How I Work: Staying Productive Whilst Traveling

I travel a lot. Not like some folks that are gone every week, mind you, although in the last month I’ve been to: Cambridge, UK; Anchorage, AK; San Jose, CA; Copenhagen, DK, Boston, MA; and I’m currently en-route to Anaheim, CA.  While this many places in a month is a bit unusual for me, I would say I travel frequently. I’ve travelled most of my 28+ years in IT, and at one time was a consultant traveling weekly.


With that much time away from my primary work location, I have to find ways to stay productive. Some might say “just rest – take a nap!” – but I’m not able to do that. For one thing, I’m a very light sleeper and I’ve never slept on a plane - even a 30+ hour trip to New Zealand in Business Class - so that just isn’t option. I also am not always in the plane, of course. There’s the hotel, the taxi/bus/train, the airport and then all that over again when I arrive. Since my regular jobs have many demands, I have to get work done.


Note: No, I’m not always focused on work. I need downtime just like everyone else. Sometimes I just think, watch a movie or listen to tunes – and I give myself permission to do that anytime – sometimes the whole trip. I have too few
heartbeats left in life to only focus on work – it’s just not that important, and neither am I. Some of these tasks are letters to friends and family, or other personal things. What I’m talking about here is a plan, not some task list I have to follow. When I get to the location I’m traveling to, I always build in as much time as I can to ensure I enjoy those sights and the people I’m with. I would find traveling to be a waste if not for that.


The Unrealistic Expectation

As I would evaluate the trip I was taking – say a 6-8 hour flight – I would expect to get 10-12 hours of work done. After all, there’s the time at the airport, the taxi and so on, and then of course the time in the air with all of the room, power, internet and everything else I needed to get my work done. I would pile up tasks at home, pack my bags, and head happily to the magical land of the TSA.



On return from the trip, I had accomplished little, had more e-mails and other work that had piled up, and I was tired, hungry, and unorganized. This had to change.

So, I decided to do three things:

  1. Segment my work
  2. Set realistic expectations
  3. Plan accordingly 

Segmenting By Available Resources

The first task was to decide what kind of work I could do in each location – if any. I found that I was dependent on a few things to get work done, such as power, the Internet, and a place to sit down.

Before I fly, I take some time at home to get all of the work I’d like to accomplish while away segmented into these areas, and print that out on paper, which goes in my suit-coat pocket along with a mechanical pencil. I print my tickets, and I’m all set for the adventure ahead. Then I simply do each kind of work whenever I’m in that situation.

No power

There are certain times when I don’t have power available. But not only that, I might not even be able to use most of my electronics.

So I now schedule as many phone calls as I can for the taxi/bus/train ride and the airports as I can. I have a paper notebook (Moleskine, of course) and a pencil and I print out any notes or numbers I need prior to the trip.

Once I’m airborne or at the airport, I work on my laptop. I check and respond to e-mails, create slides, write code, do architecture, whatever I can. 

If I can’t use any electronics, or once the power runs out, I schedule time for reading. I can read at the airport or anywhere, actually, even in-flight or any other transport. I “read with a pencil”, meaning I take a lot of notes, which I like
to put in OneNote, but since in most cases I don’t have power, I use the Moleskine to do that.

Speaking of which, sometimes as I’m thinking I come up with new topics, ideas, blog posts, or things to teach in my classes. Once again I take out the notebook and write it down. All of these notes get a check-mark when I get back to the office and transfer the writing to OneNote. I’ve tried those “smart pens” and so on to automate this, but it just never works out. Pencil and paper are just fine.

As I mentioned, sometime I just need to think. I’ll do nothing, and let my mind wander, thinking of nothing in particular, or some math problem or science question I’m interested in. My only issue with this is that I communicate to
think, and I don’t want to drive people crazy by being that guy that won’t shut up, so I think in a different way.

Power, but no Internet or Phone

If I have power but no Internet or phone, I focus on the laptop and the tablet as before, and I also recharge my other gadgets.

Power, Internet, Phone and a Place to Work

At first I thought that when I arrived at the hotel or event I could get the same amount of work done that I do at the office. Not so. There’s simply too many distractions, things you need, or other issues that allow this. Of course, I
can work on any device, read, think, write or whatever, but I am simply not as productive as I am in my home office.

So I plan for about 25-50% as much work getting done in this environment as I think I could really do. I’ve done some measurements, and this holds out to be true almost every time. The key is that I re-set my expectations (and my co-worker’s expectations as well) that this is the case. I use the Out-Of-Office notices to let people know that I’m just not going to be 100% at this time – it’s hard for everyone, but it’s more honest and realistic, and I’d rather they know that – and that I realize that – than to let them think I’m totally available. Because I’m not – I’m traveling. I don’t tend to put too much detail, because after all I don’t necessarily want to let people know when I’m not home :) but I do think it’s important to let people that depend on my know that I’ll get back with them later.

I hope this helps you think through your own methodology of staying productive when you travel. Or perhaps you just go offline, and don’t worry about any of this – good for you! That’s completely valid as well.


(Oh, and yes, I wrote this at 35K feet, on Alaska Airlines on a trip. :)  Practice what you preach, Buck.)

Comments (2)

  1. @sqlKob says:

    Do you use any portable power stations to recharge phone and gadgets when power is not available?

  2. BuckWoody says:

    @sqlKob – no, but that's certainly an option. I travel extremely light so I don't have to check bags, so any weight I consider carefully.

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