In my hay day as a road warrior consultant, I would spend a lot of time in the air. It wasn't uncommon for me to have two flights in a week, traveling nationally and internationally to see clients. Making the most of my time in the air was critical to maintaining in my productivity.
Today, as a business coach working with leadership teams on growth and development strategy, while I don't travel nearly as much, I still use the following techniques to get work done on each and every flight.
1. Plan your work.
Like any productivity system, planning is key. Make a list of the most important things you need to do. Then, mark those which you can do on the plane. Prioritize these and set goals for the flight. I like to give myself a list of 15-30 minute tasks to work on while I travel. I know other people who prefer to work on one bigger task for the entire ride. Experiment to find out what works best for you.
2. Have a back up plan.
I always have contingency plans for common challenges. I make sure I download all of the files I need for my key tasks so I don't need the internet. I also keep in mind that I can do work on my phone if I can't comfortably use my laptop. (In fact, I'm in the air right now, writing this article on my phone.) Don't let challenges such as no internet or uncomfortable conditions be an excuse; have a plan and a backup strategy and push through.
3. Use the right technology.
I travel with a small laptop, an iPad, and a phone with me at my seat. I also carry an external battery and multi-connector cable which can charge all of these devices. I carry wireless earbuds and corded earbuds in case the former go dead. (I know some people love over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones, but I find them too bulky and not super effective.) Create a tech setup that works well for you and keep it up to date.
I put all of these items in a separate pocket of my carry on bag so that I can quickly grab everything I need at my seat and put my bag overhead. This ensures that I'm not "that guy" who's holding up everyone trying to board the plane. It ensures that I don't forget anything for my seat in case I can't get out of my seat during the flight.
4. Get started quickly and find your flow.
As soon as I sit down, I start working. I review the to do list on my phone and choose the first task I can begin with before we take off (and one that doesn't require my computer). Make it super easy for you to start working because once you start, it's easier to keep going. If you don't have a system to help you start quickly, you're more likely to throw in the towel and start watching a movie instead.
I also immediately put in my earbuds and start playing some good productivity music. I have a pre-set series of playlists so that I don't have to spend time choosing songs. Each playlist has a different mood and keeps me focused. For me, I choose songs without words and nothing too jarring. Play around with different styles and combinations, and select a few for different moods and keep them handy on your device.
5. Eat and drink to stay focused.
My first and number one rule is no alcohol. The only time I drink is on a longer flight, in the evening, and after I've done a lot of good work. Only then will I relax and watch a movie or read while enjoying an adult beverage. Drinking not only makes it harder to stay focused, it dehydrates you. Instead, I drink lots of water and maybe a black coffee while I work.
For food, I always make sure I have a few protein bars and snacks for the flight. Generally, I find airline food not very appealing and often heavy on carbs which kills my focus for flights. Nuts, jerky, or even a sandwich grabbed from the terminal are better options. Again, always have a plan.
While I try to avoid airline travel whenever I can, it's still required to reach my clients and attended conferences and speaking events. Making the most of my time in the air is the best way I stay productive and focused. Even if you only fly a few times a year, the strategies above can help make the most of the flights and help them go by quickly.