Hardware

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Life as a tech-nomad

Some tips on surviving an existence on the road...
Frequent business travellers - this column is for you. Peter Cochrane shares the techniques and technologies that keep him productive during his plentiful time on planes, trains and automobiles.

I was recently asked how I manage my work and travel schedule so I can live a normal life. Good question! But an even better one: what is a normal life? I don't think there is such a thing. Human life has been evolving rapidly since we first moved from all fours to an upright stance. My normality is different from yours, and from my children's, friends' and colleagues'. That is not to say it is better or worse just that as individuals we choose to use our time in different ways.

I have also been asked about my technology choices and how I manage my work as an investor, consultant and speaker across three continents and six time zones.

In short I have become a tech-nomad - a phrase I have used before.

The key here is appropriate technology - a sensible choice of things that meet the precise needs of my particular situation. This is not always the fashionable and accepted raft of kit. To date I use pen and paper (a little), fixed and mobile phones, a digital camera, voice recorder, laptop and headset.

That's right - no fax, no PDA or Blackberry-like device. The fax has no place in my set of tools because it's extremely insecure and limited compared to email - and moreover, involves paper which I try to limit my use of. And PDAs don't give me sufficient functionality. The Blackberry in particular is mainly peculiar to North America, an email-dominated continent with virtually no text-messaging traffic, whereas the rest of the world is text and mobile phone dominated.

My laptop and the other devices I carry constitute my place of work - all of it. I don't have one fixed office. I have a series of offices (over eight at the last count, providing a wide variety of power, phone, mobile and internet connections) where I camp out for a few hours (or days) before I move to the next location. Add to this the hotels, airport and lounges I often work in, and it is clear there is no way a fixed PC could service all my needs.

As for applications, they are very specific to my operation. Email, text, instant messaging, Skype/VoIP, Wi-Fi, plus all the normal office, image, movie and sound editing suites are essentials for me to be self-sustaining on the road. Given that I must be able to get online everywhere I go, I have five ISPs across the planet providing me a number off access modes including Wi-Fi, wired LAN and fixed and mobile phone lines.

As a result of the appropriate application of technology, changing work practices and a continual honing of protocols, I have seen my productivity go up tenfold every ten years. I would need a book to lay out all the tricks of my trade. All I can do here is answer the the original question - how I manage my work and travel schedule.

First, my time-saving techniques:

  • Always insist on electronic documents - never accept paper copies unless you really have to. If you are on the move paper almost never catches up with you. Reduce the amount of filing cabinets to less than one and don't waste time filing and cataloguing.

  • Use a text précis program (there is one inside Microsoft Word, for example). Reading a 20 per cent compressed version of a document can give you around 80 per cent of the detail, which is usually good enough.

  • Choose technology you can maintain and support yourself - corporate IT and security departments are a complete blight on productivity.

  • Employ a really good assistant or assistants and train them well. Continually verse them in your business and make them capable of providing their own tech support. It is essential they become a net contributor to the overall productivity of the operation.

  • Negotiate protocols that slim down email, text messages and instant messages. For instance, assume that "please" and "thank you" are implicit so don't type them several times in one message.

  • Use your computer's Find function to obviate the need to search at length through folders.

  • Back up all your data regularly to hard drives but never delete the files - just buy a bigger drive.
  • Initiate as few messages, emails and phone calls as possible. Annotate other people's with comments in the tersest style you can. This saves on typing time.

  • Continuously look for new technologies and techniques to further improve the way you work. Experiment, use what works and abandon what does not.

  • And now a golden rule: use technology to help create more quality time with people, and never let it get between you and that human connection.

So, what about travel? You could waste your entire life flying, driving and riding trains - or you could use the time for work. Here are some of the things I do to stay productive on the road:

  • Never drive a car unless you have to. Working in the front or rear passenger seat is a far more effective use of that time.

  • If you do have to drive make sure you have a hands-free phone and dictation unit if you want to work on document drafts, capture ideas and thoughts, and of course, make calls.

  • A train or plane can be a creativity haven when you have a laptop with a big battery or power adapter. Write, email, graph, edit multimedia content - whatever. This really is prime thinking time.

  • Never check a bag into the aircraft hold. If you cannot carry it in two hands, don't take it with you or FedEx it to your destination. I sometimes do the latter with extra clothing and shoes on long trips. The time saved at check-in and upon arrival is extremely valuable.

  • Only eat 50 per cent of the food available, don't drink alcohol and sleep when you really need to.

  • Take time to relax by listening to music, reading a book or watching a movie.

  • Get up and move around the cabin on long flights.

  • Hotel bedrooms are excellent places for deep thought and work. You are isolated, warm, fed and connected - ideal!

  • Create a schedule that minimises the distance between meetings.

  • Flying anywhere is expensive in money and time - don't go anywhere for one visit or one meeting if you can arrange a series on the same ticket.

Finally, on the home front, try to arrive home with all your work completed. It is always better to arrive an hour late with all your work done than an hour early with work to do. And be sure to give your life some balance by making time to spend with family and friends - such as doing wild things like skateboarding, kite flying and climbing with the kids.

First draft written during a few quiet moments at The Grange in Collington, Somerset, where I had taken the family for a very relaxed six-day vacation over Christmas. Additions and changes made during a stopover in Woodstock, UK just before the New Year. The full text was finally dispatched to silicon.com via my home LAN on my first real day back at work after a very relaxed vacation.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.