Off the clock, on a plane

I do not particularly like flying. (Does anyone who’s not actually flying the plane?) You’re sitting in a seat for many hours, in dry air, timing visits to a tiny bathroom for the time when the plane isn’t bouncing over the airborne equivalent of pot holes.

But here is one upside of plane travel: it can be a really, really good time for getting stuff done.

Most of us don’t spend a whole lot of time disconnected from email, texts, etc. these days. You can pay for internet access on a plane but it requires an extra step. So it’s often easier to just put it off until landing. Which means that after hitting 10,000 feet, you can take out your laptop and just dive into something for hours, pretty much uninterrupted. You don’t need to be watching the clock to see when you should stop to go to the next thing. There is no next thing, except landing. Which will be obvious when it happens!

I sometimes have trouble motivating myself to work on planes, but this past Wednesday-Thursday was different. I had hoped to read through my entire manuscript of Off the Clock last weekend. My husband was going to take three of the kids to Boo at the Zoo at the Bronx Zoo (while I took care of the 8-year-old, who had a party he wanted to go to, but he’s pretty self-sufficient). But then it was rainy, so they didn’t go. Instead of getting the whole day to work while the 8-year-old played video games or was at his party, I got a grand total of one hour in the car during the 8-year-old’s party before the rest of my family pulled into the parking spot next to me because they wanted to go play at the arcade too.

Ah, the wages of expectation. One hour to work on the weekend isn’t bad, but when I thought I’d get 8 hours…

Anyway, my flights to and from Austin presented an alternative. I delved into the manuscript and just read and read. I stopped when the flight attendant told me to put away my computer. No setting alarms or figuring out when I needed to be ready for a phone call. I was off the clock.

As I’ve studied the schedules of productive people, I’ve found that airplane time is — more often than one might think — their secret weapon. One gentleman I profile in Off the Clock travels internationally all the time. He uses those 14-hour flights to Asia to do any focused work. Then, when he’s in the office, he’s perfectly fine with people stopping by to chat. He can devote his attention to those chats without worrying about when he can get back to the focused stuff because he’s already done the focused stuff on planes. That makes work much more pleasant. Sure, it requires giving up watching bad movies or paying for internet access and then reading, but as sacrifices go, that’s not a bad one.

What do you do on planes? When I’m not working, I tend to read. I almost never watch movies or shows — because I don’t really do these things on the ground either.

In other news: I’ll be doing a FB Live chat around noon, ET, today to discuss how to tackle a big project in November (the subject of this month’s newsletter).

Photo: Fall flowers. I don’t really have any photos of planes.

13 thoughts on “Off the clock, on a plane

  1. I have motion sickness when I fly. Working is impossible. So is reading for fun. I mostly just try to keep my eyes closed and get through it. Sometimes I do listen to podcasts. Flying definitely does nothing to increase my productivity.

  2. Plane time is work time, 100%. That work time is also most efficient when it’s carefully planned in advance. For instance, I tend to read a lot of confidential documents and draft a lot of confidential reports, which is tricky on a plane even with privacy screens on the computer. My ideal: a small, tabbed binder of journal articles to read and digest. They’re (1) publically available, so no confidentiality concerns, and (2) paper, so there’s no down time waiting to reach 10k feet before you can open a laptop. Use the time in the boarding line to respond to small emails and add calendar appointments on your phone, or to electronically organize receipts for reimbursement upon return. Use the Uber rides to and from to return short, non-confidential phone calls. It’s all about the planning!

    1. @Kathleen – people who plan their airplane time can be incredibly productive. I’m always amazed how many people don’t use that time for work when, presumably, they’re flying for work, but maybe the thought is that hey, my company is making me travel, they’re not going to get my in-transit time too.

      And oh yes, privacy/confidentiality. There have been some egregious examples of people not paying attention to that — good you do!

      1. “hey, my company is making me travel, they’re not going to get my in-transit time too.”

        That’s basically my perspective. I already work so many extra hours while on business travel that there’s no way I’m doing more right then. Plane rides are my chance for a long stretch of UNINTERRUPTED quiet reading time.

        My dad and stepmom worked together for the same company for years before they were married, and went on a lot of the same business trips. My stepmom told me once how she used to show up at the airport extra early to change her seat assignment, because she knew that sitting with my dad meant the plane ride was EVEN MORE work time, whereas she just wanted to relax and read magazines. :-p

  3. Any suggestions for people who don’t fly well? I don’t get motion sickness, like Beth, but I had a panic attack on a plane years ago and have varied in my handling of flights ever since; sometimes I’m very calm, sometimes much less so. I’ve been reading an excellent fear-of-flying book, but frequently I need something that’s absorbing enough to turn off my thinking brain (which frequently is working in too close conjunction with my amygdala), so video games work better for me than work which might not be totally absorbing.

    1. First, my suggestions for motion sickness. (1) Fly on larger planes and sit towards the front whenever possible. If you’re flying on a corporate jet, try to get a forward facing seat. (2) Visit your doctor and get a prescription. I have one that is effective, inexpensive and doesn’t make me drowsy. (3) Use the time to catch up on podcasts or audiobooks. Focusing on listening to something is a great distraction from motion sickness. (4) Don’t eat before/during a plane trip and drink plenty of water.

      When I’m able to get on a large plane in nice weather, and I have my meds, I typically reach for a book or catch up on my knitting. I take a 4 hour flight round-trip for business about once every two months, so I don’t feel too guilty about this, but I am still intrigued by productivity suggestions! I typically find it awkward to work on spreadsheets on a laptop screen on the plane. Sometimes my job has document review, and sometimes it doesn’t. I typically don’t spend much time on email, partly by choice and partly by demand.

  4. On my last flight I listened to the last few episodes of your podcast! It was great! Otherwise I prefer something low-tech (books or magazines) that I can keep out.

  5. I fly occasionally for work and I use that time to read non-fiction books in physical form so that there’s no time wasted when they ask you to turn off any devices.

    I had a trip in March (2 hours either way plus sitting in the airplane waiting to take off) and I started and finished 2 X 200-odd page books. It felt great getting that reading done.

  6. I recently flew across the country for work and was excited about the prospect of uninterrupted work time. I guess I haven’t flown for work in a while because I didn’t realize that I would not have enough space to open my laptop. I often travel locally via Amtrak and can work comfortably enough so I was expecting about the same on an airplane. I was quite frustrated and spent the time reading and snoozing instead which is fine but not what I wanted to do.

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