This week has been spring break at my university. I'm on record being stridently anti-spring break; when the students return they are already Done with the semester and mentally on Summer Vacation. This is especially true of upperclassmen. And I understand completely. You're let out of school for 10 days, you're nearly graduated, and you're now expected to come back for, what, six more weeks and focus on reading textbook chapters and studying for finals? It would be reasonable to be more preoccupied with, you know, finding a job or preparing for the terrifying world beyond formal education or just plain old being burned out on college coursework. It has always made more sense to me to skip spring break and simply end the semester a week sooner. For students who lack the means to jet off to Cancun there's nothing to do in the middle of March anyway.

That said, I don't control the schedule so I try to make the most of the break. Namely, I try to get some actual work done for the first time this semester. Something about my current situation isn't, uh, conducive to me being very productive. So on a lark I went on airbnb, searched randomly for anything not in a city and within 250-300 miles of my house, and rented a stranger's house in the middle of nowhere for seven days. My theory was that with absolutely nothing to do for entertainment and no one I know or work with providing distractions (welcome or otherwise) I would be able to work uninterrupted for an extended stretch.

You guys, I'm not kidding: I have never gotten so much done in one week in my life. Not even close. Even when I was working on my dissertation and pulling 18 hour days I didn't accomplish this much. This may be the best idea I've ever had, or simply the first good one. It's hard to tell.

There's no reason in theory that I couldn't have simply done this at home. Or in my office. The disconnects between theory and reality are numerous though. I do have some friends, and the temptation to socialize is there. My office is a depressing windowless closet on the most depressing college campus you've ever seen. My house bears some resemblance to a set from "The Wire" and looks out upon a junkyard and a bunch of abandoned buildings. And while the distractions would be pretty minimal over break, it's really amazing (having reflected on it over the past few days) how little research and writing I get done when I'm "at work." It's just impossible to work without interruption. There's always something to grade, another class to prepare for, an exam to write, some meeting to attend, an inbox full of student emails, or someone coming into my office to interrupt. Now, I get that students are the reason I'm employed and I don't think I shouldn't have to have them roaming in and out of my office if they so choose. The fact of the matter is, however, that it makes it hard to get other things done.

But it pales in comparison to the single biggest time suck, the one thing that guarantees that no work gets done At Work: I think on the average day I lose about half of the time I could potentially be getting something done in conversations with co-workers. Again, it's not that I don't like them or don't want to talk to them. It's just another reality of the workplace that runs counter to productivity. Academic writing and research aren't something you can do five minutes at a time. It's not like stuffing envelopes (although it is approximately as exciting). It requires long, uninterrupted periods of immersion and mania. And that isn't available at home or at the office, period.

Perhaps I will start doing this more often, because for the first time in forever I feel good about the amount I got done this week. The panic that comes from feeling like I need to get more things done has subsided. Don't worry, it'll come flooding back next week. But if you need a house-sitter, let me know.


  • I too had spring break last week and in spite of my best intentions to complete and submit a paper for publication, I got a nasty gastro-intestinal bug instead that kept me home.

    Almost half of my students were missing this week, presumably on extended spring break because 1 week wasn't enough and they're happy with their D+ average on the first exam.

  • A Different Nate says:

    Re: conversing with coworkers, I once had a job that nicely illustrated the impact it can have on productivity, and the other side of that coin. About 10 years ago I was working for a subprime auto lender, doing data entry. There was an incentive program for exceeding the daily quota of 85 loans entered, to the tune of a dollar per loan. Since we worked with credit unions across the country, and since we had a pitifully small data entry department, there was vastly more than we could handle and, therefore, an infinite amount of work.

    The thing about these loans is that it would take, say, 2-4 minutes to enter one, so working steadily it was quite trivial to enter upwards of 120 per day, provided one could endure the soul-destroying tedium. Over the course of a month, therefore, a bonus of a thousand dollars or more was entirely attainable.

    To reverse this, to hit the daily quota of 85 actually took about five hours of work. For several months I was baffled by the discrepancy in my numbers and my coworkers', these being tracked and presented in aggregate, until I realized that they had taken the wage slave's almost universal approach of doing no more work than they had to. They passed the time surfing the web, listening to music, and particularly chatting with each other.

    This left me in the unfortunate position of having shown for several months how much I could *actually* do, rather than joining the social circle of the department, and I felt somewhat compelled to keep it up lest I lose my job or something of that sort.

    I needn't have worried. The company went through like 5 rounds of layoffs, my department and those in our group getting smaller and smaller, merging, getting smaller still, but each time the axe passed over me until my brother-in-law joked that eventually the company would be the managers and me. I left it in July 2006 to go back to college, and it finally collapsed in September.

    I believe the moral here is that if want to be the only one keeping a company from bankruptcy, apparently, don't talk to your coworkers.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I hears ya!!!
    But for those of us disabled and un-employed folks, we miss the human interaction – both good, and bad!

    There are so many moron's in this country, I actually miss talking to them. and blowing what little bigoted mind's they have!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • anotherbozo says:

    This post calls to mind my idea of the Ultimate Retreat: Ludwig Wittgenstein's house near Skjolden, Sogneflord, in Norway, which had a magnificent view of a fjord. He repaired there, alone, during breaks at Cambridge to "do philosophy," as he called it.

    But maybe that wouldn't work for everyone. A view of a driveway might force you to be more productive.

  • I could do the entirety of my job remotely, coming in to the office perhaps once a month for a meeting or whatnot. However, my boss has the notion that telecommuting actually means fucking off all day. On the occasions when I have worked at home, due to weather or recovery from surgery, I do more in 3 hours than in 8-9 hours at the office. Not exaggerating. I actually become very engrossed in my work and don't distract easily.

    Being at the office means a constant barrage of meaningless trivial interruptions, many of them coming from said boss, who has plenty of time to dream up crazy schemes and forward me emails of stern lectures Bill Gates has given to college students about how hard the real world is.

  • I remember college spring break, that's when I worked full-time instead of just working part-time. Same for summer break.

    Good times.

  • Ubu Imperator says:

    So true, man. My work takes me to archives in another country, and I can't get there either cheaply or easily. When I can, I'm usually only there for 1-2 weeks, and the archives themselves are only open about 6 hours a day, closed at least one day a week. The amount of work I can get done when these kinds of limits are imposed is frankly ridiculous—I don't know anyone (maybe an occasional archivist or librarian, but they've got their own stuff to do), have no reason to get on the internet, and know I won't get access to these materials for *at least* another year if I don't get it done now. It's great.

  • I once, in a moment of fiscal irresponsibility, bought a brand new Mini Cooper, the nearest dealer of same being about 80 miles away. After a couple months the car needed some service, so I spent the better part of a day hanging out in their very pleasant waiting room, drinking free coffee and eating free snacks while I worked on my laptop. I don't think I've ever got so much done in so little time, there's a lot to be said for eliminating distractions.

  • Two years ago I was called to the jury pool here in town. They actually have semi-decent wifi in the room where they herd us all, and as long as you weren't making noise, didn't care if you were using a laptop while you were waiting. I got an amazing amount of work done, to the point that I was semi-seriously considering bribing the room supervisor to say I *was* on a jury, just so I could sit in the room and get stuff done.

  • Another comment. This post also reminds me of Fran Lebowitz, when she was asked whether she thought solitary confinement should be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

    How is that punishment? she asked.

  • Dial Tone, you and me both. I always marvel at the news stories about college kids gone wild on spring break. I could a) not afford to go anywhere on spring break; and b) could definitely use the money I earned while working more than full time during spring-summer-winter breaks. For that matter, I didn't know anyone who could afford to go on spring break, either.

    As for eliminating distractions, well, I can invent distractions from work no matter where I am. You could put me in a windowless room and I'd fixate o the plaster patterns on the wall.

  • Mayya writes, and I concur: "Being at the office means a constant barrage of meaningless trivial interruptions, many of them coming from said boss".

    My office has an in-house IM system that I've had to turn off because some people with IM anytime a thought pops in their head. However, if you don't answer them instantly, they then pick up the phone and call. It's never anything they couldn't figure out for themselves if they just put five seconds' worth of thinking in, but no; they'd rather reach out and bug everyone around them.

  • I work for the federal government as the Director of a small museum within a large federal agency. The museum is open weekends so with a total staff of 3 we stay open 356 days a year (closed on 9 federal holidays – open on 4 July) meaning we alternate weekends. My boss tried for years to get me to work a straight Mon – Fri schedule and have the other 2 staff members alternate weekends. They thought me a great boss – fighting to share the workload. In truth I love working every third weekend. It brings with it two significant advantages.
    First, I come in at 8:00 but don’t open til noon, giving me four hours of uninterrupted work. No chitchat, no emails coming in, rarely a phone call. Any big project I have, the kind of work requiring concentration and singular effort, is all but impossible to do with the constant interruptions of the work week. Give me four uninterrupted hours and I will give you a lot of work. Give me eight hours of interruptions and I’ll give you a start. I get more work done in those two four hour blocks than I do the rest of the week.
    Second, having two weekdays off every third week is great for personal errands. Lines are shorter, there is less traffic, more parking spaces available etc.

  • @Dial Tone and Mothra

    Same here. I never could afford to go on spring break and always worked full time in the summer. I don't think I knew anyone who could afford to go on spring break either.

  • Anonymous Prof says:

    I'm sure you get lots of "work" done off campus, but you're failing to accomplish the most important task of a REAL educator: assessment. If you aren't on campus, how can you map your CLO's and PLO's to a rubric grounded in Bloom's taxonomy to measure the H.O.T.S. (higher order thinking skills) of analytic, reflective, contemplative, transactional, and creative thinking across spatial and temporal scales of content areas? How can you effect transformative change for a diverse community of lifelong learners in a nurturing environment, giving them the interpersonal, cognitive, content-knowledge and employment-driven skills they need for an increasingly interconnected 21st century global marketplace?


    Please tell me that while you were playing around with writing and other "work" you at least had time to do something real, like turn all of the reading for your class into a Wordle. Everything the student needs to learn, they can get out of a Wordle far better than by actually reading the text. You'd know that, if you had a real degree (i.e. a PhD in education.)

  • A friend of mine was have trouble writing up his doctoral thesis. He had done the research, but couldn't get it on paper. He booked into one of the big Disney hotels at Disneyworld and knocked off a chapter a day. He said it was the sheer energy of the place. (Later, when he founded a company based on his thesis, one of his big VC backers was involved with some Disney shenanigans, so he wangled a backstage tour which as far as he was concerned was a glimpse of heaven.)

  • I seem to recall that Stephen King does or did something similar. I think he completed a book over a weekend multiple times using this method. The opening of Misery is based on that.

    Clearly not a bad idea.

  • HoosierPoli says:


    I'm confident that the ski resorts in question have credit card numbers on file, and will be maxing out the accounts in question to pay for repairs. The responsible parties will CERTAINLY be paying through the nose.

  • The Lone Banana says:

    Creative individuals as disparate as scientist and SF author Isaac Asimov and cartoonist and nutjob Dave Sim have said that creative effort requires isolation and contemplation.

    Nobody regards "working from home" as really working. Bosses think you're goofing off; family members think you're available for free babysitting or computer support; friends think you'd welcome a chat or lunch. Even the expectation of interruption becomes enough to interrupt the creative part of yourself.

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    In central and western Massachusetts years ago, the thing to do was to check yourself into the guest house of the Trappist monastery in Spencer.

  • I have been doing something similar for the past couple of years. There's an inexpensive convent/working farm in Nerinx, Kentucky, where you can go and rent a cabin in their retreat area (called Cedars of Peace). No TV or internet and you have to walk out of your cabin for decent cell service. Just time completely to yourself. And non-religious materialists are welcome. I am always re-astounded at how much I can get done when I am not interrupted or distracted, etc. AirBNB is a great idea for this kind of thing!

  • I have worked from home since 1997. However, I only got the uninterrupted time I needed to actually write a book when my kid began to have travel for sports, which required my wife to go with her.

    I wrote a book in 4 5-day weeks, alone in my house with the dogs.

    No, go back and read that again: It took 20 days for me to draft and edit 220 pages. They just had to be days with 3 work periods (90 min, walk dogs 3 miles; 3 hours, walk dogs around block, 90 min break; 3 hours) in which no one needed to discuss, evaluate or build support for a damn thing.

    Last summer my sister borrowed our camper for 2 weeks, took it to the woods and parked it, and completed her dissertation in 11 days. She came back smelly, bug-bitten & done with something she had been nibbling at for 3 years.

    If this is the first time you've tried a retreat…make it a habit. You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

  • I had my kids most of their spring break. They are sixteen and eleven. We didn't do anything but be lazy and play video games and listen to music and make horrible jokes and eat. There was some amount of farting to be honest, and I'm pretty sure I won that one. Over all it was a pretty awesome few days.

  • Jeebus yes. My dad works from home and I was living here for a while. It never failed to amaze me that my mom never (and I mean NEVER) glanced at the computer screen he was in front of to see if he was in the zone or if he was playing Civ IV for 10 minutes between meetings to open a conversation.

    Creative work requires lack of interruption. I just don't get it.

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