As a kid, I associated travel with time for eating at McDonald’s and staying up past my bedtime. Not being home meant throwing off restraints. It was a special, infrequent experience.
But for lots of adults, especially those of us who spent a quarter or more of our working lives traveling, this probably isn’t the best approach. It’s easy to run yourself down so much while you’re away that you’re often too exhausted to connect with people once you’re home.
That’s where routines can help. If you can minimize the differences between your ordinary life back home and your life while traveling, you may be able to stay healthier, more productive, and better grounded overall–no matter what your work schedule throws your way. Here are the four key areas in which to maintain routines, and what it takes to do that, even as you jet from one place to the next.
When you’re out of town, there are some factors you can’t control–chief among them being time zones. But you can still make a few choices to help you get adequate, quality sleep even while you’re dealing with unavoidable jet lag:
Set a bedtime and stick with it. Just as you would during a busy week at home, it helps to have a target bedtime to shoot for. Work backward from your wakeup time the next morning so you’re booking enough hours to feel well-rested enough to give it your all. Business travel can scramble your usual working hours–even if those are long already–so it’s all about setting boundaries. If you can pick a bedtime that’s close to your typical bedtime, so much the better.
Travel during the day. Wherever possible, try to avoid early-morning or late-night flights. You may want to have a full day to work, but traveling itself is exhausting, so you won’t be gaining much in the way of productivity by navigating an airport while you should be sleeping.
Have business dinners early. Some dinners start late, especially in business situations, so if it’s up to you, propose times earlier in the evening. When you don’t have a choice, try excusing yourself at least 30 to 60 minutes before your target bedtime, depending on how long it takes you to wind down. You can set an alarm (even on vibrate) on your phone to remind you when it’s time to depart instead of ordering a second espresso over dessert. This can be really tough to do in the moment, but will make you feel a lot better the next day.
Go easy on the drinks. Business travel often involves business drinks, and this can be a real killer. Even if you don’t feel it affects you, drinking more than two drinks can interfere with the quality of your sleep. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can make you less likely to feel tired. So pace yourself, drink plenty of water while you’re at the bar, know your limits, and keep that self-imposed curfew in mind.
It can be tempting to eat poorly when you’re tired and can expense everything, but it probably won’t make you feel so great. Here’s how to keep a healthy diet when you’re on the go:
Keep snacks on hand. What snacks do you usually reach for while you’re at your office? Chances are you can find something similar on the road, at least in broad strokes. Your favorite brand of trail mix may be hard to come by when you’re halfway around the world, but an orange or banana probably isn’t. Having food available that you like and (roughly) matches your usual eating habits can keep you from devouring everything in sight when you get hungry during the day.
Hydrate. Keep a water bottle handy or accept the offer when people ask if you want something to drink–and default to water over soda, coffee, or tea. Finding opportunities to quench your thirst isn’t as easy as you might think while you’re traveling. (Plus, you’ll wind up eating more when you’re dehydrated.)
Eat all your meals. This one can be tricky, but try not to skip a meal that you’d normally eat. Not eating when you usually do will seriously dent your mood and energy levels and make you more likely to overindulge later.
Plan your meals whenever you can. If you’ve been to a place before and know what you can order that’s healthy and you enjoy, stick with it. If it’s a new place, try to do a quick scan of the menu in advance to avoid an impulse decision. Vacation is a time to experiment with new dishes and local delicacies–not while you’re working.
You may not be able to stick to your exact workout plan when you’re on the road, but you can still make a point to get up and move on a regular basis. That can help keep your sleep, mood, energy, and weight under control while you’re traveling. These strategies can help:
Set workout goals. You do it at your usual gym anyway, don’t you? At the beginning of your travel time, make a commitment for a certain exercise goal. Maybe you’ll go on three four-mile runs during your 10 days in town. Or you’ll hit the hotel gym every other day. When you’re traveling, you’re more likely to get distracted and lose motivation, so pre-commitment can help. If possible, set a specific time when you’ll follow through on the commitment: running in the morning, working out at night.
Track your progress. If you have a goal of working out on a set number of days while traveling, make a note each time you do so that you’re honest with yourself. You can do it with other forms of exercise, too–if you try to get in a certain amount of steps, just keep track of them each day.
Be ready to get creative. Your accommodation may or may not have a full-scale gym, so have some simple hotel-friendly routines that you can do anywhere–including in your room. Fitness apps and YouTube offer a variety of options. And if you work with a personal trainer, he or she can also give you suggestions before you head out on your trip.
Give yourself a backup. If you haven’t met your goal by the end of the day, leave your event or stop working early enough to go down to the gym and walk on a treadmill before bed, or even just stroll the neighborhood for 40 minutes. The key is just to not let yourself spend a whole day sitting or just standing around. As an added bonus, you can call a friend or family member during your last-dash cardio in order to catch up and stay connected at the same time.
You can’t predict everything that can possibly happen when you travel, but staying flexible isn’t the same as just winging it. In fact, taking the time to plan is more important than ever. This way you can notice things that might be an issue before they’re an emergency–like a missing hotel reservation.
It also helps you to decide on your most important goals for when you do have time to yourself, like reading a report or completing a proposal–and not forgetting to call your parents for their anniversary in the process. Here are some ways to keep your work-life planning intact:
Think further ahead than usual. Pull up your calendar and look over the whole span of time you’ll be away, as well as the few days after you return. Try to anticipate any issues and clarify any missing information that you’ll need while you’re gone.
Trade your calendar for a checklist. If there’s a lot of potential variation in how your travel schedule might end up, make yourself a checklist for every key personal and professional goal you need to stay on top of–from getting to sleep on time to checking in on your direct reports. Then simply aim to get those done when you can instead of holding yourself to a particular time.
Re-evaluate your agenda each day. You can do it before dinner, before bed, or in the morning–it doesn’t matter as long as you’re consistent. Use that as a time to recalibrate your plan based on your current situation.
So yes, there will still be some nights when you abandon your routines, stay up late, and eat and drink as much as you want. But those should be the exceptions to the business-travel rule. If you stick to these patterns while you’re traveling, you’ll probably be happier, healthier, and more productive–not just while you’re on the road, but when you get home, too.