How to Beat Jet Lag Every Time

There are two things you need to do to avoid jet lag.

  • Adjust to the local time of your destination as soon as possible, generally as soon as you board your flight. That means eating on your new local time, and sleeping on your new local time.
  • Stay up until bedtime at your destination the day you arrive. If you go to sleep at noon, you’re going to be off for days. You need to force yourself to power through.
  • Both of these can be challenging, but there are ways to make them much easier. You’ll enjoy your trip more, and it’s better for your overall health. Jet lag can make you stupid.

    The Flight

    Get on the plane and if it’s bed time in your destination, go to bed. If it isn’t, stay up. Plan your meals based on the new local time, too. That might mean eating before the flight rather than on it.

    Short overnight flights, like flying Eastbound East Coast to Europe, can be frustrating. You leave at night (when it isn’t yet bed time at your local destination) and arrive in the morning and have a full day ahead of you, but to really take advantage of it you need to sleep.

    New York, DC, or Boston to London or even Paris can take less than 7 hours. You want:

    • A fully flat seat in business class
    • All aisle access so no one is climbing over anyone else and waking them
    • Meal service to end quickly, and lights out quickly, so you can sleep.

    The idea is to maximize the amount of sleep you’ll get. I don’t want to be woken for breakfast, it isn’t very good on most airlines anyway. And I bring my own noise cancelling headset. American Airlines flight attendants collect theirs way too early, often nearly an hour before landing.

    Eat before boarding. Skip the main meal. Airlines can help when they certify seats for recline during taxi, takeoff, and landing and get through service quickly.

    When You Arrive

    Sleeping, and waking on local schedule at your destination, is the number one way to beat jet lag. Then stay up at your destination on arrival and go to bed as close to when the locals do as possible.

    When I take an overnight flight to Europe or Asia that arrives in the morning, I take a shower and change clothes. If it’s sunny, take a walk. If my schedule allows I will take a nap. I will get up and make myself go out to dinner. This can be tough. I’ll be dead tired. Doesn’t matter. I want to go out, ideally a late dinner, so that I’m tired and fall right to sleep when I get back to the hotel.

    If I have the time I’ll let myself sleep in the next morning, for me that means 8 a.m. Otherwise I’ll get up before 6 a.m. per usual and will be more or less adjusted to the time right away.

    But when it’s bed time, I go to bed. I have a tendency to get off of a long flight without internet and think I need to clear my mind, so I check in on e-mail and work and that just sets my mind racing with a million things. So it’s a bad idea.

    When arriving at a destination late at night, I will avoid work when I arrive at the hotel. My only concession is that while making the trip from the airport to hotel I will clean out email. That’s why in most cities I’ll avoid public transit, I want to get in the back of a car, fire up an internet connection, and work for however long it takes to get to the hotel in a straight shot without transfers. In Tokyo it works better to take the Narita Express.

    Putting It Into Practice

    The two hardest things about jet lag are:

    • Sleeplessness. Going to sleep, you wake up a few hours later and are up throughout the middle of the night. That makes the coming day tough. And it makes staying up through the day tough, but a nap just makes the cycle even more likely to repeat.
    • Flexibility. If you don’t have to push through you won’t, but the best thing to do is to push through until bedtime in your local destination.

    I find adjusting to Europe is easy. I go over, stay up until bedtime, maybe sleep in a little bit and I’m fine by my second day as long as I go out to a nice dinner the day I arrive. The same applies to South America after an overnight flight even without significant time change.

    Returning from Europe I get tired by 7 p.m. or so for the first couple of days back home. But it’s no big deal.

    Coming back from Asia doesn’t prove much of a challenge for me unless I take a flight that gets me home early in the day. It makes staying up until bed time hard. That’s when I need to follow the practice of taking a nap and going out to dinner even when I’m home.

    I find going to Asia much harder than anything else, since being 12 hours off my body thinks it’s the exact opposite of local time — wants to sleep during the day, wants to be up at night. And the older I get the harder it is.

    There’s the usual advice, none of which has much mattered for me — especially to drink lots of water and to avoid alcohol and coffee.

    If I’m going to Asia then I will need a full day to adjust. I might be sleepless that first night. The solution is to power through the next day (allowing myself a nap) so that I’m exhausted at local bed time on day two.

    Routine matters a lot. Begin to get into the local time as soon as possible. Set your watch to the new time right away. Plan your sleep schedule based on when you want to sleep at your destination — don’t sleep the last several hours of a flight if you need to sleep on arrival for instance. And try to time your meals closer to when you’ll be eating at your destination.

    And a good business or first class experience on the way over makes this all much easier.

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