Too often, business travelers use their trips as opportunities to rest up for the next bit of work. However, it pays to shift your mindset. The savvy worker never wastes travel or hotel time. You should always be willing to make good, productive use of those periods that most travelers would consider “lost hours,” because doing so offers a unique opportunity to get work done with few distractions or interruptions.
In this article, I’ll outline a few simple things that you can do to maximize your business productivity while you’re on the road.
Spontaneity can be fun, but save it for vacation time. Before you ever set foot outside your home, it’s best to make certain that every step of your trip is mapped out (doubly important for international travel).
Start well in advance of your travel date by making a list of all the things you think you’ll need (or use a standardized checklist), taking into account the limitations of your baggage allowance. Then put some thought into contingency planning. If a storm strands you in an airport concourse for 24 hours, what will you do? What if your luggage is lost or someone steals the bag containing your medications? Make provisions for everything you can think of. If you’re a frequent traveler, over time you’ll build up a comfortable backlog of contingency plans that’ll help you overcome any problems you may face.
As your travel arrangements firm up, be sure to track everything in your personal filing system and keep multiple copies of itinerary information (on your phone and in paper). Meanwhile, unless you’re thoroughly familiar with your destination, some Internet research is in order. At the very least, you should find a few dinner options near your hotel. Reach out to friends and clients in the area you don’t often get to connect with.
Know when your downtime is likely to occur (the hours you spend in the airport or on the plane and during those evenings in the hotel room) and decide precisely what you want to accomplish for each period. Ignore distractions and dive right into your work whenever you can.
I recommend that you wear comfortable clothing during the actual travel phases of your trip, so you have plenty of room to move and you’re spared the distraction of discomfort. Business casual is a good compromise between dressy and sloppy. I’m partial to the Travelers line by Chicos, because they’re easy to maintain, don’t wrinkle, and can double as presentation clothing if my luggage goes awry. Avoid belts and wear slip-on shoes, because you’ll just have to take them off at the security line in the airport. For similar reasons, it’s good to minimize your jewelry and pocket contents. And by the way: make sure your shoes are comfortable, because you may have to walk long distances between gates.
One more thing: before you leave, prepare a portfolio or folder where you can easily keep track of all your receipts, meeting notes, conference papers, proposals, and the like while you’re away from home. Keep it handy in your briefcase, and make a point of filing away your papers every evening. This is especially necessary for longer trips; when I attend conferences over several days, for example, I bring along a seven-pocket Pendaflex folder, and prepare separate expense envelopes for every client meeting.
To avoid wasting time, start packing well before your trip. Just put your bag somewhere out of the way, and drop things into it as they occur to you; that way, when it’s time to get serious about packing, you’ll practically be done. Between trips, it’s a good idea to put together favorite outfits and keep them together in your closet, so that you can pack them quickly; accessories like ties, belts, and jewelry should be kept easily available as well.
I recommend clothes that are easy to maintain and don’t wrinkle or require ironing, especially if you plan to be away from home for more than a few days. For added protection against wrinkling, wrap them in the plastic bags from the dry cleaner. And speaking of plastic bags, a quart-sized zip-lock baggie is ideal for toiletries, because it’s easy to pack, keeps everything together, and airport security can inspect it with ease. In addition to all this, a sewing kit, grooming items, a clothes brush, extra reading, medications and first aid items (including the headache pills of your choice) should be included in your luggage.
Try not to check bags at all costs. If you’re just heading out for a couple of days, you can make do with a carry-on bag packed with the basics; some people can manage an international trip without checking bags. If you must check, it’s critical to pack a backup outfit in your carry-on, just in case that checked bag is lost. Always keep your essential business items with you, especially important papers, electronic backups of presentations, and copies of your ID. Never, ever check your briefcase; it should always be with you, even if you have to pay extra for the privilege.
A laptop computer should also be a part of your carry-on ensemble, even if you don’t intend to work on it during the flight (though you probably will). I also recommend that you pack away, elsewhere, a wires pouch that contains duplicates of all the chargers and cords that you need to make all your electronics work—just in case.
Create More Value by Spending a Little Money
In some situations, trying to be economical can shoot a hole in your productivity. For example: why waste time driving to the airport and back when you can pay someone else to drive you, while you work on the way? Once you factor in the aggravation of finding a parking spot and getting to the terminal, not to mention toll charges and parking fees, it’s usually more profitable and productive to hire a sedan service or shuttle to take you from door to door. It’s delegation in action: you pay someone else to do the lower value work while you take care of the high value things you do best.
This concept translates to other travel options that some may consider lavish, like joining airline clubs or paying for VIP privileges, which are good ideas if you travel a lot and often fly the same carrier. As a 1K on United (100,000+ miles flown per year), not only do I get to board earlier than everyone else and grab that overhead space, I get free upgrades to first class on almost every flight, plus separate check-in, security, and boarding lines. In many cases, you also have access to quiet airport lounges where you can get work done in comfort—not to mention the fact that you can accrue frequent flier miles for later use.
Similarly, cheap hotel accommodations can cost you in the end, because you can’t count on them providing the type of setting or amenities that you need to get your work done. It’s worth paying a little extra for quality and comfort in both instances if you know you can knock out enough work to more than pay for the extra expense.
Make Smart, Efficient Use of Your Technology
Modern electronics have made it so much easier to be productive while traveling that it’s hard to imagine how we managed without them. Even a simple smartphone can let you check and respond to email, keep in touch with your contacts during downtime, and touch base with the office.
You should always consider your airplane your mobile office. If your laptop is too bulky, consider purchasing an iPad or a tiny laptop just for travel: a machine that’s not just smaller and lighter than most, but that contains only the programs you need to do your work. You can sync the files you’ll need on the road with dropbox.com. Don’t include space-hogging software like MP3s and image-editing programs unless you absolutely need them. If you’d like to listen to music as you work, carry an iPod or smart-phone with you. Listening on a separate device will also help conserve your laptop’s battery charge. Stashing an extra laptop battery in your carry-on can also help; that way you can just change it out as necessary rather than trying to conserve power on long flights.
A flash or “thumb” drive containing your essential computer files is a must, especially if you’re planning a presentation using PowerPoint. These tiny gadgets are inexpensive, and can mean the difference between success and disaster if something happens to your computer or your data somehow gets corrupted. Just snap the loaded thumb drive onto your keychain or a necklace, or slide it into a pocket of your briefcase, and you’re good to go.
These days, all laptops come with built-in Wi-Fi access, so make the most of that wherever it’s available—at the airport, your hotel, or the Starbuck’s down the street. You should be willing to pay for access when you need it; it’s inexpensive when it’s not free, and again, this is a case of the expense being outweighed by your resulting productivity. If you’d prefer not to have to worry about whether Wi-Fi is available wherever you end up, consider investing in personal broadband or EVDO, which piggyback on existing wireless telephone networks. That way, you’ll always have Internet access as long as there’s a cell tower nearby. Many phone providers, such as Sprint and Verizon, offer the option to use your phone as a wireless hotspot. Eight people can connect their computers to my phone in their wireless settings when the hotspot is enabled.
I also recommend that you take a GPS unit with you, especially if you’re unfamiliar with your destination. This will help you avoid stress when driving. You can get a very good unit for less than $200; I use the Garman nuvi.
Finally, you may want to consider investing in a nice pair of noise-canceling earphones. This is the politest way of dealing with ambient noise and screaming babies.
Finish One Trip before Starting the Next
In the whirl of business travel, it’s easy to let one trip blur into another, especially if they’re scheduled back-to-back. But you can’t let that happen, or you’re going to end up making more work for yourself. No matter how exhausted you are, don’t just dump your stuff in a pile and forget about it while you try to catch up after being away. If you’re not careful, you’ll never get back to it—until it’s suddenly time to prepare for the next trip, and you have to deal with the jumbled mess leftover from last time.
Immediately after returning home, empty out your luggage, get those travel clothes to the laundry and dry cleaner, and prepare for the next trip. Refill toiletries and replace anything you’ve used up. Clean out and reorganize your briefcase and laptop bag, making sure that all your travel electronics and their various cords are there and where they’re supposed to be.
Next, process and organize all your information, getting it to the correct locations. Don’t skimp on the filing, or you’ll regret it later! Immediately take care of your receipts and expense reports while everything’s still clear in your mind, so you can get every cent owed to you.
A World of Change
Just a few decades ago, getting from here to there was an exercise in frustration for the business traveler. Not only was the travel itself often boring and unpleasant, it was difficult to get anything productive done when in transit or parked in a hotel room. That all changed with the advent of compact electronics: nowadays, it’s almost a sin not to get work done while traveling, because smartphones, PDAs, iPads, and laptops make productivity simpler, no matter where you are. Put them together with efficient, smart use of resources, as well as logical planning and preparation, and there’s no reason you can’t get nearly as much done on the road as you can from your office.
I hope the strategies I’ve outlined in this article help you with your productive travel, and spark new ideas of your own. I’d love to hear what you come up with!