Updated on 09.22.14

How to Stay Productive No Matter Where You Are

Trent Hamm

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.

Ten Productivity Tips for the Road

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. … 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.”

10. 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.

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  1. lance says:

    Thanks for the information! Do you think you can go through and say what specifically you use, i.e. which messenger bag, notebook, etc. The geeks in us want to know.

  2. Thanks for the post. I’m going to look into “BackPack” for sure. For me, the key one is keeping a pocket notebook and pen with you. I’ve started to do this when I travel. I often find that traveling inspires a lot of great ideas in me and it often takes several weeks or even a couple of months to implement all of my ideas. It’s wonderful.

  3. Nicole says:

    While I’ve always been more of a messenger bag fan than a backpack fan, do yourself a big favor – don’t carry it too much and don’t overload it! The way the weight is distributed can cause back issues. I had to swear many times to my husband that I wouldn’t carry mine very much (he’s in chiropractic school). Low and behold my back is feeling better now that I only carry it when I absolutely need it.

  4. Ari Herzog says:

    People forget to carry pens and paper with them in lieu, or in alternative to, electronic gizmos. If the electronic network has a power outage, there’s always a backup.

  5. FIRE Finance says:

    Great Post! We agree with Nicole, that a messenger bag can cause back problems. We’ve actually suffered.
    So now we use an ergonomic back pack with Ascender Cushion Technology that distributes the weight equally on all parts of the back. Makes the backpack feel weightless. We purchased it at Target. And it comes with well organized compartments to store accessories for our laptop and also has room to carry some magazines and folders as well.
    FIRE Finance

  6. GettingThere says:

    Another tip from a seasoned traveler — always store things in the same location every time. My tickets are always in the front of the zippered side pouch of my travel bag. ALWAYS. Next to them is a copy of my other travel info (hotel confirmation, rental car, etc.) in the order I’ll need them.

    Everything I always take has a designated place to be in my bag. It means I never spend a second fumbling through all the different pockets and compartments searching for anything, and I never get anxious worrying whether I’ve forgotten something.

  7. JE says:

    I’m also a writer and I have just two quick comments on this. Admittedly, the first one is obnoxious: ending a sentence/title with “at” is grammatically cringe-worthy. Comment number two isn’t nearly as obnoxious. I find it really helpful to maintain productivity by keeping to your routine schedule. If you normally get up at the crack of dawn to work, then maintaining that while on holiday will help you maintain productivity. I think this is easier when you’ve got kids because you’ll try to stick to their schedule anyway, but it can be helpful for anyone who’s trying to be productive while away from the normal work environment.

  8. jana says:

    Great tips! I just got a new laptop and I’m going to look into getting a messenger bag to tote it around. I keep a small decorative lined journal with me all the time too. I never know when a great idea will hit me. Today they just kept coming and before I knew it 2 hours had passed.

  9. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    Interesting methods. Do you think you’ll ever be at a point where you can take a vacation and not have to do any work? That, to me, would be the ideal goal. But in the mean time, I think it’s great that you now have a career which allows you to travel as often as you wish and still get work done!

  10. Matt says:

    Thanks for sharing – I couldn’t agree more with keeping a notebook and pen with you at all times. You never know when something you see will give you an idea.

  11. I like your point about finding out what works on the road and wat doesn’t. I have often tried to delve into a new idea and write a great post for my financial blog while on the road, but failed miserably. My attention span just doesn’t work that well (especially if there are people around)
    I find it helps to jot down ideas while on the road and then develop them while I am at home

  12. Stephanie says:

    Also being obnoxious:

    The rule that sentences should not end with a preposition is derived from Latin grammar. But English grammar is Germanic in origin. For a more comprehensive rebuttal of this rule see:



  13. Grant says:

    Wherever I’m At? Doesn’t that violate some rule about using a preposition at the end of a sentence? It should be “Wherever I Am.”

  14. Eric says:

    If you are more concerned about a grammatical error than the message, you are a writer of book reports, not a creative writer.

    Relax. Rules are stupid.

  15. Bean Jones says:

    Awesome tips! I try to find gadgets that multitask too so that I don’t have to remember to carry too many things.

    That’s why I prefer smartphones like the Treo, Blackberry or the iPhone because I can call, surf, check email, write notes, etc with just one gadget.

    At least I don’t need to lug around my laptop all the time. :-)

  16. Sandeep says:

    Hey…excellent post!. I started keeping a small notebook in my pocket since last 1 year and it really helps me when I am traveling in public transport to jot down whatever idea comes to my mind!


  17. Mindy says:

    Ending a sentence with “at” is an Iowa thing, as much so as “y’all” is a southern thing. It may not be grammatically correct, but it’s that’s where us Iowans are at. ;o)

    I like this one Trent–very helpful indeed.

  18. tlange says:

    Aren’t you worried about potential security issues when using a public Wi-Fi connection ?

  19. Emmm says:

    The pen and paper idea i love and use to it’s full advantage. I love Moleskine products. Well made, good paper and pen fits perfectly. http://www.moleskineus.com/
    I got mine at Borders so you don’t ‘need’ to buy online.

  20. simon says:

    my granmother give me a pen wearever and it soo olds i don”t now how i write with that pen.

  21. Trent,

    I really enjoy these re-posts you provide since I have only begun reading your blog over the past few months. I’m curious about some of your tools, especially Remember the Milk and Backpack online. Do you still use these tools? I remember a more recent post where you mention that you use a calendar, a small notebook, and Evernote. I’m a lover of good organizational tools, so am curious how the former two stood up through time. Any others you use and are willing to suggest for your readers would be most welcome.

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