How to PREVENT, rather than BEAT, Jet Lag

I live in California but travel about 7 to 8 times a year on far-flung destinations in Asia, Africa, and Europe, with most flights requiring two legs, each lasting 6-8 hours if not longer.  But all these years, I just haven't really suffered from jet lag, and while much of that may be something innately physiological about me, I make a lot of effort in preventing jet lag, so I thought I'd share some of the tricks.  They may not work for everyone...but they won't cost much to try!  And remember, my guidance here focuses on "preventing" jet lag rather than "beating" or "recovering" from it.

Before Flight

Some guidance on what to bring, how to choose your seat (if you can), and what to do the night before (if any).

What to bring, so you can sleep better!

I call these three sacred treasures of air travel, in the order of importance.  As far as I'm concerned, these are all "must-have" items for me to sleep well in the plane.
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Ear plugs
  • Eye mask
Inflatable pillow: the most important item.  It allows you to rest your head even on a coach class.   I'd be screwed without it, as my whole strategy of preventing a jet lag almost solely depends on getting some sleep on the flight.

Photographed is an Eagle Creek that I found at a shop in Narita.  The fabric is super thin, light, and the wide valve allows you to blow up the whole pillow with 2 or at most 3 breaths.  The fabric so so thin that it rolls up in a tiny pouch.


You can find similar pillows at the likes of REI and other travel stores, but it's been hard to find this exact model in a store, but as always, Amazon has one:

Ear plugs: I swear by those orange, 3M ones.  Yellow foam (I get those from ANA) or gray rubberish ones (e.g., Lufthansa) don't work for me; they don't expand enough to fit my ear canals, and/or too porous to block the sound.

Eye mask: any eye mask would do as long as it blocks lights and offers snug fit.  Don't wear it too tight as it might push your eyeballs and you may feel out of focus upon waking.  Business class amenities almost always have one, so whenever I get to fly business, I keep the mask for my next travel, or wear it at home until it gets too stinky :-)  Usually, the single-band eye masks with adjustable straps (usually velcro strap) are more comfortable than dual band ones.  Pictured is from JAL.

(Optional) Disposable slippers: I'd hate to keep shoes on during long flights.  So I stash these disposable slippers from hotels or airlines that offer them, and hoard them up so I can use them on my next trip.

(By the way, what's up with those knit socks that European airlines give out in business class?  Am I supposed to wear those to cabin bathrooms, especially that water on the floor isn't usually water...  Yuck!)

(Optional) Noise cancelling earphones: you may not need them to prevent jet lag.  But I do watch at least one movie while I eat, and those coach class earphones (junk), or even most business class headphones (claimed to be noise cancelling) are no match to my Sony pair.  These headphones really well isolate the sound, and I feel it is less tiring than hearing movie conversation while tolerating ambient/cabin noise mixed in.  Some business classes offer over-the-head pairs, but I haven't found any of them superior to these in-ear types (except the one that I tried in Emirates business class - I remember those were pretty effective).  Pictured is a Sony model I bought in 2012, unfortunately discontinued (but still works fine).  Oh, and don't forget to bring a spare battery with you!

Pro-tip: if you can pick a color, get a white pair, or something bright, as these cords can be hard to see when they tangle up in a dark cabin.

There are lot of over-the-head noise cancelling headphones in the market.  I have a pair, too, and love its quality (pictured: Audio Technica - at ~1/3 price of a Bose pair).

But after a few trips, I realized...why would I carry another bulky item to the cabin when a smaller pair like Sony's works just as well, if not better?

Seat layout of B777-300ER (ANA)

Seat Selection

First of all, if you can upgrade or get on a business class, you can stop now.  You have very little excuse to get jet lag!

For the coach class, I swear by an aisle seat, for easy ingress/egress and sense of space around me.  I don't like window seats (unless they are on a single column), as it's just a pain to get up for bathroom (or stand up and exercise - see below).  But you might ask...if you are on an aisle seat, wouldn't you be bothered by those in the window or middle seat as they get up?

That's why I always get a seat from D and G aisles, not from C's and H's.  And what the heck am I talking about with these alphabet codes?

Here's the deal.  Most wide-body, double-aisle aircraft have seat numbers set up such that C, D, G, H are aisle seats regardless of seat columns configuration.  The picture on the right is a bit unusual, asymmetric 2-4-3 configuration (whereas most are symmetric, like 3-4-3 or 3-3-3), and you see that seat columns are coded AC-DEFG-HJK.  That's right, the code "B" is deliberately skipped, so that C, D, G, H still remain aisle seats.  This convention is usually followed also on new, staggered business class seating, so that seats directly facing an aisle have C/D/G/H letter config, whereas staggered seats directly adjacent to windows, tucked in behind a console on the aisle side, are given A/E/F/K designation (note: but most US-based Airlines don't seem to follow this convention).

So why do I care which aisle column I pick?  Think this way - a bunch of people have preference for aisle seats or windows, but never for the middle ones.  So the window seats As and Ks are far more likely to be taken up than the middle Es and Fs.  So if I sit on D's and G's, there is a far less chance of someone waking me up to get to bathroom while I sleep.  And if that still happens, only by one person (vs. if I sit on H, up to two people could bother you, from J and K).

Most modern airlines offer online seat pre-assignment.  So for your next trip, look up to check the seat config, and book one of those aisle seats!  Some airlines charge $20 - $30 to pre-assign (*sign*).  For me, it's totally worth it as getting as good of rest as a possible on the way impacts the rest of the trip.

Do I stay up all night the night before so I can sleep in the plane?

No.  I try to keep the normal cycle as much as possible.  Long haul flights take a toll on the body no matter what, so why bother beating yourself up even before getting into one?

During Flight

For a long haul flight, regardless of the departure/arrival times, I usually eat the first meal with 2 or 3 alcoholic drinks.  I've seen a number of articles stating alcohol doesn't help you on a flight, but I do enjoy it in moderation and I tend to fall asleep after a meal...

And I watch a movie during the meal...which often does end up longer than a meal, cutting into sleep time.  But that's OK.  This is one of the rare moments I have when I can sit and watch a feature-length movie.

Then I'd sleep through the rest.  I ask cabin attendants not to awake me for the pre-landing meal (if offered) so I could sleep as long as I can.  More often than not, I wake up magically shortly before the pre-landing approach announcement, which tells you to go to bathroom before they lock you down for landing approach.  So I try to finish my bathroom business *before* that announcement kicks in, as that's when people start queueing up, naturally.

Sleep - this is where you need the three treasures above (pillow, eye mask, and earplugs)!  Recline your seat however little that might be, put a blanky on, inflate that pillow and wrap it around your neck, with ear plugs and eye mask.  With the quiescence and darkness, you really get into the zone!

Also, at least once during flight (usually before I curl up and sleep), I get up and walk up and down the aisle to move my body a bit, and stand in a little space between an exit door and galley to stretch as much as I can (while standing up).  Back in the days when 747-400s were more prevalent, I used the stairs to exercise a bit.  (There were times when the upper deck was economy, too!)

Set your (mental) clock.  After the first meal, I think in the destination time zone.  You can do that by setting your watch (if you still use one), or in my case, just look at one of the multiple timezones displayed on my watch or my phone, and choose to ignore the time of the origin, and never look back.  I mark the time when I tuck myself in, and check the time again when I wake up.  If I can sleep 4-5 hours (and I usually can), I tell myself "OK I slept some and should feel fine", to fend off later temptation to doze off or to skip workout upon landing (see more below).

Do I work on plane?

To be honest, I try not to.  I usually end up killing weekends to travel to conduct speaking engagement or summit/conferences that usually start on Tuesdays if not Mondays, which means, from California, I'd need to fly out on Saturday or Sunday.  That said, I usually find myself working an hour or so before the first meal to clear up some stuff I couldn't finish off before getting to the airport, or reading/editing offline docs that I marked earlier, or offline Gmail.  When I have a speaking engagement at the destination, I do spend more time looking over a printed copy of the script to ingest the content as my own.

And I rarely get in-flight wifi.  I feel like that option would put me into a non-stop cue of e-mail or incoming requests that would break my carefully choreographed sleep routine.

Upon Arrival

The routine varies a bit depending on when you arrive, as you can imagine.  So a couple of scenarios below, and what I usually do in those cases.

Daytime arrival

If you need to get to business right away, you just have to get to it.  But if you have a few hours before your commitment (say, you get to hotel at 4 pm and team dinner at 7pm), I find a way to work out.  Doesn't matter what it is...swimming if your hotel has a pool; treadmill if that's what you are into it; run around the hotel if it's safe to do so (i.e., for security and air quality, which I don't often get in most of my destinations, unfortunately).  I find moving my body, preferably with visible sunlight even indoors, is one of the best way to whip up your body to prevent jet lag from kicking in, and sustain through the rest of the day.

If you land right before dinner and had no time to work out, you can still try a treadmill by just walking on it for 20-25 min even after dinner.  I find it tough to run right after a big meal, but walking is totally doable, and probably necessary after such a meal!

By the way, I do this workout-upon-arrival back home, too.  I go for a ~15 mile road bike ride upon arrival as long as I have time and it is safe to do so.

Late night arrival

If I land and get to the hotel late, I'd catch up on some e-mail but not long, then take a hot shower or a hot bath, stretch, and then go to bed.  I still try to get to bed by 1 am or so no matter how many hours I slept in the plane, and unless you have an 8 am meeting, sneak in some time to work out in the morning.

For Your Days at the Destination

At this point, not much logistical advice, but a couple of things that I keep in mind:
  • Ask to make sure the meeting room has a window: getting into an all day meeting in a windowless room after arrival is a surefire recipe to put you right back into sleep.  You want to expose your body to correct circadian rhythm as much as you can.  If you must work in a window-less room, try to take a break every hour or so, find a way to see the sunlight, or better yet, get out of the building even for a moment.
  • Try staying up through dinner on Day 1: upon arrival, a lot of folks claim they are tired and recuse themselves at 5 pm or 6 pm local time, skipping a group dinner.  It's OK to do so, but most folks staying in their hotel room usually end up crashing by 6 pm, and I think that's just letting your jet lag sinking its teeth deeper.  You gotta eat sometime, so you may force yourself to join the dinner.  And remember, if you can do a post-dinner 20 min treadmill, try that, too!  In-person engagement and moving your body would keep you stay up far than looking at a laptop :-)
  • The Day 2 night can be harder: I usually sleep through the first night until my alarm goes off in the morning, but I almost always find waking up at 4-5 am on the *2nd* night.  I get worried if I could get through the day, but it doesn't seem to be so bad.
  • (Optional) Keep your workout routine: I run/skate/bike 4-5 times a week, so I try to keep the cycle by doing some workout every other day of my business trip as long as it allows me to.  Given the business trips often have dinners, I usually need to get up early in the morning than I do at home to squeeze in a workout time.  The morning workout has a nice side effect of feeling so much better for the rest of the day.  (But I am too lazy to get up super early at home, so I usually work out after work and on weekends).
Would love to hear more tricks!


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