Skoah's face kream) and to apply a light mask for longer flights (I like Skoah's hydradrew mask). What do you know, moisturizer combats plane-induced dryness the same way it combats any other kind of dryness. Moisturizing the body is also helpful.
  3. Exercise clothes. I've realized that I have a lot more trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep when I haven't been sufficiently active physically. I switched to minimal running shoes (I run with New Balance Minimuses) partly because they are easier to pack.
  4. Yoga mat. I purchased the super light, foldable Manduka travel mat when I was living in San Francisco one summer, needed a yoga mat, and was too cheap to buy the non-travel version. I've found this to be one of the best purchases I've ever made. I pretty much take it on every trip, including those that are only 1-2 nights. Even if I don't do a full yoga session, I usually spend some time stretching every day and this is nice for that. Stretching is especially useful if I've spent the day sitting on planes or in meetings.
  5. Lacrosse ball. My former massage therapist introduced me to the usefulness of lacrosse balls in working out knots. Especially if you wreck your body daily using computers, I highly recommend you try it--it's great. (For non-travel I've started using the Soma system, which I also recommend.)
  6. Eye cover and ear plugs. I always find these helpful, but if you are sensitive to noise but live in a quiet place you might find these useful for travel too. The eye cover is less important if you are staying in a hotel. (Light matters! My former roommate acquired blackout curtains after he observed the improvement in my sleeping-in abilities after my acquisition of good curtains.)
  7. Backup alarm clock. I've stopped traveling with this little guy as much, but I tend to get nervous that my phone will die and/or my poor knowledge of electronics will cause me to set my hotel clock wrong, so I feel better if I have a small battery-powered backup clock. This is the one I have.

Here are some other things I've learned over the years:
  • It helps to trick myself into drinking enough water. If I take long flights I'll buy a huge bottle of expensive airport water (and sometimes multiple bottles) to guilt myself into drinking it all. 
  • Temperature matters a lot while sleeping. I observed that temperature is the biggest external factor to negatively affect my sleep. It's not that hard to get the temperature right in a hotel room and can make a huge difference.
  • Hunger and fatigue are only feelings. Sure, hunger and fatigue are supposed to be useful signals, but they are less useful when we are yanking ourselves from one place on earth and zooming ourselves to places very far away. I've found it really helps to force myself to eat and/or exercise a sufficient amount before sleeping.
After reading this post, you may come to the same conclusion that my frequent travel companion Kate did after we had already taken several trips together: "Jean, you are secretly high maintenance, but you take care of yourself." I firmly believe that with the right amount of thought and iteration, even the pickiest of people can be as happy and functional while traveling as they are at home. Would love to hear about your minimal cores to explore this hypothesis!

* I told some of you I was going to Fredricksburg, Virginia. Was off by a few dozen miles, sorry.


Unknown said...

Love the yoga traveling mat, so useful! The skoah face cream also sounds great -- it's always hard to know what creams to buy from the overwhelming amount of options out there. I'm also going to look into the Soma system for Mladen. Thanks for sharing, Jean!

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