Working on a Train

Let’s face it, we’ve all travelled by train, sometimes with a clear conscience, sometimes feeling guilty. So what is it that makes the difference and what is it makes best use of your time? I’m not making a huge claim that this is the only way of maximising your train-time, but it’s certainly a good one. How do I know?  Because I’ve been using it myself for a few months and doing some pretty serious Reflective Practice to check it out.

Some of it is pretty obvious but some of it isn’t. Stay with me.

Think small

Yes, really. Take a long, hard look at what you hope you can achieve and cut it in half. If you manage to get more than that done, celebrate, but my experience is that on average I get half done what I thought I would. It’s not for the same reason for any two reasons but typically it’s because of things like

  • an absolutely chock-full train with no room to think, let along type!
  • a Hen Party. (If you think Stag Parties are bad you don’t know Hens! 😃
  • my stupidity such as assuming I could charge my laptop but then discovering there was no power in the carriage.

Assume it’s background

Partially ‘cos of my first point, I’ve found it really (really!) a good idea to make sure that whatever you’re doing isn’t time-critical. I find train travel the absolutely perfect time to do some of the things on my maintenance list. (If you’re sure what I mean the difference between maintenance and performance tasks, see here.) That means that if I’ve not managed to think small enough, it’s not the end of the world.

I ended up massively over-complicating things here, but at least it shows what can be done.

I’ve found train journeys to be a great time for strategic thinking: the fact that I’m in a different environment makes me more creative. What matters then is somehow capturing those plans and ideas. Specific ideas and tactics get captured using either Google Keep, Evernote, or MeisterTask, depending on a few things. (I’ll explain the system another time). But what about the bigger plans? Welcome to my Evernote Notebook. There’s a whole set of advantages to working without computers, and the beauty of Evernote is that simply by photographing my musings they’re magically available on any of my computers, anywhere, one sync later. What’s more, Evernote’s pretty good at being able to read my handwriting, so I can find said musings pretty quickly using it’s search function.

Passive productivity (consume, don’t create!)

I’m differentiating here between activities that need me to do something, such as typing this, and activities that don’t need me to do anything, such as listening to a Podcast (you can listen to mine here!). That way, you don’t need to be certain of a table and – let’s face it – the fuss and clutter that often accompanies getting out your hardware. My iPhone can feed me a Podcast much more easily than I can type, particularly if I’ve got to sit in an airline chair (that is, one with the table hinged to the back of the seat in front rather than a real table).

Even if you can get a table (maybe your routes aren’t as crowded as mine!  😃 ) there’s always the chance that a stray cup of coffee is going to send your laptop to computer heaven. Of course you’ll have backup so it’s no more than a significant annoyance, but why chance it?  (You do have automatic cloud-based backup, right? Right?!)

I’ve experimented with all kinds of options for being active, such as smaller keyboards and laptops, dictation software and so on, but the fact remains that it’s just not cut it for me.

Go up market

One of my team is an absolute wiz at booking my travel. Occasionally C would pop her head around the door and ask me if I was okay with paying the extra for an upgrade to first class. A lot of the time the extra cost meant that she didn’t even bother asking me, but if the extra money involved wasn’t too much it became a trade off of that extra money against:

  • the free meal
  • the unlimited free tea (trust me, I drink so much tea that this accounted for quite a lot!)
  • a bit more luxury.

It wasn’t long before I noticed that I tended to get a lot more work done (particularly if I was hoping to do some active work) if I was in First Class. That was particularly true if I got a single seat rather than a double.  (Two to a table, not four.) For longer journeys or for trips that we expected to be crowded, the extra costs of first class was sometimes less than the cost of me not working. It’s not a difficult calculation to make – just know your hourly value/cost and compare it to how many hours you’re not going to be working if you can’t work as you travel. Then round it down to allow for the fact you can’t work as fast on a train as in an office.

I found it surprisingly common for journeys to be better in an upgrade. It isn’t every time, of course, but surprisingly often!

On top of the journey time itself, there are two other things to factor in to your calculations:

  • time lost waiting for a train can now be productive if you pop into the first class lounge
  • you feel less tired by the process of travelling, making you more productive when you get where you’re going.

Keep it local

I don’t know about you, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve lost signal while I’ve been travelling – my mobile phone works far better when I’m not zooming across the country at 100 MPH!  And please, please don’t ask me what I think of on-board WiFi. I might not be responsible for my actions – or at least the amount of swearing I do.

Put simply, while you can often (usually?) get a reasonable response, you can’t rely upon it.  And even if you can, I find it’s often better use of my time is to work locally using something like Evernote that will just magically sync when it can. Time spent looking at a scrolling sand-timer or spinning beach ball just irritates the hell out of me 😉

In fact, the idea of not trying to work too much not the move is something I’ve looked at here, too.

Why work?

I’ve looked at this here, too, but the gist of things is this… sometimes you’re just better off not trying to work when circumstances mean you’ll only work slowly. It might be better to just not work, take some personal time to chill out, so that when you do get to somewhere you can work effectively and quickly you’re in a better state. What takes 20 minutes on a train might take only five in your office… not always, of course, but it’s a question worth asking yourself.


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