Breaks are not optional

View of trees and a distant river from a ridge in Whitewater State Park, MN
View from atop a ridge on one of the hikes we did last week, in Whitewater State Park in Minnesota.

This summer has been difficult for many reasons, not least because, unlike most summers, there hasn’t been any sort of let-up in the workload. We rushed right from the end of the academic year into discussions and debates about Fall Term, and from there into preparing for a very complicated Fall Term. Many of us juggled this with mentoring research students and trying to get some semblance of scholarship done. We count on the firehose of work in early June to subside to a more steady gardenhose flow from mid-June through at least the first half of August, but this summer has been one long firehose of work.

Not to mention, of course, the underlying mid- to high-level stress of living through a pandemic.

Taking a true and sometimes extended break from work at some point in the summer is non-negotiable for me. I’ve learned over the years that I need to take at least a week, if not longer, to completely unplug and detach from work (and from social media). Otherwise, I enter the new academic year burned out, and that almost always spells disaster by Spring Term, if not sooner.

This break often entails packing up the car and the family and hitting the road for some quality time with Mother Nature. My family loves camping, and loves national and state parks, and it’s a rare year when our break doesn’t feature some or all of these. We usually take off in August, although last year’s epic romp through Colorado and parts of Utah happened in June, just to mix things up a bit.

We’d just started kicking around ideas for this summer’s adventure when everything shut down. As the spring wore on, we resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no epic road trip this summer, and likely no getaway at all. I started thinking about what a “break” might look like in a summer with no child care and no place to go.

Fortunately, things are under enough control in Minnesota that in-state camping seemed to be a relatively safe option for a getaway. So we scaled back our epic road trip aspirations, picked a state park we’ve been wanting to visit, and made camping reservations.

My partner and I suffer from Cram-Vacation-Too-Full-Itis, as our kids like to point out. So this year, we worked hard to unschedule our trip. (And yes, I realize how ridiculous that sentence sounds.) Only one park over the 4 days, not several. Only one campsite, no moving around from park to park. We hiked in the (late) morning, once everyone was up and fed; took a long break back at the campsite for lunch, board games, and naps/reading; went swimming/fishing in the late afternoon; and relaxed around the fire in the evening. I started and got through half of a novel that’s been on my reading list for a while (which I’ve since finished) and worked on two small crocheting projects.

Yes, there were a couple of times where I found myself thinking, “should we get out and explore the area some more?” I am, after all, a textbook Type A personality. But for the most part I relaxed into the un-schedule. And I made sure to take the rest of the week off once we got back, instead of diving back into work.

I started this week fresh and able to work on some longer-term vision-y stuff I was blocked on pre-trip. Things still feel hard, but they feel more manageable. And that’s why taking a break is so valuable, and so non-negotiable for me.

Have you been able to take a break this summer? How are you rejuvenating yourself this weird summer?

Preparing to conference

In a little over a week, I’ll be heading to Glasgow for CHI, one of the big conferences on human-computer interaction.

This is my first ever CHI, and I am excited for all sorts of reasons. I’m excited to present the troubleshooting language work my students and I have been working on, in the late breaking work track. I’m eager to get feedback on how we can make our next experiment (slated for this spring, eek!) even better and more informative. (The reviewer feedback on our submission has already been super helpful in that regard.) I can’t wait to see how our poster looks printed on fabric, and to wear my poster as a scarf when I’m not presenting it. And I’m looking forward to attending talks that touch every aspect of human-computer interaction just for the sake of learning something new. It’s like HCI Disneyland!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference. When you go to the same conferences year after year, you get into its rhythms and into your own conference habits. You’re familiar with the culture of that conference (and every conference has its own unique culture), so you don’t have to spend so much energy navigating the social aspects and “flow” of the conference. You get kind of lazy with attending talks and spend more time in the “hallway” track, catching up with colleagues new and old. You can look at the schedule and make a good guess as to which talks/tracks will be worth attending and which are skippable or are likely to be train wrecks.

This familiarity is comforting to an introvert like me. I love conferences, but they are energy vampires, and I have to be careful to not overdo it so that I can maintain my energy over the length of the conference. The more familiar I am with a conference, the easier it is to make decisions about when to engage and when to remove myself from the fray to recharge. But I still do a lot of advance prep work to plan out my conferences: which sessions are can’t-miss ones for me? what are my obligations and where do those fall in the schedule? is there anyone that I want to make sure to connect with while I’m there? I prioritize and schedule these in so that I know I’ll have the energy for them. For everything else, I have a loose plan (sessions that look interesting, etc) that I can jettison if I feel my energy reserves rapidly depleting. I also study maps of the area around the conference venue, so that if I need to take a break to recharge, I have some idea of walkable routes that get me outside by myself.

With a new conference, I don’t have as good information to vet the “must sees” from the “could skips”, and there are so! many! more! new! people! to! meet! For the latter, I signed up for as many conference lunches as I could, to remove the taxing mental calculus of deciding who to meet up with for lunch (and where to eat in an unfamiliar city) and to make it easier to meet new people. For the former, I’m going to have to spend some quality time with the conference schedule to get a sense of what happens when (and when exactly my poster session is!), and then pick out a small handful of things I really want to see and get those on my calendar. I also have to figure out an efficient way to skim the author list, to see if I may know anyone that’s presenting and make plans to meet up with them.

Photo of my 7 week old daughter and me in Glasgow, 2007.
Photo proof that I was actually in Scotland in 2007. With the benevolent dictator that ruled our trip.

This is actually not my first time in Glasgow, so theoretically I should already be a bit familiar with the city. I was last in Glasgow for ICC in 2007…with a 7 week old infant. I was overwhelmed with the whole new parent thing, and already sleep deprived from parenting a newborn and then jet-lagged on top of that. Needless to say, I remember very little from that conference. The things I do remember: realizing when I got dressed the day of my talk that the only halfway decent pants that fit my post-partum body at that point, that I’d packed to wear to look somewhat professional, were too short, making me a fashion don’t; trying desperately to carry on normal adult conversations about research through the sleep deprivation fog; the newborn developing a fear of bagpipes that persists to this day. (I did nail my talk, though!) This time, I won’t have a newborn (or any kids) in tow, so I look forward to exploring the city for real this time around.

If you’re reading this and are going to CHI, or have been to CHI, I’d love to hear your tips. What should I make sure to do? What’s a must-see? If you’re reading this and have tips for what I should see and do in Glasgow (I have one full day to explore before the conference starts), I’d love to hear that too. And if you’re going to CHI and want to meet up, I’ll be sure to reserve some of my introvert energy for you!