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Staying Productive While Off-Campus: Some Hard-Learned Lessons

Evening scene in Oia, Santorini.

Some well-earned distraction at Oia, Santorini.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m spending this academic year in Athens, Greece. In the previous part, I listed online resources to help productivity. This time, I’m offering pointedly lower-tech and harder-learned tips on how to get work done while fumbling through, adjusting to, or just plain enjoying a new work environment – from one master procrastinator to another. (If you’re among the few who do not get distracted by eternal beach weather or soulful folk music while drinking wine and watching the sunset: congrats, and you can skip this post!)

Establish a routine and reframe your “once-in-a-lifetime” thinking. Yeah, yeah, I know establishing and keeping to a schedule is something most of us struggle with at the best of times, and also something we all know we should be doing. But for me, living abroad always escalates this issue. Whenever I’m in a new place, I feel like I should make the most of every fun opportunity, accept every invitation, and squeeze in a trip to the islands just because. I in no way advocate becoming a hermit and missing out on the wealth of experiences on offer, but I suggest balancing it out with firm boundaries. I, for example, make time for weekend adventures and short trips, but use them as incentives to do work. If I tell myself I want to finish a chapter before heading off to the beach for two days, knowing how a missed deadline will make my paradise getaway less enjoyable is usually helpful in ensuring I get the work in on time.

I’ve also learned to reframe my “carpe diem” thinking that seems to kick in as soon as I’m in a new place. Instead of focusing so much on once-in-a-lifetime distractions, I remind myself that the opportunity to do research at a particular place is also a unique one. I once crammed three months’ worth of work into two weeks because I realized I would not have access to certain resources after that time; while I now have a full year stretching in front of me, I try to recall that sense of urgency and enthusiasm – and the smug satisfaction I felt for getting all of that work done.

Find a good working space. This one is also fairly basic advice, but I know I’ve wasted many an hour trying to work in cheap rentals with no real table space, at cafés with booming music and chain-smoking, and libraries with people using meowing sound effects for their computer alerts(!). Depending on where you are, both facilities and social mores might necessitate a little bit more effort when it comes to finding a suitable place to work. In Athens, for example, membership and access to certain libraries can cost a pretty penny but come with the luxury of desk space, blissful silence, and resources at hand.

Touch base with your advisor. Out of sight, out of mind. This was my attitude during my previous long stay in Athens, with predictable results. This time around, my advisor and I have mostly stuck to our established routine of discussions twice a month, just via Skype instead of in person. This has been hugely helpful in maintaining momentum on my research, but also in staying connected about my overall progress, plans, developments on campus, and so on. If your advisor isn’t willing or able to commit to this level of contact, find a colleague for an accountability buddy.

Connect with the local scholarly community. Not only is this fun on a personal level and deeply enriching on a professional one, it also helps remind you that you’re not on an extended personal holiday but rather a junior researcher who’s part of a community of scholars. Going to academic talks, discussing research at shindigs, and attending conferences helps maintain my routine and grounds me, as the people around me are going about their normal lives with normal research agendas instead of getting distracted by the fact that you can see Mount Olympus from the window of the conference hall.

Accept that things might take more time than usual. Depending on where you’re doing your research, everything ranging from bureaucracy to illness to travel fatigue to culture shock can slow down your productivity. Even though I have spent a lot of time, including extended periods, in Greece and like the country a great deal, I find that things as simple as handling banking in my broken Greek or standing in a packed metro in 90-degree heat can sap me of my energy to a surprising degree. I try to contain issues to the degree that I can—say, deciding to handle all three office visits involving indeterminate hours of waiting on the same day—but also plan a buffer into my schedule so that when I feel fatigued, I can handle it the Greek way: With a nice, rejuvenating siesta.