I’m lucky to work remotely. I’ve cracked open my MacBook and started writing all around the world, from a beach in Thailand to a bar in the French Alps. I’ve worked in cars, planes, trains, buses, bars, cafés, hotels, parks, and pretty much any other location I can sit with my back to something, my headphones on and my computer on my knees.
A lot of productivity advice falls apart when you’re traveling all the time and clocking in to work from anywhere in the world. Sure, working at the same time every day is great in theory, but it doesn’t play nice with timezones. I’d love to get up at 6am every morning but jet lag doesn’t work that way.
Since you can't have a set office—a dedicated workspace so perfectly set up that the moment you sit down, you know you’re about to get stuff done—instead you'll need to adjust productivity best practices when you’re on the road.
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When you’re traveling, you have to compromise at every turn. Nothing will be perfect, but you have to make do. Editors (and other bosses) don’t care that you’re tired from a red-eye flight, they care about deadlines.
So let’s break it down. Let’s look at some strategies for how to be more productive from anywhere in the world. Just because you can’t have your ideal setup, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a productive setup for when you're on the road.
Although I’m mainly going to be talking about digital nomads and people traveling for work, the tips and tricks are just as applicable if the furthest you go is your local coffee shop. They’re all about finding a way to work, wherever you are.
1. Pick the Right Location to Be More Productive
If you want to work well while you’re traveling from work from anywhere, you’ve got to pick the best available location. If you’ve got a choice between working in an airport lounge or sitting on the floor in the terminal building, take the lounge every time.
Even if there’re no good locations around and you have to do some work—say you’ve got a choice between a busy bar and a cold park—pick the one that feels least awful to you. You won’t do your best work, but you should be able to do some work.
When it comes to picking a location, there are four things I consider: connection, comfort, time constraints and interruptions.
Connection is first and foremost. I need to be connected to the internet to research and submit my work. If I don’t have a stable connection—it doesn’t matter if it’s slow—I can’t do much work at all. If your work requires you to be online, you’ll also need to prioritise it at the expense of all else.
Comfort comes next. If you’re not comfortable, you’re never going to be able to focus on work. If you’re traveling a lot, you will need to lower your standards of what’s comfortable. A Herman Miller office chair is lovely, but if you need one to work, you’re going to have a rough time. I find anywhere I can get a chair to myself, and preferably a table too, is perfect. I don’t need much more than that.
Time constraints are a big thing to avoid when you’re trying to work on the move. You need the freedom to get into your own space and actually get things done; worrying that you have to be off the table in 15 minutes makes that a lot harder. Sometimes a time constraint can make you more productive, but when you’re traveling, they’re more often a problem than not. Don’t pick a location that closes in less than an hour.
Interruptions are the bane of productivity. A quick interruption can knock you off your game for 15 minutes, and a proper one can end your workday right there and then.
Unless you only travel with other people who’re working, the odds are the people you meet will have a lot more free time than you. They won’t understand that, although you’re sitting in a bar, you’re actually working.
Don’t pick a location where you’re likely to be interrupted. This means don’t work in the kind of place where you’re going to know people who come in or where people are going to constantly ask you questions.
If you follow these guidelines and pick the most comfortable place you can work in and stay as long as you need without being interrupted, you’ll be shocked at how much work you can get done while you travel.
2. Control Your Physical Environment
Now that you’ve found a spot to work, it’s time to take control of it.
The best investment you’ll ever make is in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones. I use Sennheiser Momentum 2.0, but the Bose QuietComfort line is great as well. A proper pair will set you back a few hundred dollars, but they’re worth every penny.
I need music to work. I’ve got a Spotify subscription and when I want to work, I just put on a big playlist, put my head down and get going. The headphones completely block out all but the loudest environmental sounds. Someone can say my name from a metre away and I won’t hear them.
If you don’t like listening to music while you work, check out myNoise. It’s a noise generator where you can play everything from the sound of a fire crackling to bagpipes. Put on your headphones, play some distraction-free background noise, and get to work.
When you’re traveling, it’s important to make sure you’ve got the right clothes for the environment. It’s horrible trying to work while you’re too hot or too cold. The problem is, you’ll normally find that you’re too hot in cold environments and vice versa.
In Thailand, it was 30-something degrees Celsius outside (that’s the 90s in Fahrenheit) but every café and hotel kept their air conditioner cranked way up; indoors it was at least ten to fifteen degrees cooler. If you dressed for the outside environment, you were absolutely freezing once you sat down indoors. In cold places I’ve had the opposite problem: outside was sub-zero but everyone has a fire going and central heating.
The trick to being able to work in any temperature is layering. If you have a light base layer, a slightly-heavier mid-layer, and a warm top layer, you’re pretty much covered for every environment. Sure, it might seem silly to carry a jumper around with you in the scorching heat, but it will make things a lot easier for you if you decide to do some work in a refrigerated coffeeshop.
3. Control Your Digital Environment
A key strategy to how to be more productive when working from anywhere is to take control of your digital environment. This is a variable you can consistently set. When I sit down to work, I always look at the exact same thing—regardless of where I'm working from in the world.
On the lefthand side of my screen is my writing app, Ulysses, and on the righthand side is a web browser. This is my desk. It’s the exact same place I’ve worked for the last year or two. I’ve written well over a hundred articles with this set up. When I look at it, I know it means I’m about to get to work.
Even though you won’t be able to work in the same physical location every day, you can make sure you work in the same digital location. If your computer is set up so you see the same thing when you’re working, you’ll get some of the same benefits of having a dedicated physical workspace. You can make the effect even more pronounced if you listen to the same music or white noise every time.
4. Know What You’re Going to Do
Before sitting down to work, you should know exactly what you’re going to do. You should have a plan and know what you need to do to achieve it. This point holds true no matter what work you’re doing or where you’re doing it.
Before I finish up for a day, I look at my todo list and work out what article I need to write the next day. Then, I’ll open a new page in Ulysses, write the title and shut down my Mac. The next morning when I sit down to work, I open my computer and—boom!—right in front of me is what I’m doing that day. It means I can get straight to work.
Procrastination is easy—evan at the best of times, but when you’re traveling it’s even easier to get sidetracked. There are so many other things you could be doing instead of working.
- Where are you going to eat that evening?
- Is there any cool dive sites near by?
- Maybe you should check in with people back home?
The options to dodge work are endless. Having a plan before you sit down at your computer goes a long way towards stopping this from happening.
5. Turn Off All Your Notifications
Digital interruptions, just like physical ones, are a problem. When you’re working, you really don’t need to see every Facebook message, email, and tweet that mentions you. It’ll drag you right out of whatever productive mindset you’re in.
Pick a time to check notifications, say on the hour, and then turn them off. Put your phone and laptop on silent, and get down to work. This is another thing you should do regardless of where you work.
6. Establish a Reliable Routine to Be More Productive
Although you’ll never be able to have as strict a routine when you work from anywhere as you would at home, it’s a good idea to try and get some structure to your day.
I like to work as soon as I wake up, regardless of what time that happens at. If I roll out of bed at midday, I’ll grab my computer and try to get an hour or two done before I do anything else. I know that as soon as I wake, I’m working.
Another routine I have is that I work on a project whenever I’m in an airport or on a plane. I’ll pick something I can realistically achieve in the flight time, plus waiting time, plus layovers, and dedicate myself to it.
On shorter flights, it’s things like freeing up space on my hard drive. On long flights with long layovers, I’ll pick a personal piece I want to write and just do it. It takes what otherwise would be dead time, and turns it into productive time.
For you, your routine might be different. Maybe the first thing you do is get a coffee and then do some work. Or maybe you do all your sightseeing and fun stuff during the day, but after dinner sit down and work for a while.
Mastering how to be more productive when on the road requires you to find something that works right for you, your habits, and the type of work you do; build your days around it as best you can.
7. Don’t Work When Things Are Too Bad
I don’t work on busses unless I absolutely can’t avoid it. They’re just too awful. I’ve had to do it before and hated it every time. When you’re traveling, you’ll sometimes run into situations like this, where things are just too bad to even try and work. That’s just part of the game, and if you plan for it, it isn’t a problem.
The big thing is that these situations are uncommon. Maybe a few times a year I’ll end up somewhere that I physically can’t work, or if I did, I’d have a mental breakdown. When that happens, I put my laptop away, take out my Kindle and relax. Even if I’ve got impending deadlines, I’ll just email the editor and explain the situation.
I’m able to do this because, 99% of the time, I can work when I’m traveling. I’m not just crying wolf. If you’ve built up a good relationship with your bosses and clients, in the rare instances when you can’t work, they’ll understand.
Obviously, don’t schedule something you know will make working difficult when you’ve got a big project due. If I know I’ve got a bus trip coming up, I’ll do the work that needs to be done beforehand; that way I can hop on board with a clear conscience.
Staying productive when you travel and work from anywhere in the world takes a little bit of forethought, but with the right approach, you can do it.
Approaching how to be more productive when working on the road, and from anywhere, requires a bit of forethought.
At some point, everyone has to work in a less than ideal situation. If you travel a lot—either because you’re a digital nomad or need to do it for work—then you’ll have to do it more often. In fact, if you're a road warrior, it’s just become your daily grind.
If you apply the strategies I’ve covered in this tutorial, you will be more productive on the road regardless of where in the world you're working from. I’m not saying it’s perfect, and I’m definitely not saying that working in the passenger seat of a car is better than having an office, but it's doable.
Learn more about how to set up your own personalized productivity systems in our comprehensive multi-part guide.