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How to Live With Jet Lag: 7 Tricks

There's no cure-all for jet lag. But there is a sane way to travel.


I spend my life on planes. Often, when people ask where I live, I answer simply: "Seat 7a." I work equally in the U.S. and Europe, with a few side trips to the Far East, so I'm regularly asked how I handle jet lag. I've read a lot of the science on the subject, tried out most of the remedies, and found no magic cure.

Instead, to some degree, I try to ignore jet lag. I learned to do this because I found my kids had no interest in it; when I came home, they just assumed I was on their schedule and had no sympathy for any excuses. It taught me a good lesson. 

So here are seven tricks I've learned to help me cope:

1. When you're on planes, don't work or watch movies. 

Too much time in front of a screen in an airless space numbs the mind. It can feel like a nice break, but it won't give you energy. So bring an old-fashioned, hard-copy book and enjoy the freedom you have to read without interruption. On most flights I take, I can start and finish a book, and I find I remember it better because I wasn't interrupted.

2. Don't eat.

These days you're rarely offered edible food on planes anyway, but I find my body is always a lot happier if I eat when I'm on the ground. I know business-class meals are supposed to be a treat. But the truth is, they're the most expensive fast food in the world. So ignore them. Instead, have pizza at the airport before you board.

3. Try not to drink.

I definitely feel better if I don't drink alcohol. However, if I'm boarding a long flight at the end of the day, I'll have one glass of champagne or wine. Then I stop.

4. Listen and sleep.

On long flights, I always listen to the same audio book. I still have no idea how it ends, and my sense of its narrative structure is bizarre. But I've conditioned my body to recognize that whenever I hear that voice, it's time to sleep. I'll take a generic sleep aid, like Tylenol PM, and get anything between four and seven hours of sleep. (What I must never do is listen to this book while driving.)

5. Be where you are.

As soon as I arrive, I do my best to get acclimated into the local schedule. This is for no other reason than that it distracts me from how discombobulated I feel. If I'm on the same schedule as everyone else, I act normal, even if I feel distinctly strange.

6. Go to bed.

When I get to a destination, I try hard not to schedule dinners or evening meetings. This isn't always possible--when it is, I go to bed as early as I can. That may mean waking early the next day, but that's fine: I can always get work done while others sleep.

7. Take time to recover.

After long or complicated trips (my last one was nine flights in 12 days), I try to schedule a recovery day. The longer the trip, the greater the accumulated chaos on my return. I also find that I want time to reacquaint myself with my office and my routine. The first day back is invariably nesting time: I look like I'm working, but really I'm just reminding myself of home.

Last updated: Aug 22, 2012

MARGARET HEFFERNAN is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2011, she published her third book, Willful Blindness.

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