How to stay productive midflight so you can hit the ground running

That guy in business class hammering away at his laptop for a large chunk of the flight? That's me.

The bloke immersed in a non-stop video bingefest above the clouds? Also me.

The chap who takes his meal in the lounge and then hits the hay as soon as the flight levels out? Yep, guilty as charged.

Those passenger archetypes have all been me through the years, and in some cases they still are, depending on the flight – so I'm nothing if not flexible.

Catching up with some frequent flyer friends over dinner last month, the topic of how we spend our inflight time arose.

Productivity protocols

As expected, there's no one rule for all travellers. But for business travellers, there's usually an expectation that some of that time above the clouds will be spent working.

Truth be told, that's time I look forward to. Without interruptions, I'm happy to hunker down for hours of writing, as well as planning and thinking.

On a daytime flight such as Sydney to Singapore or Hong Kong – or the reverse if you're with Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific, rather than Qantas' no-choice overnight legs –  time flies and as we ready for landing, I close the laptop with a smug feeling of satisfaction.

But I've learned the hard way that it's a mistake to try and repeat that pattern every time, on every flight.


Don't overestimate

It's paramount to set realistic expectations of how much work you'll do in the air. For starters, you probably won't be as sharp on the flight as you are on the ground.

There's less oxygen circulating in the cabin, and that – mixed with higher cabin pressure and lower humidity levels – can all contribute to you feeling a bit tired and not nearly as productive.

Writers can be the exception if we get 'in the zone', but all the same, you need to know when to hit the stop button.

On a 14 hours flight to the US, for example, you can't expect to realistically work for more than four hours.

Breaking it all down

Do the maths. You'll be woken almost two hours before landing – 60 minutes if you're a sound sleeper who has skipped breakfast – and if you're supposed to hit the deck running, you'll want a full eight hours' sleep under your belt (not forgetting that you'll have a less restful sleep on the plane than you would at home).

That four hours' allows no time for a meal or a movie, and sometimes they're an important part of relaxing and enjoying the experience.

And increasingly, I try to follow this mode. Knock over some work art the start of the flight, while I'm fresh, and then throttle back and chill out.

Dining options

Most annoying for me is that most flights departing Australia tend to serve the first full meal within two hours of take-off, which can be just when you're firing on all cylinders with that report or presentation.

After dinner and a glass of wine you're well into the flight and tiredness starts to settle in.

Hence, I aim to have my meal in the lounge – food prepared on the ground is fresher and better for you than what's prepared a half-day in advance and reheated in the galley – and ask the cabin crew to set aside the main meal, or even a cold starter, for later in the flight.

(This is why I highly rate airlines which offer 'dine on demand' in business class, where passengers can order anything from the menu at any time during the flight.)

And the video bingefest? Been there, and paid the price. On a relatively short daytime flight it's wonderfully indulgent, but don't get sucked into a boxed set when you're flying to Europe or the US.

Beat the binge

That was my downfall when I first dipped an addictive toe into the swirling bingefest waters. It was the early 2000s and as a fan of The West Wing I backtracked to discover Sports Night. Fourty-five half-hour episodes of unparalleled comedy-drama created and written by West Wing godfather Aaron Sorkin.

I downloaded all 45 episodes onto my laptop, watched the first one in the Qantas lounge and kept watching until a few hours' out of San Francisco.

Needless to say, I was wrecked that day – which meant a long daytime sleep to catch up, which meant being totally wide-eyed awake around 2am, which meant more Sports Night until the sun came up and the first cable car rattled up along Powell Street. I pushed through that day's work fuelled only by coffee and energy shots.

So by all means, make a bit of binging part of your special uninterrupted 'me' time above the clouds, but keep an eye on the clock.

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business Traveller magazine. His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of Executive Style readers.

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Do you manage to stay focused enough to get the job done during a flight? Share your tips in the comments section below.