Over the past month, I’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling – family-related trips, vacations, and so on. That basically means that I’ve been managing my writing and other professional obligations out of my travel bag for the most part.
How do I do that? How do I manage to keep up with my writing, keep adequate research materials with me, keep track of my ideas and ongoing projects, and manage all of it effectively enough so that I can sit down anywhere and get right down to business.
While figuring out how to write this post, I started by simply making a list of the little things that really add up when taken as a whole, and when I had them all written out, I realized that it might be really effective to just list them all. So, here are ten productivity tips I’ve found that help me keep my ideas and writing straight as a writer on the road.
Get a good messenger-style bag. This has made all the difference for me. Up until recently, I used a backpack as a travel bag and it would quickly descend into chaos, with items floating around all over the place in the bag, making me dig forever for the individual item I needed. Recently, I moved to a messenger-style bag, with a large single pocket for my laptop, a few magazines and books, and some papers, and a side panel with a ton of additional pockets. This has made traveling far easier than before.
Utilize those pockets sensibly. One challenge with having a lot of little items and a lot of pockets is that you forget what pocket you put your things in. What I’ve found is that putting stuff into pockets so that just a bit of the item is peeking out is really useful for finding stuff. When I open up the bag, I can see at a glance where my small notebook is, my pens are, my current reading is, my memory stick is, my USB mouse is, and so on.
Use Backpack to manage notes for projects and meetings and store to-do lists. For simple personal to-do notes, I still use Remember the Milk (which does that job fantastically), but for collecting notes for work projects and making more complex to-do lists, I’ve fallen in love with Backpack. I can use it anywhere I have wi-fi access and it does a stellar job of storing all of the data I need in one place. I actually prefer it to most offline tools – plus, if my laptop has a hardware failure, I don’t lose those notes or project ideas.
Keep a pocket notebook and pen with you always – it’s even more important on the road. Without the familiarity of your normal work environment, it’s very easy to lose ideas through the cracks. This makes the idea of a pocket notebook even more paramount. Keep it with you – along with a good pen – to jot down any ideas that creep into your head that merit any follow-up whatsoever. Then review your jottings once a day or so.
Keep at least one item with you that inspires ideas. When I’m at home, I have all kinds of books and other materials to help inspire my ideas. On the road, such items are unavailable to me. Because of that, it’s vital for me to include at least one item in my travel bag that’s not strictly there to aid as research material, but there solely to inspire my ideas. For me, it’s often recent issues of magazines related to personal finance in some way – Consumer Reports, Money, The Economist, BusinessWeek, or something like that. If I need inspiration, I leaf through those and try to find ideas to riff on.
Distinguish quickly between things that can easily be done on the road and things that can’t. Whenever I’m struck with inspiration, I have a tendency to want to start digging into a hot idea immediately. Of course, there are some ideas that simply don’t work out of a travel bag. The key is to distinguish which is which as quickly as I can. I ask myself a few key questions: to do this well, does it require research materials I don’t have? Are there supplemental materials (such as pictures) I’d need to create elsewhere? The key to staying productive is knowing what you can actually do in your given situation – and figuring it out quickly.
… but don’t abandon a great idea just because you can’t do it right now. What I do for those things is open up a document on my laptop, sketch down all of the details I can, then save it in a folder of things to look at when I get back to the office. A good idea is a terrible thing to waste, but so is chasing something that’s really beyond your means to complete successfully.
Make your work environment as conducive as possible – wherever you are. For me, that means controlling the sound, and that means having a pair of very good headphones that cancel out external sound and only allow in what I want (usually calming music that helps me to write). For you, it might mean other things – a picture of your family or the right kind of beverage might be the key. Make sure whatever it is you need to make your work environment a success is in your travel bag if possible.
Know where to find the things you need to work (such as wi-fi). For me, wi-fi is essential to the work I need to do, so I made a master list of chains that give away free wi-fi to patrons, and I keep it in mind when I’m out and about. Because of this inventory, I often keep an eye open for Panera, Caribou Coffee, and Fazoli’s when I’m traveling, with several other lesser options, and use those places as my “home away from home.”
If all else fails… If I know I’m going to need a piece of information that’s only stored electronically, I make a printed version before I go. I keep a paper copy of my schedule, key phone numbers, maps of each route I’ll need to know, a to-do list, and other such materials so that if an electronic item stops working, gets damaged, or fails in some fashion, I’m not completely lost while on the road. This has saved me more than once.