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The Mode Of Transport That’s A Surprising Oasis Of Productivity

A new study reveals how difficult it is to get work done while traveling, but there is one unlikely location that helps people focus.

The Mode Of Transport That’s A Surprising Oasis Of Productivity
[Photo: Flickr user Brian Pennington]

It’s no surprise that lack of legroom (or a place to put your elbows) and the racket of engines and chatty passengers are the main productivity busters facing commuters who just want to use their travel time on trains or in the air to get work done. The best alternative? Sitting in your car at a rest stop.

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According to a recent study, 44% of people surveyed said they got the most done while in a parked car as opposed to 42% who said they were able to work on a train, 29% at the airport, and 13% on a plane.

These findings come from sociologist Donald Hislop of Loughborough University and psychologist Carolyn Axtell of the University of Sheffield, who noted that “significant variations” in noise and lack of space “inhibited people’s ability to work” among the 681 respondents of their survey, the first to examine how commuting conditions impacted professionals using laptops, mobile phones, and paper while on the road.

Hislop’s and Axtell’s research reinforces findings from a recent survey from Cambridge Sound Management that focused on the effect of noise on productivity. Human ears are fine-tuned to wrangle productivity from the low-level hum of a coffee shop but airport lounges, with their banks of televisions and seatmates talking on mobile phones, present the kind of distraction that is disruptive to work.

And don’t disregard the need to spread out to stay on task. Hislop and Axtell found:

  • 71% were hindered by the lack of space on planes
  • 55% said they found lack of space preventing work on trains
  • 39% lacked space at the airport

The lack of space and available Wi-Fi may explain why the researchers found that pen and paper were the medium of choice on planes and trains while the mobile phone is the tool most used sitting in a parked car.

Yet in spite of the restrictions, Hislop and Axtell discovered that business travelers did work extensively while traveling. “[This] reinforces the argument that for many managerial and professional workers, spending time undertaking work-related journeys does represent an increasingly important domain of work,” they say.

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For those who only have enough room to use pen and paper, there’s nothing like journaling to bolster positive thinking and unleash creativity that will continue long after arriving at the destination.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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