How to be more productive while traveling

Has your travel schedule caused more turbulence than you'd like? CIOs and productivity experts share five no-nonsense tips to help you stay efficient – and sane
604 readers like this.

Any IT executive struggles to stay sane on a busy travel schedule. Remaining productive while on the road is even harder. For IT leaders and CIOs bouncing around the globe, however, it’s a necessity. Perhaps you’re also doing more “bleisure” trips, where you try to squeeze in a bit of both work and play. But it's not easy to make the most of your time when the airport feels like a second home.

[ Can't find a good work-life balance? Read also: Blended, not balanced: 8 ways to reclaim sanity at work and home. ] 

We talked to veteran IT travelers and productivity experts to round up five tips that, with disciplined application, can increase your throughput wherever you find yourself in a given week – including one that doesn’t involve work at all.

Factor – and perhaps build in – wait times

Traveling inevitably means waiting – whether for a plane, train, automobile, or even a meeting. Always take enough work with you to cover those waiting periods, advises Robert Pozen, author of “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours” who teaches a productivity course within MIT Sloan’s executive education program. Make sure you can actually take care of that work in a typical travel waiting area. Download any apps you need and earmark the kind of busy work that requires less concentration or deep thinking – such as organizing your inbox, checking in with your team, and reviewing your schedule.

You might even consider building some cushion into your travel schedule. Rather than cutting connections close, aim for some breathing room. It will not only reduce travel stress but also create extra time to get things done. “Between customer meetings and conference keynotes, traveling for work can leave little time to actually get work done. It’s best to create a game plan before heading out to ensure you have time to be as productive as possible,” advises Jon Lee, CEO of software company Copper. “Schedule phone calls during times you know you can’t work on your laptop, such as commute hours and car rides.”

Don’t skimp on connectivity

Struggling against sluggish airport or hotel Wi-Fi will just increase your blood pressure.

There is perhaps nothing worse than having a block of potentially productive work time during a trip only to find yourself without an Internet connection – or worse, struggling against sluggish airport or hotel Wi-Fi, which not only decreases throughput but also increases your blood pressure. Wendy M. Pfeiffer, CIO of Nutanix, who travels frequently to meet with her IT partners and her company’s customers, says spending a little more on network connectivity is always a wise investment. “Get an unlimited data package from your cellular carrier and use your mobile phone as a hotspot whenever possible in airport lounges or hotel rooms,” says Pfeiffer, who traveled to meet with 270 CIOs last year. “If you’re on a long flight, purchase the onboard Wi-Fi and save your work often.”

Get moving

Your brain and your body are your productivity drivers. Therefore, keeping up with your usual routine is critical, says Pozen, who previously worked as president of Fidelity Investments, executive chairman of MFS Investment Management, and an associate general counsel of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

That includes exercise. “If, like me, you are also booked for meetings at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, make sure you carve out an hour first thing in the morning to hit the gym or go for a walk or jog,” says Pfeiffer. “Follow that with a shower and a big bowl of fruit and yogurt, and you’ll be ready to tackle anything.”

Eliminate variables

If it worked for the leader of the free world, it could certainly help the traveling CIO.

One easy way to start is by limiting your sartorial options. Barack Obama was known to travel with a few blue suits, once telling Vanity Fair: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” If it worked for the leader of the free world, it could certainly help the traveling CIO.

Indeed, Pozen says one of the keys to productivity – on the road or at home – is to try to “be boring,” particularly in the morning, by limiting the number of choices you have to make.

Take a break

One of the best ways to boost productivity while in geographic motion seems a bit counterintuitive: Step away from the work for a while and include some play. Business travel is critical for CIOs to meet with constituents, partners, peers, and customers. But it can be grueling. Give your brain time to recharge so that it can operate optimally.

As we pointed out in a recent article on work-life blending tips, business trips can be an opportunity to have fun as well. As with the other productivity tips, it pays to plan ahead. Find an activity you’d like to try out or even earmark some pool time into your schedule. If you wait until you’re running from meeting to meeting to figure out a non-work activity to enjoy, it’s probably not going to happen.

[ Need to reclaim more of your calendar? Read also: 5 time thieves and how to beat them. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.