One of the biggest complaints I hear from my business traveler friends and colleagues is that they lose hours and hours each week to the process of travel itself. On top of working 40-60+ hours a week in places they don’t live and having dinner with clients and teammates, they have to spend even more useless hours spent simply getting to this already-demanding job. What the hell?
The travel part of this problem isn’t going away any time soon, either (at least not until we all get a little better at remote work). For the foreseeable future, you’ll still have to get to the airport (20-60 minutes each way), get through security and wait at your gate (20 minutes if you push it to the absolute limit, more reasonably an hour), board, taxi, and takeoff (30 minutes on small planes all the way to an hour on jumbos), actually fly (anywhere from 45 minutes to 6 hours, and that’s just for domestic flights), land and deplane (20 minutes), and get to your hotel for the week (15-45 minutes), just for the privilege of doing it all again a couple of days later.
But these 6-12+ hours a week don’t have to be useless. Dead time only exists when you let it exist. You don’t have control over much when you’re traveling, but choosing whether that seemingly endless travel time is useless or useful is entirely up to you.
Defining productive time
First of all, I want to start by saying that productive is a relative term. If you’re a big fan of reading fiction, or watching whatever prestige drama is hot at the time you’re reading this, or even just watching The Great British Bake-Off and using travel time as the only fully relaxed, alone time you have all week, I don’t want to discourage you from that. You get to choose how to use your time 24/7.
The thing I’m railing against here is killing time. It’s having an unnecessary, expensive, only-kind-of-desired drink at an airport bar (or even worse, on the plane) because you don’t have anything better to do with 45 minutes. It’s watching movies or TV shows on the plane that you’d never seek out in non-plane life, just because they’re there.1This is a little bit of a hard one for me to decry, actually, because there is a specific class of film (big dumb action movie; think superheroes, fasts and furiouses, missions impossible, that kind of stuff) that I specifically only watch on airplanes. But, critically, I seek out and enjoy that experience. I find plane time is the perfect zone-out-a-little-bit place to watch a mindless action romp, and my partner rarely wants to watch these movies with me, so that’s where I watch them. Critically, I’m not just doing it because there’s nothing better on. It’s complaining about not having enough time to read, not enough time for hobbies or personal projects or for family even though you’re just staring into the void for a considerable number of hours a week as you move through cabs and security lines and airports and airplanes.
Do whatever you want with your time, but be intentional about it. The enemy is not enjoying yourself or using travel time to wind down and decompress after a long week, it’s letting 10% of your waking life slip by you because you didn’t make any plans to spend it well.
Dealing with the constraints of travel
Now, there are a lot of things that you can’t do while traveling, because they require specific physical space (either in amount or location), it’s impractical to bring the necessary equipment or people with you, because it’s impractical to use that equipment while you’re in transit, or because you won’t have enough uninterrupted time to make meaningful progress on a deep-work-necessary project.
Which is to say, you (probably) can’t paint, cook, or woodwork while on a plane or in a cab. You probably can’t hang out with your partner, friends, or family, unless they happen to be traveling with you. You definitely can’t lift weights or play a team sport or garden.
There are two ways around this in my mind: you can either develop new “indoor kid” hobbies that are transit-appropriate — I blog, read, and listen to podcasts and audiobooks as much as I do because I developed those hobbies when I flew twice a week, every week2even though I don’t even fly half as much as I used to, I still do those things just as much— or you can use your plane time as work/productivity time to create additional time and space to do more-preferable-to-you things with your other hundred or so waking hours.
My personal approach is a blend of both: I listen to audiobooks and podcasts while I’m in transit but not actually on the plane, and then once I’m on the plane and settled in, I use that time as a special get-shit-done time to write or catch up on work or otherwise create more time in my non-plane life for things that actively can’t be done on a plane.3This isn’t to say that the rest of my life is 100% things that can’t be done on the plane. Just that doing it this way gives me the option to choose to go outside OR catch up on email later; the opposite would not be true.
The plane is a magical isolation chamber for getting shit done
To this point, I’ve mostly discussed my reasoning and ideas around why you shouldn’t squander travel time. This section is a love story to travel time. Specifically, to 30,000 feet as the ultimate location for deep work.
In my article on why checking a bag is a bad idea, I talk a little bit about forcing functions: constraints you (or the designers of software, cars, microwaves, etc) can put on your environment and interactions with that environment that force a desired behavior by making the alternatives painful or impossible.
What do I do when really need to get some focused solo work done at the office? I block the internet, turn my phone off, and go into a meeting room where I won’t be bothered. What is an airplane in flight? A place with no internet, no phone, and no one who can bother me.
Which is to say: the sky is a forcing function for undistracted time. By default, you cannot get new emails, texts, or any other push notifications. You can’t endlessly refresh your Instagram or Twitter feed for another dopamine hit because the feed won’t refresh.
Sure, you can buy the wifi on most planes these days, but don’t. None of this works if you buy the wifi, and it’s bad wifi anyway.4To that, the best possible kind of airplanes for deep work are actually old shitty ones; ones with no wifi, no seat-back TVs, and no plugs. Finally, a reason to fly on a CRJ.
Not being able to access the internet or talk to anyone is a feature of plane time, not a bug. It’s the perfect moment to get deep into a book, or watch a personal development course, or write some code — to wit, when I have a long flight first thing in the morning, I often get an entire day’s worth of software design and development done, because there’s no one (including myself) that can interrupt my flow.5Tangent: talking to people is an important and necessary part of making good software. I have to specifically queue up an entire day’s worth of non-talking work for this to be effective, often by spending the previous day or two in heavy communication with teammates, users, and other stakeholders. I’m more creative in solving problems, because I can’t just google around to see what’s already done before.
Even not having under-seat power is a useful (if extreme) forcing function for deep work, because once that battery dies, it’s not coming back. No screwing around!
The only drawback of this approach is that if you don’t have the work ready to go, and the tooling that lets you do it offline, this advice is moot. But: it’s easily solvable with prep work that I would recommend doing anyway — you should already be at least loosely planning what you do with most of your time, including what you intend to do on the plane, not decide at that moment to “get some work done” simply because you can’t think of anything better to do.
If you’re thinking “I must have the internet to do things!” right now, you’re not thinking creatively enough.
With some simple tools like a printer, the google docs offline extension, an email client with an offline mode, and a PDF viewer, you can read prep material, edit presentations, make presentations, clean up or punch up presentations, crunch numbers, type up notes, organize folders, plan the week, or even take a step back from the tactical entirely and think/write about the larger-scale strategic career and account-level questions about relationships, team, clients, objectives, and so-on that are always hard to make time for when you’re moving around a client site like a chicken with its head cut off.
What about non-plane time?
If you actually have time to kill at the airport, either by design or due to a delay, the above recommendations apply. But, getting to the airport, through the airport, and onto the plane have different constraints and needs than plane time.
Specifically, you need your eyes and hands for most of this process. You have to not run into people in the concourse, hand a TSA agent your boarding pass, get your stuff through security, wait in line. It’s not only discourteous to have your nose in your phone or a laptop or a book, it can even be dangerous if you’re as clumsy as I am.
The solution to this is audio content.
In this day and age, there are podcasts about everything — you can listen to medical experts discuss longevity, comedians discuss martial arts, and journalists investigate everything from organized crime to multi-level marketing to the design of state flags.
There are also more audiobooks than ever before, in both fiction and nonfiction flavors, not to mention all of the other audio-based content that’s coming out these days: you can learn a new language with audio via several different apps, listen to lectures from world-renowned academics via The Great Courses Plus and other free MOOCs, listen to the NYT audio edition, or even (gasp!) call someone you haven’t heard from in a while. All from a device that you already have in your pocket!
I love audio content, and it adds up fast — in my case, dozens of books a year, in addition to any number of interesting and entertaining podcasts and other pieces of audio content.
Spend non-plane time with audio.
Oh, and spend that no-laptops 15 minutes during takeoff with audio too (you don’t even have to do anything! You were already listening to it!) unless you can take naps on planes6Kennedy has a preternatural ability to fall asleep damn near immediately in this situation, while I have a harder time. It’s frankly obnoxious., in which case it’s the perfect time for a cheeky fifteen minutes of shut-eye, leaving you refreshed and ready for your deep work.
Alive time, dead time, and killing time.
Specific tactics of not buying the wifi and listening to audiobooks and so-on aside, there’s this nice little idea that comes from Robert Greene7author of The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War, and similar numerically-oriented books7 via Ryan Holiday8 himself an author, of The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, the forthcoming Stillness is the Key and others — both of whose entire catalogues I read via audio during travel — that sums up the idea I’m trying to communicate here really well:
[Robert] told me there are two types of time: alive time and dead time. One is when you sit around, when you wait until things happen to you. The other is when you are in control, when you make every second count […].
By default, travel time feels like dead time, because it’s inconvenient to figure out how to make it useful, because that requires more effort than letting the time happen to you.
But there’s no such thing as inherently dead time. You can get a lot of reading done throughout your day as you wait for others if you always have a book handy. You can meditate for an hour a day in tiny five minute sips using the same trick. These little (and big!) unplanned chunks of time are only dead time if you’re killing time.
As soon as you make a conscious decision to use that time well (again, whatever well means to you) instead of idling it away, you regain a truly astonishing amount of your life. All it takes is a little forethought.
This isn’t about what you or anyone should be doing at any given time, it’s not about micro-optimizing and over-obligating your entire day. It’s just about asking yourself one simple question:
Am I killing this time? Or am I using it well?