Travel has always been a part of work. If you're like me, the number of trips you take has gone up and down over the years and your attitude about it has likely changed too. As a newbie consultant, I loved traveling for work. The ability to charge my grande lattes to per diem was awesome, until it wasn't. After more than a year on the road week-in and week-out, the glamour of economy class plane seats and stiff bed sheets faded. I knew it was time to find something more stationary when I stopped caring about how many miles I'd racked up on the coast-to-coast flights.

In the past couple of years, my husband and I have added three kids to our family mix. Now, I've fallen back in love with work travel. Surprised? No, really. It's awesome again and my fellow parents know why. Of course, I miss my kids and I do think of them periodically as I knock out a couple extra emails alone, put on my makeup alone, and eat dinner alone (or with other adults) while not having to squirt extra honey mustard on anyone else's plate. All kid management falls on my husband, who really does such a beautiful job that I don't worry for a second.

But for all of its peaceful joy, traveling can and does wreak havoc on your to-do list. So, how do you stay productive--and maybe even come back a little smarter--when you're moving from a car to a train to a plane then back again? While most business travel takes place within 250 miles of home and is done with personal cars, the average long distance trip is four days. If you assume three hours in the air and an hour and a half on either end to get to and from the airport, then multiply that times two for a round trip, that's a minimum of 12 hours per trip that you spend just in transit. That means sitting someplace while you're waiting to get somewhere else. Harnessing the power of those hours helps you manage or reduce the mountain of work that you typically come back to after a trip and creates an opportunity to improve yourself.

Here are a few ideas for productive or professional betterment tasks that you can knock out while on the road.

1. Hold check-in calls with your staff.

See how they're doing, hear about any new projects or accomplishments. Go in depth on the solutions they're considering for a big client project. Time sitting in a waiting area is great for having these conversations. Make sure you're not spilling anything proprietary or too personal but also give your staff a little more of the time and attention they crave over the phone.

2. Make sure you've downloaded everything you think you'll need in advance.

Almost everywhere is wired these days but you can't count on it. Also, if you don't travel with a hotspot or comparable device, you can waste a ton of time trying to get on to the public Wi-Fi. Use your phone for email and texts and do everything else offline.

3. For the truly ambitious, try something radical and disconnect totally while in transit.

I'm always amazed at how much progress I can make on client assignments that require a lot of thinking and writing when there are no electronic distractions. It might be worth trying for at least one leg of your trip.

4. If you have a couple of trips coming up, pick a couple topics that you've been interested in learning more about and start setting aside some materials to read.

On your next trip to Chicago, it might be catching up on how the internet of things is impacting your industry. When you're headed to Vegas, maybe that's a good time to read the latest research on building an ethical culture within your organization. Use some of your travel time to engross yourself in new and interesting areas of business, life, and creativity.

5. Grow your skills.

Before leaving you can queue up a number of motivational TED talks to listen to and get inspired. During each, make yourself a little note (via email or in your notebook) to capture all of the ideas that will pop up as a result of hearing these great stories. Similarly, find a couple of online podcasts that tie more directly to your professional goals.

6. Practice networking.

Planes and waiting areas are filled with amazing and talented people. If you just knew who they were and what they did, you'd likely have a lot in common. It's relatively easy to start a conversation in these places because there is always something to complain about to anyone nearby who might be listening. Complaining about minor things that a lot people find annoying is a great conversation starter.

7. Practice reading non-verbal cues.

While thousands of people meet every day while on travel, some fellow travelers can be reluctant to start talking, because they're afraid they're committing themselves to a long, unwanted conversation. While starting these conversations, you also need to tune in for all of the signals someone might put out (usually politely at first) to end the conversation. Don't take it personally. They're probably just tired and anxious to get home.

8. Get in more steps.

Long, flat airport corridors are perfect for walking. Instead of searching for a seat near your gate with the fewest strange-looking people around it, consider pacing the terminal. This is especially helpful if you missed your regular workout because of departure times or too many late nights entertaining yourself and clients.

Conclusion

Business travel can be joyous for more reasons than just taking a break from your regular work-life routine. Being thoughtful in advance of your trip and taking the opportunity of different surroundings can help you meet multiple goals. You'll accomplish the business objective that you set out to achieve as well as grow or better yourself a little along the way.

If you're interested in reading more about how to use downtime to spark creative ideas, check out this article.

Published on: Apr 14, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.