View through an airplane window of blue sky, blue water, white clouds, and the tip of an airplane wing.
Academic life

Why I don’t work on airplanes

For the first time in over two years, I’m flying to attend conferences, book fairs, and seminars. My carry-on items will include my e-reader, noise-cancelling headphones, and an in-flight version of a snuggie. They will not include anything to do with work. I’ll be re-instituting a rule I made for myself several years ago: no work on airplanes.

We’ve all seen it. Hell, we’ve all been it. The person whose laptop flies open as soon as the landing gear retracts, toggling between slide decks and spreadsheets with furious intensity. The harried junior faculty member finishing his grading on the way home for Thanksgiving. The grad student desperately conjuring a conference paper out of two and a half dissertation chapters. The full professor who pulls out a stack of new articles to read and promptly begins to snore.

I get it. Time up in the air feels like a precious span of uninterrupted hours to catch up on everything that didn’t get done before the trip. Better on the plane than at the beach, right? As a coach, it’s not my role to tell you what to do or not to do. But let me offer a gentle suggestion. Give yourself permission to reclaim those hours from your job and allow your body and mind some space to chill the f out.

You’re allowed to not be working

I don’t recall the specific moment, but somewhere in the midst of a busy itinerary, it occurred to me that there’s no better excuse to put away work than hurtling through the lower atmosphere at hundreds of miles of hour in a steel can. This is the time to contemplate the miracle of flight, not read an undergraduate essay.

From a labour perspective, the time I spend travelling is already time spent working. I don’t owe my employer work on top of it. I’m also done with contributing to the wider culture of overwork in academia and beyond that pushes us to use every waking hour in service of productivity. Furthermore, travel is already tiring and stressful, especially in the Covid era. I don’t need to make myself even more anxious and exhausted by working non-stop.

I’m breaking out the fleece snuggie, my favourite tunes, a mystery novel, and a muscle relaxant or two. I’m claiming my right to rest and disconnect. What better place than thousands of feet in the air, with my head literally in the clouds?