2 min read

Up in the Air

Most people hate flying. And they're right – air travel largely sucks. You're jammed into a tiny space, treated like a head of cattle, essentially just riding a bus in the sky.

That may all be true. But it's also true that planes are my happy place. Up in the air, I'm free.[1]


I spent several years taking 50+ flights per year, both for work and pleasure. Leaving is always crazy: do laundry, then pack my clothes, make sure I haven't forgotten anything.[2] But once I get to the airport, all of that changes.

Little perks make flying alone as stress-free as possible. Airline status. TSA PreCheck. Lounge access. You can play the credit card game to get these benefits for free.

Walk to the gate just before they close the door to the flight. (Of course you want to maximize lounge time.) And you don't want to be trapped in that metal tube with the masses for any longer than necessary.

The real magic occurs once we're airborne, though. I have no WiFi, no communication with the outside world. I’m untouchable.

I get my best work done on airplanes. I can actually focus on writing.[3] I have the willpower to sit down and read a book without checking Twitter. I'll become engrossed in a movie.

Over the past decade or so, I've felt my attention span drastically shortening. The inside of an airplane is one of the last refuges from distracting interconnectivity. Much of modern-day knowledge work is simply being a human router. But our best work requires deep focus and solitude; flights provide that environment, allowing us to execute.

Cal Newport describes this phenomenon in his book, Deep Work:

As a popular speaker, Shankman spends much of his time flying. He eventually realized that thirty thousand feet was an ideal environment for him to focus. As he explained in a blog post, “Locked in a seat with nothing in front of me, nothing to distract me, nothing to set off my ‘Ooh! Shiny!’ DNA, I have nothing to do but be at one with my thoughts.” It was sometime after this realization that Shankman signed a book contract that gave him only two weeks to finish the entire manuscript. Meeting this deadline would require incredible concentration. To achieve this state, Shankman did something unconventional. He booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote during the whole flight to Japan, drank an espresso in the business class lounge once he arrived in Japan, then turned around and flew back, once again writing the whole way—arriving back in the States only thirty hours after he first left with a completed manuscript now in hand. "The trip cost $4,000 and was worth every penny," he explained.

I'm missing those long solo flights. I'll use my miles for a round-trip to Japan once I get a book deal. 😛

  1. Obvious reference to the movie Up in the Air. I'm not sure why it was so celebrated by frequent fliers, though. It's a good movie, but it doesn't extol travel so much as abase it. ↩︎

  2. Back when I lived in New York, before departure I'd also clean my apartment to prepare it for Airbnb guests. I'm still mad at that guy who stole my shoes. ↩︎

  3. Coding can be tough without the internet, though. ↩︎