On Airplane Productivity (PlaneWorking)

This week just passed, I had to fly (last-minute) from San Francisco to Minnesota for a funeral (and managed to be there for Thanksgiving as well). That meant 2 flights of a little over 3 hours each. Some people might see this as a drama, and a big loss of productive time, but I saw it as exactly the opposite. I’m hardly the first person to comment on it, but flying can be an extremely productive time to get things done, and I often find myself getting loads of work done while flying.

I had a string of things that needed to be completed/added/fixed on a client project before I left from SFO, and literally finished all of them and more before I arrived at MSP. I would normally have estimated that the list of things I had to do would take around 6 hours to complete. Removing ascent and descent times, (and judging by battery life), I probably only worked for about 2, but I still managed to get everything done. What’s going on here?

I believe that flying, especially on America’s airlines (flying economy) creates an environment which is very conducive for getting certain types of work done, which is quite hard to replicate elsewhere. Obviously there are certain types of work that you can’t easily do without internet connectivity, but for everything else, there’s PlaneWorking™!

Here are some things I’ve identified that actually help me work better on a plane:

  1. No internet: Without normal internet connectivity, there’s nothing to distract me. No IM. No email. No Twitter. No nothing – just working on what it is that I’m working on.
  2. No external distractions: Obviously there are some (like that irritating person in the window seat who needs to use the bathroom every 20 minutes), but there aren’t the normal distractions of either an office or your own home (if you work from home). This allows you to laser-focus on what you’re trying to accomplish. Combine it with the first item on this list and you’re off to the races.
  3. External deadline: You have an externally-imposed deadline (which you should embrace, and use to your advantage). The pilot will tell you exactly how long you have to get that TPS report completed, and there’s no arguing with it because an attendant will come around and make you put away your laptop when it’s time. You can also add to this that your battery might run out and then you have an even more pressing deadline.
  4. Discomfort/depressing surroundings: Remember the joke about stomping on someone’s toe (or other body part) to take their attention away from their sore finger (or other body part)? The same thing applies on a plane. Working takes your mind off the discomfort you’re in because of the ridiculously small amount of leg-room you have, the strangely fluctuating temperatures around you and the stifling smell coming from the lavatory (which is of course right behind you).
  5. Not wanting to be disturbed: Here’s one that’s up to you. On some flights, you might be perfectly happy to be distracted/disturbed for the entire flight. Like that time you found yourself seated in amongst the University of Hawaii’s Girls’ Volleyball team, or when the attendants took a shine to your accent and upgraded your seat, but getting your head down and working is a great way to avoid the annoying conversation attempts from the retired couple who want to tell you all about how they’re traveling to see their children and grandchildren for the week.
  6. People waiting on you: Although this is less and less the case with declining airline services, one additional point (especially for longer flights) is that people actively bring you food and drinks, making sure you are taking some sort of break and eat or drink something (this would be a nice addition to most offices!).

Now I’m not suggesting this work environment is sustainable, or even remotely healthy for long periods of time (or even when experienced too often), but in short bursts, it can be fantastic.

What can we do to make it even more productive?

  • Plan ahead: gather up all the resources you’re going to need in advance because remember, you’re not going to have an internet connection (and that’s a good thing). I like to either open a series of tabs in Firefox and leave them open (risky in case you accidentally close things), or even better; “Print to PDF” (or save as “Webpage, Complete”) for any pages you want, and then you have them saved and ready to go. Your laptop bag will be your carry-on, so make sure you have any paperwork or notes that you’ll need to complete your work in that bag as well.
  • Prepare a hit-list: write up a list of things that you want to complete during your flight, and only allow yourself to work on these things (focus!). Put a few more things on there than you expect to finish, because you never know just how productive you’ll be in this strange world of hyper-productivity.
  • Get an exit row: although the discomfort thing is part of the trick here, it only works within reason. Getting an exit row gives you space to stretch your legs, but more importantly it gives you space to open your laptop properly and not have to be a contortionist to use it.
  • Get some noise-canceling headphones: any kind will do, they are all an absolute god-send when you’re on a plane. They cancel out that annoying hum and whine of the plane (and the other passengers) and if they’re the big can-style ones, they also present a clear physical barrier for people who were thinking about disturbing you.
  • Charge up, scale down: power is your lifeline here, you can only work as long as you have power. Consider getting a second battery if you take a lot of long flights, and make sure any batteries you do take are charged fully. Turn off additional services on your laptop that you don’t need (like wifi and bluetooth) and turn the brightness on your screen right now. Close all those extra applications that you won’t be needing (IM, Skype, etc etc) and get focused. Consider scaling down the power of your processor if you have that option as well (unless you specifically need it).
  • Free coffee: Despite all the cut-backs and short-cuts the airlines are taking, I’m yet to get on a flight that doesn’t have free coffee. You may as well drink some to keep you going. You probably also want to have some water with that to avoid getting dehydrated.

I’d love to think that I could simulate or reproduce this working environment a little more easily (and cheaply) than taking a flight, but I can’t think of a good way to get it all in one place. Perhaps that’s for the best. There are probably some lessons to be learned here on productivity though, especially with regards to disconnecting once in a while and just getting things done without distractions.

How do you find working on a plane? Do you have any other tips on improving your PlaneWorking productivity, or on how to reproduce some of it back in the office/at home? Leave any tips and suggestions in the comments.

UPDATE: I just found this post called Just Plane Productivity over at this cool site on Mobile Productivity.