In this recent HBR article called “The Health Risks of Business Travel,” Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic makes business travel sound like the most unpleasant and deadly thing imaginable.
Stroke. Heart attack. Deep vein thrombosis. Excess drinking. Mood swings. Chronic stress. Disorientation. Sleep problems. Gastrointestinal problems. And that’s just the first three paragraphs.
If you’re not used to traveling for work (and heck, even if you are), getting on that plane to do your job can seriously mess up your energy and your productivity.
Most people show a 20% or more loss in productivity when they’re on the road without even feeling like they’re less productive, even after adjusting for travel time. That’s like only working four days a week for every five, without even realizing it — probably because it feels like you worked about ten days in a row by the end of it.
But even though that article makes business travel sound like a living hell, all of those problems are avoidable. I should know; I spent half a decade traveling 200+ days per year as a digital products consultant before quitting to start a company helping others get better at doing the same.
So: let’s talk about a few critical mistakes that can tank your productivity by causing exhaustion, overwhelm and sickness, and how to avoid them.
Also: this isn’t another trite list of “productivity hacks” or “travel hacks.” I’m not going to tell you to get pre-check and not buy the onboard wifi. We’re not going to talk about making sure you have backup chargers and the right travel credit card.
All of those are excellent ideas, but they’re just not that important in the grand scheme of things. We’re going to go deeper than that — to the sneakier, more insidious mistakes that most people don’t even realize are completely tanking their productivity, focus, and energy.
Mistake #1: Letting travel stress you out
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.Viktor Frankl
The airport, as a place, is largely out of your control. You can’t make the TSA agents, or gate agents, or flight crew, or other passengers behave any differently. You cannot control the weather, system delays, an overbooked flight, a missing car reservation, the losing or un-losing of a bag.
Here’s what you can control: your reaction to all of these things. In the moment between when you get new information and you react to it there is a tiny gap. Mind that gap. You choose to become overwhelmed and frazzled. It might not seem like a choice, but it is.
The key is to know what is within your control and what isn’t, and to act accordingly—be in control of everything you can, and don’t waste energy worrying about things you can’t change.
Ask yourself, “what do I stand to gain by freaking out about this?” If the answer is nothing, take a deep breath and let it go.
If it’s particularly egregious, you have my permission to take a minute and feel the frustration. But then after that, let it go. Become a zen master. Become the Dalai Fucking Lama (that article contains a valid but not required strategy, by the way). Never run, never rush, never yell — become unhurried, unworried, and forgiving of those who haven’t mastered your uncanny calm.
You may even find it has a soothing effect on those around you: a calm, polite demeanor can help a frazzled gate agent remember that they actually do have an operational upgrade they could give away. Aisle seats become available as if by magic. Tense row-mates relax and stop tapping their damn feet. Their calm makes you even calmer.
But it all starts with you, and it all starts with a choice: don’t let it get to you.
Mistake #2: Acting like you’re on vacation
“Well duh,” you say, waiting for your overstuffed luggage at the baggage carousel.
“Of course a business trip isn’t a vacation,” you continue, as you pull out your phone to look for a restaurant where you can grab a late-night bite to eat and maybe a few beers to help you decompress.
You don’t really have a sense of how to get to your new client tomorrow, and your plans to exercise this week look something like “if I get around to it.” The only thing you know for sure is that you’ve still got to go get a rental car, which will will take at least 45 minutes.
Business travelers don’t act like they’re on vacation by choice, they act like they’re on vacation because vacation is the only traveling experience they’ve ever had, but either way, they feel the consequences.
When vacation is the only practice you’ve ever had for travel, it becomes your default behavior on the road.
Without actively choosing a different course of action, it’s easy to get on an airplane for a week of high-pressure consulting or critical meetings and slip into the exact same routines you follow when you’re going to visit family for the holidays.
When you’re actually on vacation, your performance doesn’t matter. Overeat, underplan, laze around. Do whatever makes you happy and relaxed.
But if you act like you’re on vacation when you’re facing important conversations, critical meetings, and a mounting backlog of work back home, you’re going to end up having a bad time.
You need a different operating system for life on the road as a business traveler. Eat well, sleep enough, don’t drink too much. Keep a tight schedule. Plan your day. Retain as many of the routines that keep you stable and productive at home as you can.
Mistake #3: Forgetting to make time for yourself
In the safety instructions at the beginning of every flight, they tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.
This is for a practical, pragmatic reason. If you don’t help yourself first, your brain won’t be getting any oxygen, and you’ll rapidly lose the ability to help or even productively interact with others.
The same goes for your professional and personal life.
Business trips are extremely busy, as a rule. It makes sense on its face—your employer or your client are shelling out a bunch of money to fly you to a different place than you live for a limited amount of time, so you might as well get the most out if it.
After-hours drinks, before-hours coffees, bonus meetings, sightseeing, visiting friends, you name it. If you work in sales, sprinting between marathon back-to-back-to-back meetings over the course of a day or two are de rigueur. By booking yourself completely solid, you’re extracting as much value as possible out of the trip, right?
This is a fallacy, and it stems from a failure of prioritization.
The trip almost always started with a single purpose — an inciting need, a conversation or decision that needs to happen. Even if you’re a consultant without an obvious weekly mission, there are going to be one or two conversations that are going to provide the vast majority of your insight and/or desired outcomes.
If you’re running yourself ragged with all of the “bonus” value-added work, you’re diluting your energy, attention, and the ability to focus on the single most important thing you’re there to do.
And for what, exactly? Looking busy? Feeling busy, at the cost of your own sleep, stress levels, and personal time? Not wanting to disappoint or refuse people you don’t see very often (and by extension, probably have minimal impact on your career)?
Say no to everything that doesn’t move you closer to your primary objective. If you don’t clearly know your primary objective, say no to everything that doesn’t get you closer to figuring out what it is. Don’t feel obligated to “never eat alone”. Don’t feel obligated to drink just because everyone else is. Block off time for the things you need to be successful — planning time, reflection time, gym time, fun time, whatever.
You may feel selfish or mean by working less, saying no to more, and and enforcing these kinds of harder, tighter boundaries, but trust me: you are not being selfish or mean.
Prioritizing and aggressively guarding the specific reason you made the trip, as well as your mental and physical well-being is exactly how you can create a work environment that lets you look out for others as well.
It not only makes you a more valuable colleague in terms of sheer output, it also makes you more pleasant to work with, harder to occupy with trivial nonsense, and more focused on actually helping your colleagues, bosses, and clients instead of just doing what they ask of you, which in turn makes them perform better and more efficiently as well.
Mistake #4: Not prioritizing your health
Health really is the ultimate productivity hack. When you’re eating and moving for optimal energy and you physically feel good, your output, focus, and resilience to stress go through the roof.
Business travel is naturally antithetical to health. Humans aren’t designed to eat every meal in a restaurant or airport, have minimal access to exercise equipment, or work 10–12 hour days — to say nothing of the physical toll that crunching yourself into a low-oxygen, arid, back-killing airplane can take.
And when it comes to prioritizing your health, eating well on the road is without a doubt the hardest—and most important—thing to nail down. Figuring out an effective plan for activity (and then actually executing on the plan) is tough, but eating well is tougher.
Developing a repeatable, simple system for eating well at restaurants is complicated — it can take years to get right.
So complicated (and important, and tough) in fact, that it’s well outside of the scope of this article. But: I’ve put together a cheat sheet and short email course about my system (that I call Eat Like A Road Warrior, and spent half a decade perfecting), and I want to give it to your for free, because no one should have to go through life as a low-energy zombie.
- The six eating rules that will keep you radiating energy — without having to give up lavish expense account dinners
- How to order a healthy meal at any restaurant, from fine dining to fast food.
- How to stick to the plan, even when you’re a million miles away from home, and
- The secret to living on the road 200 days a year and enjoying every minute of it.
In it, you’ll learn: