“Ah, Herr Lamont. Ja, vee had a room for you…”
As greetings go, this is not what you want to hear when arriving at a hotel in the middle of the night. It is certainly not what you want to hear after your flight has left late, arrived late, and missed a connection that meant renting a car to finish the journey.
Certainly not after you have waited an hour for bags to be found to put into the car, and then driving three hours across Germany with the anticipation of nabbing a couple of hours sleep ahead of the following day’s work.
It sounds an unlikely tale, one in a million, but this was not the first time I’ve experienced precisely this situation. It was the third time. How is that possible? Well, if you travel a lot, you’ll know. Once you start travelling, you give up even the limited control you might otherwise think you have in your day to day life.
In considering a blog post on productivity on the road, it occurred to me that it would be worth exploring ‘Why a post about productivity on the road?’. What is different about being on the road that makes it worth doing a post on the topic? I have an opinion, as I’ve spent an average of 200 days per year on the road for the last 10 years or so, and I teach productivity. So I’ve had to find some solutions.
The differences between a ‘normal’ work environment and working on the road are plenty:
- More disruptive, chaotic environment – The obstacle course that begins when the doors to the airport terminal open and ends about the time that you get to the hotel at the other end, is plagued with uncertainty. Pretty much anything is possible, from extended line-ups at check in, to security queues that wrap around the building, to the flight being delayed or cancelled, right through to landing in a place (sometimes not the original destination – yes that’s happened too) where you don’t speak the language and wouldn’t know the difference between a licensed taxi and a pirate unless the driver happened to be wearing an eye patch.
- Reduced or absent toolset – Unless you have given it some thought, and probably given up some functionality in your normal workstation, then you are often on the move with less power and less functionality than you are used to at home.
- Reduced or absent connectivity – This is getting better and better, but to avoid disappointment it is best to set expectations to ‘frustrated’ and enjoy the surprises when that doesn’t happen.
- Unpredictable access to power – Again, this has gotten markedly better of late, but for years, power sources were few and far between, and seasoned travelers developed a sixth sense for hunting and tracking down sockets in airports and hotel lobbies.
- Physical constraints – You are more often in places where work is simply not possible (queues, immigration halls, etc.) or only certain things can be worked on.
Given all that, here are some thoughts on things that have made my life as a traveler much easier, and sometimes even more productive than normal:
If you are travelling a lot, there are certain things that you need to do all the time. If you do all the checking well ahead of getting in the taxi, you can enjoy the trip in the taxi. I used to use the time travelling to the airport running through a list of things in my mind. It wasn’t very relaxing. Now I check the list before the car pulls up and can relax, make calls, or manage e-mails while on the way to the airport.
Whenever possible, get modular with things that you take with you often. Classically, most of us who do any regular travel at all would not re-pack a shaving case for each trip. We double up on the travel versions of toiletries we use at home, and put those in a toilet bag, then simply throw the entire bag into our suitcase rather than re-pack it each time.
If it works for a toilet bag, why not for things you need for presentations? I have an entire suitcase with the seminar materials and props for a particular seminar packed and ready to go all the time. ‘Packing’ it requires putting it near the front door on the evening before the day of departure.
This works best if you make sure that it is 100% ready to go at the end of the previous trip. If you notice that there is anything missing during a trip, make sure to make a note and update the contents before packing the suitcase away. That way, you know it is ready to go and don’t need to check it before each trip.
3.Make sure you have back-up power
“Battery low – please save your work or find a new power source.” Any of us who travel regularly have had that message flash up at some point while travelling, very often while on the plane working on the final slide of a presentation due upon arrival in our client’s office.
To avoid making groveling requests for a power cord from perfect strangers, buy a number of power cords and put one in each bag you use regularly so you don’t – indeed can’t – forget them. The extra expense will be amortized in less stress and a reduction in frantic begging in public places. After a recent extra-long flight where my battery gave up the ghost half-way to my destination, I’ve now got my eye on one of those portable solar chargers.
Also, you’ll want adaptors for every single country you might ever visit. That sounds like a lot of adaptors, but in practice there are some very cool all-in-one adaptors that basically adapt everything to everything.
4.Have multiple ways to access the internet
As I’m working on the move a lot, not having a connection can be a significant breakdown. I can always pull things in over my phone, sure, but that is a pretty sub-optimal work tool because of its size and (lack of) keyboard if you are trying to really get some work done.
What I do is make sure that I have substantial redundancy in my means of accessing the internet. I have my 4G device for the UK that also works internationally, and for places I go regularly I’ll pick up a country specific one to keep charges down. Then – worst case – I have whatever the hotel or office provides. In practice I try to steer clear of public networks. Again, this is a cost-benefit calculation, but I’m willing to spend a bit more to have a safe and secure connection all to myself.
5.Create location transparency
Get a system that (mostly) replicates your home set up – or, if you are on the road as much as I – don’t bother with a home set up. I’m very fast on a keyboard, but not so fast on two different ones – changing keyboards is a hassle I don’t need, so I just work on the laptop keyboard wherever I am.
Don’t equate lightness with productivity. I had one client who wanted to only travel with his iPad to keep weight down, but he was falling behind during every trip because he couldn’t really work on it (can anyone?). He could scan things, but not really do the work. The problem was eventually solved when he bought a MacBook Air and got himself a decent keyboard back.
6.Invest in a system that boots quickly
You want to minimize resistance to knocking some things off your lists in the weird windows of time that pop up. For me, delays at the gate, time in a taxi and in trains are all just moments to either get on top of new stuff that just showed up, or – more importantly – do things that need a bit of time and focused attention to move things forward.
7.Get the very best travel kit you can afford
If you travel a lot, then this is simply an extension of the suggested investment approach to shoes and beds (i.e., you’ll spend a third of your life in both, so it is worth spending some money on them). Personally, I use a Swiss army type bag which is a mobile office for me. It isn’t elegant, but it is deeply functional, with more pockets than a bad magician. It is about 3x more expensive than some of the alternatives, but the alternatives blow up in unhelpful situations after a few weeks on my schedule.
8.Allow plenty of time in your schedule
Chaos is lurking around most corners when on the move, so I’ve learned to build in a healthy buffer. I used to cut it all very fine to ‘save time’ but to keep stress levels down, I’ve learned to allow some breathing room.
9.Keep in touch
Under the same heading, I think it is a false economy to disconnect from my support network when I’m on the move. Sure, it costs a bit more to check in with my buddies when I’m abroad, but not checking in leaves me feeling isolated, and that is not a productivity enhancing state for me. If I have to choose between a £3.00 phone call to check in and a £3.00 muffin to still the same urge for connectedness, the call is definitely the cheaper option.
10. Pretend you are at home
Have some set routines that you can keep going wherever you are – meditation and walking can be done pretty much anywhere. For me, it is my waking routine that sets me up for my day, wherever I am. I’m a good hour into the day before anything changes, and a long way into a strong day no matter where I find myself. The routine helps to stay grounded when in new places and in the chaos of travel.
10b.Leverage being away
There are things about being on the road that actually lend themselves quite well to being productive. Stuck in traffic on the way to the airport? Knock off some calls. Time to waste in departures? Great for whittling down your e-mail list. Endless hours in a plane? How about a good thorough clean-up of your system?
11.Use multiple alarms (in case one fails)
When you are out of your native time zone, don’t rely on either your phone or the manager of your hotel for a wake-up call. Set at least two alarms. Sounds like over-preparing – until it is not.
Put everything back where it belongs as soon as you are finished with it. Have a place for your home keys, and put them there when you get on the road. Have a place for your passport, and put it there as soon as you no longer need it.
The life of a road warrior can’t be made completely bullet-proof, but these tools and techniques have kept me armoured up and moving relatively smoothly through the travel world for the past 17 years.