A Traveling CEO Chimes In With Top Tips For Avoiding Jetlag

Filed Under: Advice

Business Insider had an amusing story today about how to avoid jetlag. They get their tips from John Thompson, who has worked as an executive in the tech industry for eons.

I rarely spend more than a week on a single continent and so far this year have spent more time outside the US than in the US. So I’m always curious to see what jetlag tips others have.

Tokyo skyline at night

How crazy is Thompson’s travel schedule?

In a two-week period in February, he will travel from the Bay Area to Detroit to Toronto back to the Bay Area and then to New York, London and to Columbus, Ohio with his wife, “to see our granddaughter in her first play.” Then back to the Bay Are for one night, and then off to Singapore, Australia, and Hong Kong for ten days. And in between, he’ll romp off to Seattle for a Microsoft board meeting.

So, what are his tips?

Does he ever suffer jet lag?

Nope. “Jet lag is psychological,” he tells us, “If you don’t think you’re gonna have jet lag, you won’t.”

That said, he does have a few strategies for avoiding it. There’s the classic one: “live on local time,” he says.

The other tip is also essential. “At some point over the course of about 2 or 3 weeks, you do need to kind of catch up,” he says. So plan on taking your nap and/or going to bed early for a night or two every few weeks.

And possibly the best tip of all?

And the best tip of them all: own your own plane.


While my strategy is slightly different, I think Thompson is spot on. Before I (very briefly) share my tips, I should explain that when I travel I always try to keep at least some overlap with the US east coast business day, since that’s when most “news” in the industry breaks. I guess you could say I always stay on “call center hours” when traveling. So for my own needs, I don’t ever try to fully adjust to local time.

What’s the best way to not be miserable and stay sane while transiting lots of timezones?

  • I totally agree jetlag is psychological. In 2015 I think we’re all perpetually tired as humans, so it’s not like exhaustion is limited to when you’re traveling. If you want to stay awake and beat jetlag, tell yourself it’s the only option. Have coffee, get as much natural light as possible, and make sure you leave plenty of time to get a good night of sleep.
  • Nap early in the day, not late in the day. This is of course different for everyone, but I’m not a good napper. Some people can do 20 minute naps, while I can’t. If I do nap, it needs to be for a minimum of two hours. So for the rare occasions I do nap, I make sure it’s early in the day rather than late in the day, or else I won’t be able to sleep at night.
  • Land at your destination around dinnertime when possible. For me the absolute best way to beat jetlag is to land at my longhaul destination around dinnertime. That way you can get off the plane, unwind, walk around a little bit, and have a great night of sleep. If you arrive too early you may end up napping. If you arrive too late, it might be so late that you can’t unwind and fall asleep.
  • Get a lot of sleep some nights. This is key. You’re not going to get a full night of rest every night you’re traveling, but if you can, take at least a couple of nights during a longer trip to hibernate for 10-12 hours.

Hong Kong at dusk

How about you? What are your top tips for avoiding jetlag?

  1. Bollocks. I’d be a lot more open to this guy’s advice if his time zone-shifting wasn’t so lightweight. Reminds me of the time a young colleague of mine confided “I just flew back from Chicago last night… Soooo jet lagged” (we work in NYC).

    Sorry but jet lag is not purely psychological. Does your mentality have a great deal to do with how you let it affect you? Absolutely. But your circadian rhythms are not biologically designed to deal with massive shifts in daylight exposure and sleep, full stop.

    Also, I tend to find people that complain about jet lag the most also do the least to ensure it affects them minimally. There are three key pillars: sleep, hydration, abstinence from alcohol. If you abide by the needed behaviors relative to those three (I won’t retread them here) you will have the best shot of adjusting without too much disruption.

  2. I don’t think it’s psychological, at least not when you get older. I just can’t do all nighters any more and function the next day.

    I’m with you on the arrival time and nap time though. Any nap after about 3pm is the kiss of death. The worst thing ever for me are morning arrivals, making Europe a killer. Even worse is if you get in early and want to nap, but can’t because it’s well before hotel check in time. At least Asia gives you enough options where you can find an arrival time more to your liking.

    Also, I can’t sleep on planes. I’m not sure why — perhaps it has something to do with my natural circadian rhythm keeping me up until 2am — few flights are actually in the air at that point. Even flying back from HKG, I don’t think I got much more than an hour nap on the 16 hour flight back to NYC, and the FA was actually kinda worried. Next month I’m taking SQ to OZ. I should be able to sleep on that thing, I hope. I also have an CX F award out of LAX on the 2230 departure later in the year, if I can’t sleep on that something is very wrong.

  3. Landing at dinnertime is key. I learned that lesson after taking the midnight flight from JFK to HKG. Landed at 5 am and never caught up.

  4. I’m pretty sure there is plenty of scientific studies in the effect, showing its real.

    Does he also think evolution is psychological?

  5. “They get their tips from John Thompson, who has worked as an executive in the tech industry for eons.”

    Is he a vampire? otherwise no one was flying back then…..unless he turned into a bat.

  6. Work out… you gotta go for a run or lay on a mat attempting some sort of movement for a bit. I mean – you’re tired, do you want to be fat too? 😉

  7. The key I have found is preconditioning. Start to take naps at around 1 or 2pm and go to bed an hour or two later every day but get up at your normal time. Gradually decrease the length of your overnight rest and increase the length of your naps every day. Then when you arrive, immediately shift to the local time. Your previous naps now become your overnight sleep but don’t take any naps at your destination. Go out and get some sun.

  8. That could not be further from the truth, Lucky!
    “…hibernate for 10-12 hours…” a night – come on. Nobody (older than 2 years old) sleeps that much during the night.

  9. “Nobody (older than 2 years old) sleeps that much during the night.”

    He didn’t say *every* night, James. He recommended doing that a couple of nights on longer trips.

    Also, I regularly sack out for 10-12 hours on Sundays. It helps make up for the 5-6 hours a night the rest of the week.

  10. @ James — That’s not what I said. I said a couple of nights a trip. While I usually get 5-7 hours of sleep per night, sometimes I get 10-12 hours of sleep per night on weekends, which makes me feel like a million bucks.

  11. @ Beachfan — Showing what is real? Of course it’s natural to be jetlagged, much like it’s natural to be tired when you only sleep a few hours of night. What’s psychological is how you choose to respond to it, IMO.

  12. The time sone he leaves may help a lot. I wanted to see if he lived in the East Coast and flew regularly to Asia if he would not feel the effects. Also, the time you land in your destination is key. Get there at dinner time, have dinner and crash works pretty well. Get there early in the morning and by mid day you will be crawling on your knees.

  13. i have 3 rules.
    1) stay awake until the night time of destination.
    2) drink plenty of alcohol just before going to sleep.
    3) arrive in morning time.
    whenever i travel to HKG from new york, i always take the red eye flight (00:50 KE), staying awake for several hours before going to bed. next thing you know, we have landed in ICN and it’s 5 in the morning.

  14. In Spain there is an expression, “shoemaker attend to your shoes”. It means that it is not wise to opine in topics one has not studied for. Being a software executive does not make you a source of advice, especially in health matters. If a problem is psychological, it would be defined as such in DSM-5 and appropriate treatment prescribed by a psychiatrist, nurse practitioner or psychologist. Medline defines jetlag as a physiological sleep adaptation problem. Personally, I would worry more about the massive amounts of radiation and bleed air toxic fumes absorbed by the body during extensive traveling. Cancer screenings are a must for frequent flyers. Sweet dreams pussums!

  15. Hi Lucky, interesring thoughts! I am also not much of a napper, but what works for me is to drink a very strong espresso (double) right before going for a nap and setting the alarm clock to max one hour later. The goal is to ‘beat the caffeine’ and fall asleep before it hits you… So you gotta be really trashed! Once the alarm goes off the caffeine is all in your blood and you should have no problem getting up! Works for me for 20 – 60 min naps and especially for early morning arrivals travelling East. Cheers from one if your newer European readers!

  16. Geez, guys, when this CEO fellow says that jet lag is “psychological”, I didn’t take that to mean that he believes there is no physiological/biological basis for it. After all, every psychological event has a basis in biological processes within the brain, right? A more nuanced (and correct) re-statement of his point is that your biological clock produces jet lag, which is a psychological state – and as such, you can use psychological tricks to overcome it. He has his ways of doing this, and everyone who posted so far has told us their own tricks.

    My own trick is very simple: stay awake until normal bedtime at your destination. This is far more difficult than it sounds, especially if you arrive in the morning and it’s the middle of the night at home. If I sit and read or watch videos or surf the web, I’ll drift off to sleep. So I have to be active: in my case that means walking around and sightseeing, but I imagine that jogging or swimming or working out or skiing or whatever would also work.

    I’m also with Lucky on the 10-12 hour thing: I can NEVER sleep for 12 hours when I’m at home, but after several days of very little sleep due to time zone adjustment, I most definitely can – and it’s an amazing feeling to wake up completely refreshed after so many days of so little sleep.

  17. He’s obviously never had to deal with jet-lagged young kids, to which the standard jet lag advice (caffeine, timing meals to the destination time prior to departure, pushing oneself to stay up) is practical, as an over-tired, hungry, wired kid is in no one’s best interest. I’ve found 5 days to be the time needed for my kids to get adjusted (Asia-North America) and just build in a week of down time into our travel plans.

  18. @pavel, exactly! Add some Dubai and London into the mix and now we’re talking. Purely north America and east Asia time is amateur hour. I’ve gone from NA to Asia and gotten over jetlag in a day.

  19. I can’t sleep on planes. I can’t even sleep in a 5 star hotel for the first few nights of a trip. Some weird anxiety of different sleeping places. After a few days, I can sleep on cement. I’m not a road warrior like many on here. Somewhat hypothetical question: If you were to win an “oscar,” but it required you cutting short a rare leisure trip, would you attend the event where you may possibly not be at your best due to jet lag? Thanks to miles, I have options, but it may be a fruitless endeavor as I could be a red eyed zombie and going would be useless. In other words, how do I awaken myself when I’m at the sleeping on cement stage? CRACK is not an option….

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