In the days of trains
and ships, our travels never happened too fast for our
bodies to adjust to time zone changes.
The modern jet age has
introduced the problem of jet lag to all long distance
Jet lag is very real and can
have a major (negative) impact on your business judgment and
vacation enjoyment, as well as making the 'back home blues' even
worse upon your return.
While frequent business fliers
may often claim not to be affected by jet lag, its effects can
be subtle (in addition to the obvious 'can't get to sleep in the
middle of the night') and may subtly impair decision making
Jet Lag - The Curse of Modern
Day Air Travel
Jet lag is an (almost)
inescapable curse of modern travel whenever you’re crossing more
than two or three time zones. Jet lag refers to the fact that
your body has an internal ‘clock’ that largely determines when
you want to be asleep and when you want to be awake – this
internal clock takes time to reset itself if you’ve physically
moved into a new time zone.
As such, you can fly north
or south as far as you wish, and while you’ll probably be
exhausted from all your travel, that is something that a simple
good night’s sleep will quickly solve. You haven’t changed time
zones, and so your body is still operating on the same schedule
as the environment within which you have traveled to.
But as soon as you start
to change time zones, you have jet lag. It takes the body
approximately one day to change its internal time clock one hour
– back in the days of travel by train or ship, this wasn’t much
of a problem, as your rate of time zone change rarely exceeded
the speed with which your body could keep up, but with the
modern jet plane, all of a sudden you can change a dozen time
zones in as many hours.
The Impacts of Jet Lag
When you’re suffering from
jet lag, your reflexes are slower – both mentally and
physically. For this reason, it is a good idea not to start
driving a car for a day or two after traveling if at all
possible - especially if you're going to be driving on the other
side of the road as well!
Business travelers - you
should avoid any high pressure business negotiations until you
have acclimatized to the new time zone. Some companies have a
formal policy of 'no business meetings the first day after a
flight' but this policy fails to recognize that jet lag can last
as much as a week or more!
Business travelers should
try and schedule important meetings at a 'compromise' time
that is a sensible hour for their home time zone as well as
within the business day in the destination time zone - in other
words, don't go to a meeting in the first few days after
arriving, at what is the equivalent of 3am back home!
'Local' jet lag within the US
Many readers will have
shared with me what I consider to be one of the worst jet lag
experiences of all, and strangely enough, this only involves a
short three hour time zone change. This occurs when traveling
from the West coast to the East coast on a business trip. The
effect is made worse because typically you don’t arrive at a
hotel until very late one night, then spend hours trying to calm
down and relax and get to sleep, before having to get up very
early the next morning, local time, in order to get to your
first appointment – and if 6am is early in local time and
probably after much less than 8 hours of sleep, it is even worse
when your body tries to plead with you that it is only 3am!
The lesson inherent in this
story is that one of the strategies in minimizing the effects of
jet lag is to try and schedule your activities so as to work
around the time zone changes rather than make them worse.
In the case of the typical trip to the East coast, try and take
an early morning flight from the west coast that gets you in to
your destination mid/late afternoon rather than a later flight
that gets you in mid/late evening. Taking the early
morning flight in effect moves you to the East coast time zone a
day early, and makes that first night less stressful, allowing
you to more easily enjoy a good full night’s sleep as well.
Time Your Arrival
In general, I try and
schedule flights so that they arrive mid/late afternoon,
wherever in the world I’m flying to. This allows for a
convenient amount of time to get to the hotel, and then a good
night’s sleep to follow.
I hate flights that dump me
into a very different time zone, typically after many hours of
traveling, such that it is early morning wherever in the world I
have arrived. Avoid these flights if at all possible!
The worst thing to do
upon arriving somewhere, early in the day, is to give in and
have ‘a short nap’. Not only does the short nap
usually become a longer sleep (!), but you’re making it more
difficult for your body to get a handle on what time zone it now
is in – your strategy is to start living the new time zone as
soon as possible.
Pre-Adjusting to the New Time
Indeed, some people start
adjusting to the new time zone a day or two before they travel,
by getting up earlier (or later) and similarly going to bed
earlier or later. Sometimes this can help, but any more than a
couple of hours of pre-adjustment starts to become difficult to
incorporate into your normal daily routine at home and work.
I remember - back when I was
an advocate of this pre-adjusting technique - one occasion when
I was adjusting for an upcoming trip to the UK such that I was
getting up at 4am and at work by 5am. I scheduled a job
interview with an applicant for 6am, and he duly showed up at
that ungodly hour, looking only slightly the worse for wear. I
gave him the job!
On a more serious note, I no
longer get quite so obsessed about pre-adjusting to time zones;
indeed I think one of the most important antidotes to jet lag is
to commence your travels well-rested, so that you have a supply
of energy to draw upon.
Maintain Your Home Time Zone
The opposite approach is to
ignore the new time zone entirely and to continue to live your
life as if you were in your old time zone when at your
destination, or, alternatively, to only slowly shift into the
new time zone once you have arrived.
This might work for some
business travelers and small shifts of time zones, but
vacationers are more likely to want to quickly adjust to the
local times for local meals, opening hours, tour commencement
Some business travelers who
make short trips around the world have become quite adept at
scheduling their time so as to minimize the apparent time zone
change by concentrating on early morning or late afternoon
Traveling West is Easier than
It is easier to adjust to a
new time zone if you are traveling west rather than east.
The reason for this is that
the body’s internal clock runs slightly longer than 24 hours –
this is why people tend to find it easier to stay up a bit later
at night and want to sleep in a bit more each morning. When
you’re traveling westwards, you have extra time you need to
absorb, and the body’s natural mechanism is better at absorbing
This was most clearly
demonstrated to me on a wonderful trans-Atlantic cruise on the
QE2 from Britain to the US. It was a five day and five night
cruise , and we crossed five time zones, so each day was 25
hours instead of 24. We could stay up late each night, sleep in
a bit, and still get up at a ‘sensible hour’! A very civilized
way of traveling indeed (and I suspect that an east bound trip,
with a series of short days, with successively earlier mornings
and nights, would be vastly less pleasant).
Time Your Medications
One final comment about jet
lag before we focus, next week, on how to ‘beat’ it. If you’re
taking some types of prescription medicines (such as oral
contraceptives or perhaps insulin) be sure to keep the time
interval between doses reasonably constant, even if the actual
time on your watch is different. Change the time you take these
things by one or two hours a day until you’re back to the
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10 May 2002, last update
21 Jul 2020
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