Working on the road is never much fun, is it? Whether you're on vacation, traveling for work, or visiting friends, you most likely have something pressing on your mind. The place is unfamiliar, your daily ritualistic habits are interrupted, and you're probably tired, jetlagged, or dehydrated. It's very easy to let your daily work habits slip by, or to put things off until you get home--and then coming home becomes stressful.
Even if you typically enjoy your work, it's likely that you'll have a hard time revving yourself up to be productive on the road. After all, any real work requires an investment of time and energy, and when you're fatigued or distracted, it's just about the last thing in the world you feel like doing. At the same time, the guilt of skipping your work can ruin your day.
When you're away from home and not in the mood, here are a few things you can do to make sure you are productive even in less-than-ideal conditions:
1. Use your down time.
Generally when you're traveling, you don't have huge chunks of free time at your disposal. However, you'll often find plenty of smaller intervals you can use to get things done. If you can take advantage of these opportunities to get bite-sized chunks of work done, you will make things easier for yourself later on. Whether you're waiting at the gate for your plane, or on a bus or taking a cab, chip away on big projects.
Is it tempting to get some unimportant emails done? Absolutely. The endorphin rush you receive from getting small things done is hard to beat. Still, it's better to chip away on big projects if you can. It's hard, but it's not impossible.
You don't need a solid two hours to do get work done--and if you're someone who adamantly professes that you do need two hours to get anything done, consider this an opportunity to work on that problem.
2. Start early.
This may be the single most useful technique to getting work done on the road. Starting your work early first thing in the morning is an incredibly useful habit regardless of whether you're on the road, but it is especially crucial when you're not in your usual environs.
Getting up intentionally a bit earlier helps remove excuses for not getting your work done: you don't have any appointments yet, you don't have the day's events on your mind, and you are in control of your time.
It's not always possible to work around your day; you don't want to shift or cancel meetings, conferences, and other events. So, setting your alarm clock an hour earlier is the simplest and most effective way to carve out some work time for yourself. When and if decision fatigue sets in, it's much easier to motivate yourself to take a power nap later on than it is to work. Working early in the morning is also your best opportunity to work uninterrupted, so use this time for your most important tasks and the ones that require the most concentration.
And here's an additional bonus: getting valuable work done first thing in the morning provides a huge mental boost--the same sort of endorphin buzz you get after an early morning run.
3. Tell people.
Make it clear to those around you that you need some time for yourself. If you let people you're traveling with or meeting on the road know in advance that you're going to need time to get things done, they will be much more understanding when you have to bow out before that third round of drinks. People are often more understanding than you may give them credit for, and your situation is not unique, so don't be afraid to make it clear that you have serious work to do. In fact, it might even help to...
4. Buddy up.
It's a lot easier to motivate yourself if you have a partner to work with, whether that person is physically next to you, or someone you set your goals with before you left. This works particularly well if the two of you are working on the same or similar projects, but any sort of moral support helps.
5. Make it a priority.
Regardless of your typical discipline, when you're on the road you are quite likely to find it more difficult to get down to work every day. After all, whether you're on the beach or in a new city and a different time zone, work often simply feels less pressing. You're out of your element and work can feel like an afterthought, especially if you're on vacation or at a conference that demands your attention for issues outside of the normal scope of your daily projects.
That said, mission-critical work isn't something you just squeeze in "when you can"; it needs to be as front and center as always. That means prioritizing work, even when you don't want to. It's tempting to go out to dinner instead, to explore the new city, to go for beers - and sometimes that's just fine - but if it comes at the cost of valuable work time, you really need to consider seriously whether you're just skipping work because you don't feel like doing it.
6. Don't be busy; be productive.
Productivity guru Tim Ferriss often talks about the concept that "being busy is a form of laziness," which is essentially the idea that we would prefer to feel like we are getting work done, rather than going through the struggle of actually getting work done. We practice "productive procrastination": answering meaningless emails instead of working on the monster spreadsheet because we want to "work"...but don't really want to work.
In a previous column about successful business travel, I mentioned the concept of working on smaller tasks as a way to build momentum and get your work started. I hold to that idea, but it only works as long as these minor tasks get your workday off the ground, and don't simply distract you from the more pressing tasks at hand. Want to do a few emails to build momentum and then transition into an activity that's critical to your business's growth? Great. Just don't look at the clock two hours later and realize all you've been doing is emails.
Working away from home is tough, but it can also be a valuable experience: after all, it's another way to get out of your comfort zone and open yourself to new ideas. Even if things don't go so well, you're still working towards your goal, still improving yourself simply by going through the motions. You might not end up with your finest work, but as long as you end up with anything at all, you can consider that a win.