Four Productive Things To Do If You Can’t Use Devices In-Flight

With a little planning, you can still get some work done, even if aviation officials extend the electronics ban.

Four Productive Things To Do If You Can’t Use Devices In-Flight
[Photo: Flickr user Sagie]

“Excuse me, but your laptop isn’t permitted on the plane—let me check that for you.” That’s a line some travelers have already heard while trying to board flights to the U.S.


Passengers arriving from 10 Middle Eastern and African airports are still barred from flying with carry-on electronic devices after a Department of Homeland Security rule went into place in March. Three weeks ago, the agency said that a proposed expansion covering European airports was “off the table,” then indicated later that it was “still on the table.” That’s left aviation officials unsure how to plan.

But before you start hyperventilating at the thought of hours of lost productivity in case the device ban does get extended, there are a few steps you can take to prepare. Here are four ways to use your time productively in-flight—no laptop required.

Related: How To Stick To Your Routines (For The Most Part) When You’re Traveling

1. Do Your Most Thoughtful Work (On Paper)

When you want to do deep thinking, one of the most effective strategies is to step away from your computer or smartphone. If you need to take a flight sans laptop, bring sheets of blank paper and a pen. If you’re shopping around for a paper notebook or planner, here are a couple of guides that can help.

Then pick one or two of these key projects to tackle:

  • Proposals. There’s always some future project or initiative that needs thinking through. Bring printouts of any proposals you’re considering or trying to put together yourself. This way you can read and reflect on them and clarify which specific actions you need to take next.
  • Strategy. What projects do you already have going on right now? Now is a great time to think through the approach you and your team are taking to a current project, or plot out the direction for a new one. In a notebook or on a scrap of paper, capture your thoughts in a mind map—here’s how.
  • Challenges. Give yourself time to think through a difficult conversation, situation, or decision you’re trying to make. Allow your mind to wander on the various solutions and consider journaling your thoughts.

2. High-Level Planning

Although I’m a big fan of digital calendars for planning meetings and mapping out my workweek, I much prefer doing higher-level planning on paper.

When I plan my year (and yes, you really can plan out your entire year—and your next international flight might be a great time to do it), I take a letter-size sheet of paper and turn it on its side. Then I write out each month of the year and create a T-chart below the name of each month. On the left side of the T are my key professional goals for the month. On the right side of the T are my key personal goals and commitments, including trips I want to take.

Device-free airplane time can make for an excellent opportunity to plan your month, quarter, or year, all within the simplicity of a single sheet of paper. You can then tack this paper up in your office to make sure all the meeting invites that arrive via email actually square with your high-level goals.

Related: The One-Page Cheat Sheet To Your Most Productive 90 Days Ever

3. Professional Development

I’m old-school when it comes to books; I love reading in print and always have a physical book with me for air travel. I take full advantage of the laptop-free zones on either end of my flights by reading something interesting. So whether or not the electronics ban goes into wider effect, this is one good habit to develop.


Flying is a great time to flip through a book on your reading list, get through those trade magazines piled on your desk, or finally read that long journal article you’ve been putting off (this is a favorite strategy of my professor clients when they’re on their way to and from conferences). Instead of lost time, an electronic-free zone could give you the space for important but not urgent professional development.

4. Kick Back And Relax

For all the talk of being productive on flights, sleeping still seems to be one of the most popular air travel pastimes. If you can’t use electronics, take a nap, talk (quietly) to the person next to you, zone out, watch a movie, or do whatever else will make you happy.

You might not consider these sorts of things “productive,” but they’re underappreciated ways to recharge amid a grueling travel schedule that can upend your routines, cause lots of stress, and sap your brain power once you’re back on the ground. One of my time-coaching clients who traveled a lot for work would even use the takeoff time on early flights for his morning meditation. Sometimes not having the option to work can give you the permission to simply take a break that you desperately need.

Hopefully there won’t be an expanded electronics ban on even more flights. But if it does take effect, these strategies can help you make the most of your air time. With a little advance planning, going analog doesn’t have to cause any headaches.