6 Reasons Why You’re More Productive on Airplanes (And How to Recreate Them)

When Peter Shankman, founder of HARO, signed a book deal, he immediately booked a flight to Tokyo—not to celebrate the book deal, but to write the actual book.  In fact, he’s written multiple books and come up with his best ideas while flying.  As Shankman puts it, “sitting in my seat writing . . . , with no distractions, no Internet, no mobile phone—this is where I do my best work.”

We’ve all experienced this “airplane mode” productivity.  Author Jon Acuff has also written about this phenomenon; I’ve incorporated some of his insights and deconstructed six reasons why we’re productive on airplanes and how to recreate them when you’re not flying. 

1.  You’re Forced to Pre-Plan

As you’re packing your bags, you’re already planning what to get done.  Whether it’s reading a book, or drafting emails, making a mental “pre-commitment” to the task increases the likelihood that you’ll get it done. 

Making a pre-commitment is the same underlying principle that makes keeping a checklist or writing out your goals so effective.  As the old adage goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.

2. White Noise Helps You to Focus

The constant hum of the plane’s jet engine falls into a decibel range that puts your brain in a focused state.  Studies have shown that ambient noise can increase your creativity and focus.  

It’s important to note that people respond differently to certain noise ranges (i.e. “colors of noise”); you can check out this noise-generator website that takes your personal hearing tastes into account.

3. You’re Dealing with Well-Defined Rules and Deadlines

You have a specific amount of time in the air; you’re told when to put your phone on airplane mode and told when you can use your laptop and put it away.  So you’ll squeeze in as much work as you can in the allotted time.

You are more likely to break your own rules and ignore self-created deadlines than deadlines not in your control.  If you schedule a task to run against a meeting or a deadline which you have no control over, you’re more likely to get the work done (especially if there are negative consequences).  Likewise, if you place yourself in an environment where you’re not the king of the castle, e.g. a public place or a co-work space where you’ll be judged for watching hours of Youtube, you’ll focus instead on doing your work.

4. Nobody Knows You

How often have you been distracted by coworkers or family members when you’re trying to get work done?  Unless you’re flying with your family, the custom on a plane isn’t to start a conversation with the person seated next to you. Nobody wants to be disturbed.

If you don’t mind working in public places, try working from a cafe, library, or somewhere people aren’t going to strike up a conversation.

5. No Wi-fi = Less Distraction 

Although many planes now offer in-flight wi-fi, most folks switch on “airplane mode” and disconnect.  This means no detours and surfing the net at any opportunity you get.  When the option is not available, the temptation is eliminated. 

Here’s a novel idea to recreate this when you’re not flying—turn off your wi-fi for a period of time and commit to doing focused work.  You can open just the windows or pages that you need for work, but don’t turn the wi-fi until you’re finished. 

6. You are Physically Constrained

You’re stuck in a seat.  You can’t get up and walk to your fridge or make convenient trips to the restroom.  Your options are to read the flight magazine for the third time or get to work.

A lot of people cannot work from home precisely for this reason—you have too much freedom.  Think of ways you can limit your freedom and opportunities for distraction.  Some writers will lock themselves in a walk-in wardrobe to write for hours.  Other people create work-spaces in the basement.  Or, you can see if your local library has study rooms available.

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