Matt Nichols and Jon Blotner travel a lot for work. In their prior jobs (at Google and Bain & Company, respectively), both got into the habit of working as efficiently as possible while on the road. Now that the two work together at the jewelry company Gemvara, where Nichols is CEO and Blotner is president, they’ve honed an even finer science of which types of work activities best suit the particular circumstances of their travel.
"We’re able to utilize different geographies and different modes of travel to kind of change the way we think about things," says Nichols. Want to work smarter in transit? Check out Nichols's and Blotner’s tips below:
Both Nichols and Blotner live in Wellesley, a 35-minute train ride out of Boston. Most nights, they go home on the same train together. It’s not a convenient place to have a laptop open, so they won’t do traditional work there. Instead, they’ll tend to use that time to brainstorm big new ideas; the change of scenery helps. But most of all, it’s the duration that suits a blue-sky session: "Thirty-five minutes is long enough to have a good discussion about something, but not so long that you’re thinking about all the reasons why it might not work," says Nichols.
Adds Blotner: "You think about the idea, you let it marinate overnight. If you’re still excited about it the next morning, then you know it’s something you want to dive into." Two of their bigger ideas—Gemma Gray, a lower-priced line of jewelry, and Sequel, a business focused on resetting pre-owned jewelry—were hatched on these commuter trains.
Nichols and Blotner make semi-frequent trips from Boston to New York on Amtrak. It’s a 3.5-hour journey, which they find is an optimal amount of time to flesh out an idea, says Blotner. Something about being in transit for that length of time discourages multitasking, and encourages a deep dive on a single idea. So they’ll take an idea like the resetting business Sequel and begin to scrutinize it. What are the hypotheses that they need to test? What might their target market be?
The latter question answered itself on a recent Amtrak journey. As they hashed out some questions about Sequel, a voice behind them said, "That’s a great idea!" The woman in the seat behind them, it turned out, had plenty of family jewelry herself that she needed to have reset.
There’s something about the rhythm of those 3.5-hour journeys (or seven hours roundtrip), so much so that occasionally Nichols or Blotner finds themselves seeking excuses to get to New York. "We joke that we go there for meetings, but we’d make the trip even if we didn’t have the meeting," says Nichols. "I’ve gone to New York just for one meeting, partially for the meeting, partially just for those seven hours." Those moments on the train "might be some of our most productive moments," concurs Blotner.
If you’re trying to maximize productivity during air travel, say Blotner and Nichols, you need to think differently about pre-boarding and in-flight.
The time between security and boarding can itself be extremely productive, they find. Blotner has found himself in a kind of Zen state amidst the hubbub of airports. "You’re sitting in the lobby of an airport talking and watching the people, and there’s a sort of white noise and a lot of energy, but it allows you to focus." They make a habit of showing up for flights three hours in advance for this reason.
When on the plane, they might improvise a work mode based on their situation. Are they sitting together, or apart? Is there in-flight WiFi, or not? Most often, though, they find that a flight is time to focus on individual projects. If they’re more than a seat apart and there’s WiFi, they’ll communicate exclusively over email—even though they’re on the same plane.
There’s also a need to remember the old adage about loose lips when in flight. If they’re headed to a small town to meet with a potential partner that’s a huge employer in that town, there’s a likelihood that someone who works for that company may be within earshot. Better, then, to not talk competitive secrets.
Think a car ride is a chance to grab some shut-eye or daydream? Think again! On a recent trip to meet a partner in New England, Nichols drove while Blotner cracked his laptop and pulled together a presentation.
Nichols and Blotner knew they had hired well when they found that a senior member of their team thinking strategically about car options recently. Several team members were at a meeting with a branding agency roughly 20 minutes by car from their office. When the meeting ended, that senior team member had ordered an UberSUV, knowing well that the best way to keep the creative energy flowing was to get everyone in the same vehicle for those 20 minutes of transit. "If we’d gone our own ways and had a 30-minute gap, we’d never have been able to keep the momentum and excitement coming out of that meeting," says Nichols.