Does Traveling Improve Your Productivity?

When I returned from Montreal, I felt completely clear. It was like someone had taken my mind -- previously tangled and thick with competing must-dos -- and replaced it with a new one. And this one could easily hone in and power through one task at a time. So, does traveling improve productivity?

It turns out my experience with travel “unlocking” my brain does have some scientific backing.

“Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,” according to Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, and author of many studies on the connection between creativity and travel.

As a full-time employee who travels (often more than my PTO will cover) here are a few truths I’ve found:

1. Travel frees you.

When you feel trapped, you shrink up and either don’t move or oscillate, often to a point of despair. Travel helps you break free from feeling trapped. First, by disrupting your daily routine. Second, by placing you in a new environment. And third, by giving you a sense of forward motion or “flow.” When you travel, you generally have an itinerary of sorts to follow -- you know what’s coming next, in the loosest sense. You know the activity’s name, but you have yet to experience it, so you can’t fully predict all the excitement to come.

Spending even just a few days outside of that feeling of entrapment, you can return with that same sense of flow or continuity you had when you were traveling. I often use this to propel myself through roadblocks when I return to the office.

2. Just because you spend more time at work doesn’t mean you’re getting more done.

I find when I have fewer hours in my day to accomplish tasks, I’m more likely to complete all of them. But, when I have nine full hours ahead of me, and 17 items on my task list, I let interruptions slow me down. I spend too much time going through emails. I start looking into things I could batch and save for later. I even spend too long selecting the perfect photos for our websites.

When we have a huge project to complete, our first instinct might be to stay late and hammer away until it's finished. But, more often than not, this leads to burnout, especially if you’re feeling stuck on a particular part. And when you feel stuck, you’re not likely going to get anywhere (like I mentioned in the point above.) You might think of a few ideas, and go back and forth for a while, and by the end, you’ll be exhausted and realize you haven’t really made much progress.

Instead, when you hit a wall, take a break for a while. Then later, when you feel more relaxed and awake, come back to it. You’ll be much more efficient with your time.

3. Unused vacation time does not reap rewards.

Somewhere along the way, some of us have started to fear the boss would view us less dedicated or replaceable if we took time off, according to a new study by Project: Time Off. The study found 65 percent of employees said they either hear nothing, mixed messages, or discouraging messages about taking time off. This would obviously lead us to believe taking vacation make us less eligible for bonuses and rewards, right?

Wrong. The study found employees who take ten or fewer vacation days were less likely to have received a raise or bonus than those who took 11 days or more. That totally debunks the thought that your boss will think less of your work ethic if you take more vacation time. And the truth that time spent in the office doesn’t necessarily correlate to great performance further supports this.

4. Performance actually increases when you take time off.

Take time for yourself and chase after something you really want for a few days. You already spend 40-or-so hours a week chasing after goals on behalf of the company you work for -- it’s no wonder you can, on a personal level, become stuck or lose direction occasionally.

Identify what makes you happy and go after it. As you accelerate forward, a fire ignites and fuels you. You can take that fire and transfer it into virtually every area of your life -- especially your job. That’s why when you’re truly happy, you accomplish much more at seemingly impossible rates of efficiency.

5. You can use travel as a catalyst to launch ideas.

There’s a phenomenon I like to call the “incubation period,” where I think about a problem I don’t yet have a solution for or a big assignment I have no idea how to tackle, and I set it in the back of my mind to marinate. I don’t focus on it or actively try to solve it -- I just know it’s there in the background and I take it with me as I move in and out of new environments.

I step out of my box of sameness because trying to solve a problem while looking at the same four walls I was looking at when the problem appeared isn’t going to get me anywhere. So, I travel somewhere new and experience activities that are totally unrelated.

Then out of nowhere, something I see or hear will strike the right cord and “wham” I know the solution or at least a piece to start the process. This is much more effective than lingering in an office for long hours, dwelling on tasks that feel impossible. And it’s much less stressful.

When I take the time to travel, to pursue my happiness, I become a healthier person with better ideas, more energy and accomplish much more.