Why travelling is so exhausting – according to behavioural science

I have travelled a lot in the past 10 years:  I’ve attended 60 conferences around the world, and clocked up over 350 flights, plus countless trains as well as tens of thousands of kilometres on road trips across Europe, North and South America, Asia, Australia and Africa. Some years I even spent a third of my time in some other country that I didn’t live in. At the beginning it was fun and exciting, but over time my feelings towards travel have changed completely – these days, I need a good reason to pack my bags and leave the house.

But how did I go from a restless globetrotter to the ultimate homebody? Let’s see if behavioural science can help shed some light on this.

A travel-heavy lifestyle creates a continuous scarcity mindset

Being on the road inevitably makes you think about how much (or little) you have of time, money and energy. When I was doing 2-day trips to our London office I couldn’t help but think about how many hours I had available in the office, and when I needed to leave for the airport was always haunting my mind on departure days. As behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan says: “what scarcity does to our mental processing is that it constantly loads our mind with processes and leaves less mind for the task at hand”*.

What that also means is that I was constantly less than present, whether I wanted it or not. Deadlines have the same effect, so combine the two and you have an almost endless stream of tiny mental interruptions, like a little voice whispering in your ear, that take up energy to recover from every time your mind distracts you.

Novel environments increase your cognitive load

I used to love travelling to new places because I loved the unpredictability and possibility of discovery. When you are on holiday, this usually works out fine because your entire mental capacity is freed up for the exploration and experience but when you do it continuously, it’s a different story.

Even the simplest things like working out where to get every one of your meals when you’re in an unfamiliar place requires more steps in a decision-making process than simply walking up to your fridge. Away from your familiar foods, you also need to recalculate your preferences from new lists of options continuously whereas at home, and within a familiar food ecosystem you can pretty much stick to what you know and focus your energy on other things. Travelling light also means you only have the essentials, so even minor health issues that you didn’t prepare for will add to your “workload” in a new environment.

Similarly, operating on autopilot on your familiar commute is a real energy saver for your brain compared to zooming in and out of maps, working out the best route and calculating travel times for every journey you make.

Lesson?

All these small things invisibly chip away at your mental resources – so much so, that you might wonder why you’re not really your best while travelling for work, or why you are so exhausted when you get home. Although I still probably travel more than many others, it’s nothing like I used to. Like everyone, I have a finite amount of mind and I want to think carefully what I want to spend it on.

Originally posted on LinkedIn 27th August 2019

* Quote is from The Ezra Klein Show episode "The Cognitive Cost of Poverty" with Sendhil Mullainathan

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About Elina Halonen

  • Amsterdam