While a lot of folks are traveling for the holidays it’s a fine time to comment on how best to make use of your time while traveling for work. I’ve experienced three kinds of business trips and you should employ different strategies for each. Two things you always want to do are take care of your family by staying in touch and take care of yourself by trying to eat healthy food, exercise, and get enough sleep.
The Run All Night is the kind of trip where you’re going to be busy more or less around the clock. This may be true of trade shows, system commissionings, or sales calls where you’re meeting with customers morning, noon, and night. These situations are actually the easiest in which to be efficient because you have no choice; your time is mapped out for you. You’re trying to get everything done and are wishing there were more hours in the day. You should leverage colleagues at the home office if and when they’re available but the main thing you can do is take notes on anything that seems important that you want to get back to, so you can research it when you return home. These kinds of trips may throw a lot of ideas at you so it’s important to be able to capture a decent amount of information quickly. A note-taking app may be helpful but a voice capture device or app is even better. The latter allows you to capture more information and I always found the process of transcribing my notes to be an opportunity to clarify and better structure my thoughts. It’s helpful to do the transcription as quickly as possible but if it has to wait then it’s still better to get it than not.
The Nine-To-Five trip (which is usually more like Seven-To-Seven) is where you work more or less regular hours but over the course of many days or weeks. This setup leaves evenings free, may allow breaks during lunch, and may even include free weekends. If you’re traveling with colleagues you’ll probably spend some of the time extending dinners, grabbing the odd beverage, or checking out the local scenery but that still leaves time you can use for yourself. In these cases you’ll want to keep up with whatever reading you’re usually doing (you are reading something regularly, aren’t you?), review your notes from the day and do any research they might suggest, and possibly knock out an hour or two of a course or study project you have going. A subspecies of this kind of trip is the Steak Run, which is a brief trip for a short task or meeting. These usually involve a lighter work schedule and greater-than-normal conviviality. Don’t be stupid, but enjoy them when they come by.
The Waiting for Godot is where you often aren’t doing much of anything at all. I’ve experienced this on a couple of occasions–I’m talking four to six weeks of nothing. I will suggest that you want to avoid this situation at all costs if you can, unless you can make use of the time. My ability to make better use of the time when this happened to me (in 1996 in Korea and 1998 in Thailand) was limited by lack of ready access to the Internet. I could only get online through a Compuserve dial-up connection (in some cases only by dialing back to Pittsburgh), and traveling to remote places, like Tapachula, Mexico on the southernmost end of the Pacific coast bordering on Guatemala, in 2006, is the reason I kept that account for so many years. Now I keep it because AOL (and now Verizon) support legacy accounts for free, they’re good for social media and as a destination for certain kinds of mail contacts. Anyway, now that the Internet is nearly ubiquitous and a spectacular range of productive and edifying content is available there are no excuses. You want to do everything I’ve described plus you want to dive into some kind of class, research, or project. If you need ideas ask your colleagues or superiors for suggestions.
A big part of getting motivated to do something substantial is that you might not know how long the down period is going to last. If you know then you can plan but if you don’t, which is more likely, you have to be willing to jump in and get busy. Don’t wait so see if time is starting to stretch; it’ll stretch more if you keep waiting. You don’t want several weeks to have gone by that you could have used. If you get busy and keep busy, however, you’ll stay engaged and may even be disappointed when you have to back to your normal work. If that doesn’t happen for a while you can learn or accomplish something meaningful.
Don’t wait. Get to it!