Companies & Industries

Sleeping on Airplanes


Harvard blogger Justin Fox discusses how to handle brutally long commutes

Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 17, 2010 9:26 AM

For the past five months, I've been working in an office in Watertown, Mass., while my family has continued to live in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I haven't handled the separation, or the weekly commute, very well. I'm frequently flummoxed by the logistics, I'm too often distracted at work, my temporary lodgings in Cambridge are a complete mess, and I whine about the situation constantly. My wife and son haven't been thrilled with it either. They're planning to move up here in three weeks, and truly it cannot come soon enough.

So I was complaining about this, as is my wont, to a group of executives from a big global corporation who dropped by the office recently. They were polite enough not to roll their eyes, but the guy across the table from me said he'd been commuting from his home in North Carolina to an office in the New York area for three years, and didn't really have a problem with it. Two others commuted from homes in Colorado to offices several states away, and had no major complaints.

All these people had jobs that involved constant travel, so to a certain extent the road was their office—meaning that living in proximity to a good airport was probably more important than living in proximity to their actual office. But still, talking to them made me realize that I'm way too much of a homebody (and a whiner) ever to succeed at the level of the corporate world that these guys have. Which got me thinking: What are some other essential prerequisites to corporate success that don't usually show up in the how-to books?

The most obvious is the ability to fall asleep quickly on airplanes. Ever since getting a full rundown on the importance of airborne sleep from Nokia's Jorma Ollila and Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo many years ago, I've made a habit of asking the CEOs I meet about their approach to long flights. It almost always involves some combination of a sleeping mask, earplugs, and maybe Ambien—and hour after hour of uninterrupted sleep. I'm told that, with enough attention to ritual, sleeping on planes can be learned. And it certainly helps to be flying in business or first class or in a private jet, as CEOs tend to do. But I still think the propensity to nod off in planes, which I do not possess, may be the No. 1 prerequisite to success in the world of multinational corporations.

The overall need for sleep seems to be another important factor, although maybe not a decisive one. You do come across an awful lot of successful executives who claim to be able to get by on four to five hours of sleep a night, but there are prominent exceptions.

Then there's food. Without either an abnormal metabolism or abnormal penchant for self-denial, it's awfully hard to survive life on the road without (a) feeling sick a lot and (b) gaining weight. So to rise high in the corporate ranks you probably need an iron stomach or an iron will (or both).

That's four (or so) physical/psychological traits without which one would be hard-pressed to rise to the corner ofice. What am I missing? I'm not talking about easily learned stuff, like how to pack efficiently. I mean traits that some people who might otherwise be brilliant executives will find difficult to master. Got any for me

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