The Road-Life Balance: Tips for the Traveling Pro
One of the best pieces of advice that’s ever been given to me is this:
“There is no work/life balance. There is only Life.”
In other words, life is not some giant scale or ledger whose accounts must be balanced. Instead, it’s a series of priorities. Sometimes those priorities may be family and friends, other times it may be your career. It all depends on what the priority is at that moment in your life. It’s a convenient (and in my opinion significantly less stressful) way of dealing with your personal and professional world, rather than constantly trying to find some kind of balance between the two.
I’ve come to realize, however, that there was some imbalance in my life. It wasn’t a work/life imbalance, but rather a road/life imbalance. Travel has always been a part of my job working in the meetings and events industry for the last 20 years, but these days I’m on the road at least once or twice a month. It’s not that uncommon in our industry, especially for those of us that do corporate or association meetings and events. That being said, there are plenty of road warriors across all disciplines that reach Platinum flight status by June.
And I hear the same things from almost all of them:
“Ugh, I always come away from these trips 10 pounds heavier.”
I know that’s the case for me. I’ve been tracking my weight almost daily over the last year and you can see a noticeable uptick whenever I went on the road. The longer I was on the road, the more weight I gained.
It’s more than just weight, though. I’d be exhausted, cranky, and basically useless for a period of time after I got back from a trip. The longer the trip, the longer the recovery.
The reasons for all of this are probably obvious to you, as they are to me. When we’re on the road, we act like different people than we do at home. We eat more, and we justify it because we’ve walked 35,000 steps around a convention center (or airports, or city center) all day. We drink more alcohol because of the “work hard, play hard” mentality that so many companies have. We get up stupid early and we go to bed stupid late to accommodate full schedules. Fitness center for a run? Bah! When am I going to get the chance when I’ve already got a 6am call scheduled?
Basically, with the exception of the actual work we do, we act a lot like we do when we’re on vacation. Eat lots, drink lots, sleep little, exercise little. The difference is, most people don’t go on vacation once or twice a month, and if they did, they’d probably gain weight too.
I became determined to find a solution. Some way to bring Road Me and Home Me in to closer alignment. Here’s a little of what I’ve found so far…
The Quest for Continuity
Even before the weight tracking, I’d actually been playing around with the idea of road/life balance for years. It occurred to me one day while I was starting my day at home, that I had completely different morning routines when I was on the road versus when I was at home. How many times I’d hit snooze, when I’d get my first cup of coffee - even when, and how often, I’d brush my teeth! And so began the Quest for Continuity, my attempt to start being the same person, no matter where I was in the world.
It began, as I said, with my morning and evening routines. I started buying duplicates of all my toiletries, so that I didn’t actually have to remember to pack them. Everything is the same- same shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush- all of it, packed into TSA approved 3 oz containers so I can carry them on. Just doing that made me start to feel more at home on the road.
There were also things that I did on the road that I started to bring home: I realized that I was brushing my teeth more often on the road, and decided I liked my “road toothbrush” better than the one I had at home, so I bought another one. I realized on the road I’d have my first cup of hotel-room coffee before I hopped in the shower, and started doing the same at home.
Results: Because I use my own soaps, shampoos, and conditioners, I feel more refreshed and clean throughout the day. I also, err… smell more like myself, rather than some Orange Lily Ginger-Infused Jasmine bath bar with a vaguely European-sounding name that the hotel contracted to supply as its guest soap. By keeping it in my carry-on, I can wash up quickly on long-haul flights, arriving at home feeling slightly less road-funky. By changing when I drank that first cup of coffee, I emerge from the shower more awake than I used to. Super-glad we have that Keurig to get it going quickly!
I don’t trust hotel clock radios, and only use them as emergency backups. Usually I use my phone as an alarm, and have been using the same alarm app for years. For really early mornings, I’ll set a wakeup call as a backup. As part of looking at my morning routine, I realized I was hitting snooze a lot more on the clock radio at home than I was on the road. I started using my phone instead of the clock radio, using the same app I used on the road. I’ve set it with a hard limit of 2 snoozes, and it makes me do math problems before it will shut off. I hate it often, but it always gets me up.
I also make sure to pack the same kind of clothes I wear to bed at home when I’m on the road. It’s easy to say you’ll just sleep in whatever, but remember we’re going for continuity here. If you sleep in PJs, pack PJs. T-shirt and shorts? Pack ‘em.
And finally, check that thermostat. I usually sleep with the temp around 68, and I open the windows whenever it’s practical to do so. I hate that recycled hotel AC, and I avoid it as much as I can.
Results: The amount of time I have to allow myself to get ready in the morning is significantly reduced, because I know I can’t snooze more than 12 minutes. Often on the road I’ll start the coffee maker between the first and second snooze so it’s ready when I get up. I find I sleep more comfortably in my own cozy bed clothes and with the room at the right temperature, and this seems to help me get over that “can’t sleep well on the first night” that happens to a lot of us. By getting more sleep on the road, I find I’m not as wiped out when I get home, shortening the recovery time.
Obviously this is a big one. Although it’s almost impossible to eat like I do at home when I’m on the road, I’ve been focusing on trying to do it as much as possible. Take breakfast for example: On the road I found myself eating giant breakfasts of eggs, toast, bacon, hashbrowns- whatever was being served for free or at the buffet. Most of us do not eat that way every day at home.
My standard fare is a very light breakfast and about 4 or 5 (small- not Venti) cups of coffee before noon, which is about 500 calories less than a typical hotel breakfast. I’ve started bringing a small insulated cooler about the size of a lunch bag in my backpack, filled with turkey snack sticks and string cheese. I find a couple of these plus a cup of coffee is usually enough to get me going in the morning, and if I get snacky, I can always grab another one as needed for a little burst of protein and fat. They’re fast and easy, and you can eat them on the run. If you’re vegetarian, dried nuts and fruit would probably make a nice substitute, and doesn’t require a cooler sack. By snacking throughout the morning, I find I’m not as starving by noon which helps with the next pitfall, lunch.
Especially when we’re working hard, our lunches tend to be fast food, flat meat on giant buns, or more hotel banquet food. Not much we can do about that, but I’ve found that by snacking in the morning, I’m not ravenous by the time it’s lunch, which at least keeps me from wolfing down a ton of bad food. We also often justify this with “Who knows when I’m going to get around to dinner?” This is also avoided by keeping a supply of snacks in your bag, so you don’t feel obligated to eat until you’re stuffed.
Dinner? So far I’ve just been leaving that be. I’ve tried to make a little bit smarter choices, but when you’re all going out for the Best Pizza in New York, I’m not going to say no. Plus in my line of work, dinner is frequently the only time you get to experience a little life “outside the ballroom”.
Results: The last two trips I’ve been on I have maintained my weight, give or take a couple pounds- at least within the ranges of normal fluctuation. I’ve also felt like I had more energy in the mornings, not as obligated to over-eat on lunches, and even been popular with team members and clients for sharing my snacks! I felt less guilty about having a larger meal at dinner, and get to enjoy the nightlife a little more.
Since I’ve been shooting for continuity, I’ve been trying to find an exercise regime that works both at home and on the road. I enjoy walking/running on the treadmill, but frequently don’t have time to take an hour a day on the road to do so. Plus, I’m not much of a morning person, so I’m not getting up at 4am to work out before a 6am crew call.
My search has focused on exercises that can be done in short durations. There’s been a lot of research that shows that short workouts of high intensity can be just as beneficial as longer workouts, so that helps with not having to get up as early. I’ve also been looking at workouts that can be done inside a hotel room, so I can save even more time by not having to trek down to the hotel fitness center. There’s occasionally time on a job where the morning is booked, but I might have an hour to spare in the afternoon. Not enough time to get to the room, change, head to the fitness center, run, get back, shower, change and get back to the ballroom, but if there were something shorter… maybe…
I’ve settled on trying two sets of workouts, both very similar:
Five exercises you can do in your hotel room in 15 minutes - USA Today
The Scientific Seven Minute Workout - New York Times
Be warned, the 7 minute workout will have you huffing and puffing if you’re in the least bit out of shape, and it does require a sturdy chair for a partner. It’s a timed workout of 30 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of cool down, then into the next exercise, and it absolutely kicked my buttinski the first few times I’ve done it. I like it though, because it’s time-based, instead based of the number of reps. As I get in better shape, I’ll naturally be able to do more reps of each exercise. For now, I just try as hard as I can to fill the allotted time with as many reps as I can. They’ve even built a nice web app for mobile phones, accessible from the link above, which sets the timers for you and has audio prompts for each period. Once you’ve mastered the basics, they even have an advanced version.
Results: Jury is still out on this one, but I’m definitely getting into better shape. I think exercise and the above changes in diet are definitely contributing to my not gaining weight on the road. The last couple of road trips have involved heavy socializing, though, so my alcohol intake has been a bit higher than on normal work trips. Which brings me to…
I hate to add this one, but I have to. Fact: I drink a lot more when I’m on the road. It definitely seems like a great deal of the people in my industry have that “Work hard/Play hard” mentality, so there’s always someone who’s up for a nightcap no matter how long the day’s activities are.
But, as a guy in my 40s, I’ve had to come to the horrible realization that many men in their 40s come to: drinking makes me gain weight. As a result, on the home front, I’ve almost entirely stopped drinking any alcoholic beverages during the week, and then try to moderate my intake on the weekends. I can still whoop it up when I need to, but week to week, my consumption is way down. This, combined with more regular exercise and healthier eating, has been the biggest contributing factor for my actually losing weight at home.
On the road, however, this has proven incredibly difficult to bring into alignment, mainly due to the pressures of “let’s go out for one” after a long day/night. Or the bottle (or bottles) of wine delivered by the hotel to the show office. Or the nicely chilled Heineken waiting in the mini-bar after a long, sweaty day of setting up an event. Man, it’s hard to resist.
Many people will also drink to help them sleep, especially on that first night in a hotel. Counterintuitively, there’s been plenty of studies that drinking can actually disrupt your sleep patterns, making you get less quality sleep, and (again as a guy in his 40s) getting up frequently through the night to go to the bathroom.
Results: TBD. Much like dinners, I’m trying to make slightly better decisions, maybe swap out a couple of drinks for a water or two, but for the most part I’ve been allowing myself some leeway. If adding in exercise and my other techniques aren’t getting the job done, though, I’m going to have to start watching the booze intake on the road, too.
Finding a balance between your road life and your home life may be as simple as trying to find as much continuity as possible between the two. Be sure to look in all directions for ways to improve both versions of your life. Can’t find the time to FaceTime the kids? Why not record them a video when you do have a break, and have whoever’s at home with them show it to them at bedtime? Having trouble finding time to exercise? Find a shorter workout! What things do you differently that might be causing you problems on the road? What could you do better at home? The more continuity you have, the less traveling feels like something out of the ordinary, and the more it just feels like… life.