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Focusing is very hard during a flight. Lots of distractions, small work space, etc... I've searched the web for advice on this topic, but most articles simply discuss how hard it is to work. I've read the suggestion of "good headphones" many times but I'm looking for more. Many articles on "how to work" on a plane conclude by advising against it. (Given that I want to work, not useful advice!)

Do people have useful strategies for working on an airplane?

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What work do you (have to) do? – Jan Doggen Jun 14 '14 at 16:58
I added my thoughts as an answer. I didn't address distraction. What do you get distracted by? – Jeanne Boyarsky Jun 16 '14 at 1:53

In order to do work, you need to be concentrated. In airplanes the main problem would often be the noise. That is why most people have suggested you get good headphones.

A bit of generalizing and you get: You must find a way to isolate yourself from the surroundings.

A few tips:

  • If you have a window seat you will never need to stand up until your flight has ended.
  • You need good sound isolation
  • There is no simple solution I can think of about the small work space. You can try getting a small laptop with high resolution. That way you will have a high res, small screen. Since there is small space your eyes will be much closer to the screen than they normally would. I have tried working like that (on a 13' retina mac) and was satisfied with the result. There were obviously drawbacks like the price, durability (it's a laptop afteral) and so on, but it is some sort of a solution.
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Choose carefully the kind of work you do on an airplane. I find that tasks involving brainstorming or thoughtful writing or planning are good fits for working while traveling. A GTD style review can be a good fit, if your system is portable. I have found that tasks requiring reference material don't work well, as switching to look at references is hard. Paper references are hard to use due to cramped space, and electronic references may not be on my local device. Evernote and offline notebooks help with that, but it is still task switching on a small screen to see reference material.

Noise cancelling headphones are very helpful, as are earplugs.

Airplane travel can be a gift of uninterrupted thinking time. Plan ahead a little bit to reserve tasks for travel time, and you can be very productive while traveling.

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I find working on a plane to be some of the most productive work I do because there are no distractions. What I do:

  1. Make sure I have a window seat. (More space because can lean on side, can tilt screen)
  2. Make sure I have everything I need and it is on the same medium. This means either have everything I need on paper OR have everything I need on the computer.
  3. Download anything I need from the internet before leaving.
  4. Create a list of things I can do on the plane so I can switch if it turns out I need to talk to someone or need some key fact. I try to keep this list things that I need to focus on such as coding or writing. Or even reading.
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How often and how long are your flights? For occasional flights I do, having earplugs and good book is enough. Is reading a good book not "work"? I mean not a spy novel but a book which will teach you new skills.

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  1. Use earplugs to keep out the noise
  2. Try to use focus mode on apps
  3. Play soft but calm music to keep you calm
  4. If all else fails, read a book for a while, then do work

These steps generally work for me. Or else, I sleep.

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The 'use earplugs' and 'play music' are contradictory: good noise-canceling headphones are the answer to that. Make sure to buy good ones though (search some reviews), because their quality differs. Listening through them before bying is the best test. – Jan Doggen Jun 14 '14 at 16:57

In order to create a roomier (and often quieter) work space, it is often possible to upgrade to first class for much less than one would think. Most airlines allow you to upgrade a full-fare coach ticket to first class 24 hours before the flight if seats are available. Prices range from as little as $30 for a flight under 500 miles on American Airlines to a couple hundred dollars or more for a non-stop coast to coast flight (prices vary by airline).

Of course there are other amenities also, such as free alcoholic drinks (which may be counter-productive), better snacks or even small meals, blankets, pillows, etc.

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It depends on the length of the flight, but in general choose tasks that need less focusing and that can be completed in a short time, such as:

  • Organizing & deleting files on your laptop, smartphone, tablet
  • Cleaning your email box (outlook offline),
  • Drafting an article, review if you need to write
  • Planning and scheduling your work
  • Updating your contact list
  • Reading a book, magazine,..etc
  • Listen to audio books
  • Write down your previously recorded notes and ideas.

I recommend using the Pomodoro technique, to work short periods of time focusing on one small task, while purposely neglecting any distraction.

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