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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

5 Tips for Actually Getting Work Done While Traveling

I’m all for actually unplugging when you’re on vacation. If you’ve put in for PTO and your boss assures you that you’re covered, go ahead and spend your upcoming flight engrossed in a good book.

But for everyone else—for the commuters, the super-commuters, the people on a business trip—your work won’t wait!

I used to take 10-day business trips every other month, and here’s what I learned: If you squander your travel day, you’ll arrive at your destination tired, maybe even jet-lagged, and with several hours of work to make up before you do things like unpack and sleep.

I became an expert at getting work done while traveling. Here are five tips I recommend for optimizing productivity on a travel day.

1. Book Wisely

You know those TV commercials targeted at the people who research every trip on a half-dozen different websites to see if they can save $15 on their hotel room? That’s me.

But, for my recent train trip, I took the Acela. I knew I’d need to get work done on the train and while, in my personal life, I often book based on price, I had different priorities for this trip. A faster train meant I’d have a fuller day without having to wake up before 5 AM. It meant fewer stops, so I could really focus in on my work. And it meant the Wi-Fi worked the entire way.

If you work for a nonprofit or company with a tight budget (I’ve been there, too), talk to your boss about elements of your trip where paying a little more will make it easier for you to complete your work. See if there are trade-offs you can make. Maybe you stay with local contacts for a night or two to minimize hotel costs, or plan to use the subway, or rent the cheapest car—but get a direct flight to cut out the hours wasted on layovers.

2. Hurry Up and Wait

While I am not a fan of layovers (let’s keep the missed connections to personal ads), one of the most productive times on a travel day can be when you’re waiting for your plane or train. Of course, you need to set out a chunk of time, because it doesn’t make any sense to pull your laptop out for 10 minutes of work.

Here’s what I do:

I try to budget at least 45 minutes between when I’m sitting at my gate—through security, bottle of water in carry-on and latte in hand—and boarding. I find it hard to focus before I leave for the trip (Did I pack everything? Water the plants? Turn off the coffee pot?), but that time at the gate can be invaluable if there’s a work crisis. If you build in a half hour (or more) in between each portion of your commute—e.g., you drive or take the bus to the airport, go through security, and have legit time before you board—you’ll be able to respond with more than “I’ll be in touch in three hours, when I arrive.”

3. Pack Your Tools

The right tools are critical to getting your work done while traveling. Yes, it’s great that you can read emails on your phone, but I doubt you’re going to type out a report on it. Not to mention, if you do rely on your phone all day, you’ll have to deal with your data plan and a dwindling battery.

Of course, if using your cell for all it’s worth is your game plan, you’ll want to be armed with more than your typical charger. If you have a long way to drive, consider packing a car charger or investing in a spare battery cover. You’ll find great peace of mind—and productivity—knowing that you’ll have the battery power you need to take the call you have scheduled.

Additionally, if you travel regularly for work, consider investing in a few items that will make you more productive. For example, I used a Logitech keyboard cover so I could really type on my iPad mini while traveling, and it made a huge difference. Portable MiFi devices can also come in handy. If there’s some item that will help you work better, think of it as a tool in your arsenal.

4. Rearrange Your Project List

Some projects lend themselves to being worked on throughout a travel day—and some really don’t. If you’re driving a route you’re familiar with and you know you’ll have strong service (and plenty of time on your hands), schedule calls. If you’re going to be at an airport with boarding announcements every five minutes, avoid them.

Tasks that require Wi-Fi are less advisable on travel days. Some airlines offer Wi-Fi, but it can be costly or unavailable. I prefer to choose projects that will be improved—rather than limited—by the fact that I’ll be stuck in a seat for a long period of time.

5. Work in Advance

OK, so now that you know you you’ll have a travel day that won’t be good for Wi-Fi, you can just push off any major projects that require it—right? Not so fast: Deadlines won’t evaporate because you’re in the vicinity of a tarmac.

Even on my most productive travel day (i.e., one in which I accomplish everything on my list), I rarely get as much done as I would on a normal workday. So, it’s important to plan ahead and knock out an extra project or two before you go. This will give you a cushion, so that if you spend an extra hour in traffic or sitting at your gate, you’ll only have one deadline looming overhead upon arrival.

If you’re not feeling motivated to put in the extra hours before your trip, think through best and worst case scenarios. If you get extra work done in advance and everything goes so smoothly that you have additional time on your hands on your travel day, so be it—you can sleep, workout, or explore wherever you are. If you don’t do anything in advance, and then have a traffic day from hell, you’ll get to chase it with a full day’s work. (Spoiler alert: This option is terrible.)

For some of us, traveling while working and working while traveling is inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be counterproductive. Make the most of your journey with the tips above.

Photo of woman on the phone courtesy of Shutterstock.