Why being in the air can help our thinking

Our search for productive working environments may one day lead us to the upper atmosphere.
Our search for productive working environments may one day lead us to the upper atmosphere.
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This is the third story in Delta Air Lines’ series on innovation, technology, and ideas. The first, on the quest to design the perfect chair, can be read here; the second, on digitization of scent, here.

When faced with complexity, it’s human nature to try and see “over the horizon” to get a clearer view. In fact, the more we talk about our work, the more we like to couch it in terms of elevation: doing “high-level” thinking, rising “above and beyond” expectations.

So it’s only natural that airplanes seem like the perfect place for deep cogitation. In his book The Art of Travel, Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton explores this concept at great height.

Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes…. There is almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times require large views, and new thoughts, new places. Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.

Today, in-flight Wi-Fi has expanded the resources we can tap into during these moments of thought, but the outcome—time spent productively—is the same. That said, getting things done at 30,000 feet takes a little bit of strategy.

The best way to capitalize on flight time? Treat it like a work sprint. If you’re on a short commuter flight, get started on a new project that needs uninterrupted thinking or writing time. After two or three hours of distraction-free effort, the final minutes of descent serve as an internal debrief. Stow your laptop, stow that project, and get ready for what’s awaiting on the ground.

“You’ve got a built-in deadline, which is the landing time,” Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant in New York, told the New York Times last year. “When I’m on a plane, all of a sudden I can solve the big problems.”

On longer flights, try keeping yourself in research mode; browse slowly, read carefully, and only dive into material relevant to your project. Every 25 minutes, give yourself a few minutes of leisure time—then get back to it. Not only will you absorb more by grazing slowly, but you’ll be at your destination before you know it.

If you have landscape-sized thoughts to work through, plug in your headphones and picture yourself soaring above your worries. Then gaze out the window—you might just see a solution.

This article was produced on behalf of Delta Air Lines by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.