Some days at work you’re a productivity powerhouse. You’re cranking through projects, e-mails, to-dos like Paul Bunyan at a Christmas tree farm in December. Maybe you didn’t even check Facebook even once to see if your annoying friend form high school posted another #YOLO picture of himself. You’re in the zone.

When traveling, though, that feeling of zen just doesn’t happen. Your ability to focus is right up there with your ability to sweet talk that car rental agent into giving you a Camaro even though you paid for a Kia.

Why does this happen? When traveling, you’re constantly switching environments, and have only a vague idea of how much time you’ll be spending in each. Does this look familiar?

Office -> Car -> Security -> Airport Gate 1 -> Airplane 1 -> Airport Gate 2 -> Airplane 2 -> Airport 3 -> Taxi Stand -> Taxi -> Hotel, etc., etc.,

In a typical trip, you might switch environments nearly a dozen times. Not including the smaller changes, like having to turn your laptop off during takeoff, or stopping to pay for some healthy food a bag of Tropical Starburst.

For some reason I believe that no one felt this way when traveling in say, the 1980s, when people still smoked during flights, and didn’t even know to ask “should I use Prodigy or CompuServe?”. But today, it’s ultra easy to get stuck in a “technology loop” while fleeting across the country. All you need is a iPhone, or perhaps a laptop with a just poor wi-fi connection at the airport (especially if the wi-fi connection is poor). Armed with the latest gadgets and 14 productivity apps, you think, “There’s no reason why my work pattern should be any different today, even though a baby is crying next to me and the man sitting next to me just had to take his call on speakerphone.”  Which is both false and impossible. But here’s what happens anyway:

10:07 – Check mail on phone. See 37 unread messages. Delete one that looks like spam. So productive!

10:09 – Start to read a thread that looks  important. Fail as the full message content refuses to load. Stare at the screen for 30 seconds while your phone makes up its mind about whether it has an internet connection or not.

10:11 – Let phone do it’s thing while you try the airport wifi on your laptop.

10:15 – Finally get your computer to connect to the “free” Boingo wireless hotspot. Wonder what their ridiculous looking guy with the grey suit and red bag is running from.

10:17 – Load the same 37 unread messages on your laptop. Including the same spam message you thought you just deleted on your phone.

10:20 – Read that email thread you thought needed attention.

10:21 – Start to write a thoughtful response.

10:22 – Hear on the PA, “Ladies and gentleman, we are now boarding Zone 1…”

10:23 – Cry inside

There, you just spent 16 of your life in a very busy but utterly unfruitful attempt to Get Something Done. And you’ve actually made yourself worse off, because you’ve depleted a good deal of mental energy reserves hassling with everything.

This happened to you not because you’re not being productive enough, or because your using the wrong tools, or because AT&T’s coverage sucks (which, it does). It happened because you fell into the trap of trying to replicate your office workflow while in a very different context. You’re like the person that tech companies like to feature in their commercials, who believe that we all want the ability to check email while climbing a mountain:

Checking email on a hike can only lead to loneliness.

What to do? The idea isn’t to ignore your work, not to travel, or use this as an excuse to buy the latest phone. Instead, ask yourself this one question every time you face a disruptive environment:

What can I do right now that I can perform at 100% effectiveness?

The answer is usually not the thing you’re attempting to do at the time. Writing email while waiting to board the plane? You’re maybe 25% as effective. Working on that spreadsheet while in the back of a taxi? I’ll give you 15%. Working on that presentation when you have 10 minutes left to use your laptop? You’ll barely get warmed up before you have to stop.

Instead of trying to do what you would normally be doing at 10:17 in the morning, flip your approach around and find the thing that you can do the absolute best, right now.

The answers will vary from person to person. For me, I can listen an audiobook at full attention in nearly any environment (Audible is my friend). I can actually do spreadsheets quite well on a plane. And taxis are a great place for me to make phone calls. Airport security line? Still working on that one.

Try keeping this question in mind next time you have to face a hectic day. You may not get as much pure office work done during  travel, but you’ll end the day with greater mental energy and an increased ability to focus on the more challenging things. Like writing a blog post.

Got any more thoughts on how to make the best of a travel day? I’d love to hear them.