Balancing Business Travel with Your Life: 5 Tips

It might be an exaggeration to say that salesman-turned-fishing guide Norm Weston experienced a career epiphany two decades ago. But then, how else do you describe the lure of Southwest Florida’s back country, where the saltwater flats teem with redfish, snook and trout? And how else to characterize the way in which he brought his career into balance?

“I was on a business trip to Miami,” he recalls. “I was a field engineer selling machine parts, and I went to see a customer on a Friday to discuss a possible contract.” The sales pitch turned into a fishing trip off Sanibel Island the next day, where he came to a sudden realization that he was in the wrong line of work. “I had to become a fishing guide,” he says. An increasing number people who travel for a living are concluding that their lives are out of balance. More than half of all business travelers say the time they spent with family has been significantly reduced as a result of being on the road, compared with 39% in 2001, according to a 2004 survey by Company Barclaycard, a British credit-card company. And more than one-third said social time spent with friends suffered through the demands of traveling for their company, compared with 28% in 2001.

How do you hit the “reset” button on your career? If you feel you’re on the road too much, here are five steps toward positive change.

1. Tap the brakes before you get into an accident. Years of heavy travel will take a toll on most people. If you can think of your career as a car ride, remember to hit the brakes every now and then. That means taking breaks from traveling. I just read over some e-mails from an old friend who always seemed to be on the road, visiting a new place, checking out a new restaurant. His insights into business travel were consistently brilliant because he traveled so frequently. But his frequent dispatches from the road ended abruptly late last year with a note from his wife saying that he had died, largely due to the stress of traveling so much. My friend had overdone it. I miss him, and I wish I’d been able to write this column five years ago to warn him.

2. Use the tools you have to set a reasonable pace. This is a struggle for any business traveler — even the ones who have achieved a better balance. I find that Microsoft Outlook’s Calendar function is a good tool. It allows you to identify the most important appointments and it prompts you when they’re due. While that’s far more efficient than writing everything down on a memo pad, it is possible to have too much of a good thing (I like to call it Calendar overload) where every little “to-do” item starts popping up on your screen, frequently interrupting your concentration. I like Franklin Planner for Outlook (www.franklincover/fpo) which lets you to further prioritize your appointments. It also integrates nicely with Outlook. A caution: Technology alone won’t put your life back into balance. But it can help.

3. Ask yourself: Do I really need to be there in person? A lot of business meetings can be accomplished virtually, with the help of Web conferencing software such as Microsoft Office Live Meeting, as I pointed out in a recent column. The use of “virtual meeting” technologies experienced an uptick after 9/11, as companies cut back on business travel. But even now, as corporate travel heats up again, there are still plenty of smart reasons to pick Web-based meeting applications over an in-person meeting. Not the least of these is the fact that you eliminate the stress of traveling (which, according to a Microsoft survey of road warriors, is even more stressful than visiting the dentist).

4. Remember: Garbage in, ugh, garbage out. When you spend time on the road, you tend to eat food you normally wouldn’t (and in quantities you wouldn’t) drink things you wouldn’t, and get insufficient sleep. Whoa. That alone is enough to knock your life out of balance. If you don’t take care of yourself, you could end up like Richard Larssen, who is now a retired seismologist in Palm Bay, Fla. In 1987, on a trip to northeastern Brazil, Larssen was infected with dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease for which there is no vaccination. “I wasn’t feeling well. I was tired, had a slight headache, and a bit of an upset stomach,” he recalls. “I thought it was due to the rigors of travel.” So Larssen stopped in a cafe and had a cold beer. Big mistake. He spent the next three weeks in his hotel, where he lost 20 pounds before regaining his health.

5. Don’t forget your friends, family and loved ones. It’s possible to burn the figurative candle at both ends to have a successful business. But the whole exercise seems rather pointless if you alienate everyone around you in the process. Don’t think of your colleagues and relatives as obstacles standing in the way of your success — tethering you to the office when you should be out on the road drumming up business. Think of them instead as your support group. They’ll be there when you need them.

Are some of these tips just a little too New Age-y for you? Perhaps they are. But consider the story of Brian Talbot, who might have benefited from some of these strategies 13 years ago. He was driving himself hard as an up-and-coming executive in the accounting department of a retail-goods importer in Stamford, Conn., when he discovered that his career was out of whack.

One day, he found himself late for a flight to Los Angeles and “rushed, rushed, rushed,” to make it to the gate on time. “All of a sudden I couldn’t stand up, and just fell to the ground,” he remembers. “The next thing I knew I was being awakened in a hospital bed.” It turns out that he’d had a brain aneurysm — a condition that eventually prompted him to leave his high-stress job and become a nightclub DJ.

Is bringing your career into balance an all-or-nothing proposition? Not necessarily. I met Weston, the fishing guide, a few years ago on a trip to Southwest Florida. We spent the day in the back country catching and releasing some of the most magnificent fish I’ve ever seen. Weston hadn’t gone Luddite, as you might expect. He was one of the first fishing guides in his area to take bookings through a Web site back in the mid-1990s.

But for a former engineer hawking machine parts, I think it’s safe to say Weston had finally achieved the balance he sought. Even if most of his business trips now are slow boat rides into Florida’s Pine Island Sound.

I really can’t think of a better place to be.

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