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Traveling For Work? Plan To Hack Your Airplane Productivity Habits

Business travel tips for airplane work productivity

An airplane ride can be a time for noise-canceling headphones, a neck pillow, and a few hours of shut-eye. Or it can be an office at 40,000 feet.

Frequent business travel often demands a rock solid airplane productivity routine. Maybe you fly so often that you can’t afford to waste that long-haul travel time on another Transformers movie. Maybe you don’t fly much, but you still need to be productive on this particular flight. Regardless, staying productive while working and traveling never seems to be the utopian situation a six-hour solo travel session would suggest.

No matter the reason you need to be productive on your next flight, here are a few tried-and-true tips that will get you to your destination feeling good about your to-do list (though we can’t make any guarantees for your feelings toward air travel).

Take Off And Tune Out

How to work more productively while flying

Author and Georgetown University professor Cal Newport explores the idea of “deep work” in his latest book, aptly titled, Deep Work: The Secret to Achieving Peak Productivity. Through various case studies, Newport posits that peak productivity comes from a formula of High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

It’s hard to argue with the idea that more focus equals more productivity, and if that’s true then your classic airplane ride hardly seems like the prime place for deep focus and your best work.

But not all hope is lost.

In Deep Work Newport tells the story of Peter Shankman, founder of reporter database HARO, who got a book deal and subsequently booked a round-trip flight to Tokyo for the sole purpose of writing. He traveled from the United States to Tokyo and back in a span of 30 hours, and when he returned he had a completed manuscript ready to hand-in.

As Shankman puts it, “Locked in a seat with nothing in front of me, nothing to distract me, nothing to set off my ‘Ooh! Shiny!’ DNA, I have nothing to do but be at one with my thoughts.”

Note: He also credits the large espresso he drank in between flights as part of the creative process.

With the goal of deep work in mind, here are some actionable tips you can take to your next take-off:

Wave Bye To The WiFi In The Sky

Airplane wifi for business travel productivity

Given all these facts about the benefits of deep work, why even stress about WiFi availability or quality at all? If you can, plan to just skip the wifi completely.

Download documents and emails offline. Take screenshots of webpages. Put all your notes in a desktop app that requires no internet connection. Now that Trello works on mobile devices offline, you can continue to plan, organize, and edit your boards from the air. 

Give yourself composition tasks that you can do in any text-based window, or something that mostly requires reviewing existing work that you can print or download. Anything you can do to reduce potential dearth-of-connection crises will help you get more done.

A Backup To Your Laptop

The default image of someone working on the airplane involves a laptop on the seat-back tray, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if you’re prioritizing projects that involve your laptop, always bring backup projects that don’t require any electronics (just in case!).

Print out some articles or a paper you’ve been meaning to read. Bring a notebook with some prompts related to upcoming projects and try free-writing to stir some creativity. Jot down ideas that you can quickly polish in your laptop once you’re back online.

And you can bring a third backup project that’s totally analog and works every time – a good book!

Know Thyself

Are you a morning person? A night owl? A siesta-taker?

Compare your most productive and alert hours of the day against when you’ll be at the airport and in the air, and adjust your productivity expectations accordingly. It’s hardly fair to yourself to expect that you’ll draft the whole annual report during your flight when it would take you just as long in your controlled office environment.

Be realistic about how much you can accomplish in an airplane environment during the length of your flight – and don’t forget to account for takeoffs and landings, when you’ll have to pack up your laptop.

Traveling for work productivity

Consider It All A Bonus

Sometimes you won’t get this luxury, and you’ll just be stuck with a must-do-no-matter-what to-do list and you’ll have a real “make it work” moment on your hands. But that should be the last resort. With the right mindset and planning, you can avoid that stress. Instead, think of everything you get done on the plane as a bonus.

Keep the essential tasks for the airport or your hotel room. Even a coffee shop in your destination city is more predictable than your flight. Prioritize your to-do list in such a way that leaves only “it would be nice to get this done” tasks for the plane.

Ready For Takeoff

It’s comforting to know that you can still be productive when flying. Like all productivity frameworks, the key to airplane productivity is doing your research and knowing your own capabilities. And, like any productivity routine, cut yourself some slack if you aren’t as productive as you hoped on your next flight. All productivity routines benefit from experimentation, testing, and tweaking.

Next: Trello Goes Off The Hook: Work Everywhere With Mobile Offline

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