I travel too much and it’s getting on my nerves and I’m looking for a sensible way to cut it back.

I love getting face-to-face with people and I like seeing new places and of course every trip has lots of photo opportunities. But travel, particularly by air, particularly in the twenty-first century, is increasingly irritating and fatiguing; and I’m trying, in the second half of my life, to take better care of myself. So I want to do less. Since I’m an engineer, I’m looking for a quantitative approach.

Introducing the Work/Travel Ratio · I’m returning from a trip to the SDForum Ruby Conference, which was perfectly OK. The trip from Vancouver to the conference (or nearby hotel) is about four hours, including flying, airport bullshit, and the driving at each end. My speech was one hour. I got in a couple of decent conversations and a mildly-useful visit to Sun HQ but, realistically, the only part I had to be there for was my one-hour speech. So in this case the work/travel ratio was ⅛ or 0.125. That’s the first one I’ve calculated, and it looks pretty poor on the face of it.

Let’s consider my February trip to the BRM. It’s about 15 hours door-to-door to Geneva via Frankfurt. I put in a solid forty hours of in-meeting time, plus another half-dozen hours of useful schmoozing in the evenings. So that gives you 46/30, or for a W/T of 1.53; a whole lot better than this week’s trip.

Even better was last week; face-to-face planning meetings at Sun. Eight hours of travel and 22 hours of work, for a W/T of 2.75.

This is a pretty rough-and-ready measure. But you can’t solve a problem till you can measure it, and at the moment I have a travel problem.

On the face of it, I am tempted to resist any trip with a W/T that’s less than 1.0.

Other Factors · There are mitigating factors, obviously. The most obvious ones would be an interesting destination or a Really Important meeting.

If I start applying this rigorously, it means I probably won’t be doing any more trips across oceans, to Europe or Asia, just to give conference talks. Unless of course there’s a substantial amount of work that can be filled in around them.

Is this unreasonable? Suggestions from anyone on alternate metrics would be welcome.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Cowan (Apr 18 2008, at 23:52)

I think that just looking at the length of your talk, unless you simply fly in and fly out, underestimates the benefit (which is the real issue, not "work") of a conference trip. Attending other people's talks and engaging in corridor conversations should be counted on the benefit side too.


From: rick (Apr 19 2008, at 00:15)

I actually think more people need to do this (cut down on travel for a single meeting, etc). After all, we're developing a whole range of new communication and social technologies.. why aren't we using them more? Why aren't they the default vs the 'oh, Tim couldn't be here live' fallback?

I like the quantitative approach at least as a "should I go on this trip" filter? IN fact, that's how I'd use it - anything under a ratio of 2.0 should require some overriding justification... the Really Important Meeting, a speech at a conference for something or someone you strongly believe in and want to support, etc.

In fact... why not that filter for all travel - the "do I really need to do this" question seems reasonable even if there's a high amount of work happening... why does it need to be face to face?


From: Ed Murphy (Apr 19 2008, at 00:22)

That's a decent measure on the benefit side, but what about the cost side? Days away from your family, for example? Or the cost of not sleeping in your own bed?


From: ben (Apr 19 2008, at 00:56)

There has got to be a way to derive a "net benefit" metric, however rough... these trips have three obvious beneficiaries:

* You, WRT networking juice

* Sun, WRT PR

* Conference attendees and other colleagues, who get the benefit of your un-mediated expertise

In your shoes, I would be asking what the potential ROI (where the investment is your time and aggravation, and Sun's money) would be.

Of course, most of the benefit would be goodwill or insight (depending on the beneficiary) and as such is impossible to quantify with any degree of certainty.

However, looked at from the benefit angle, it becomes easier to look at these trips not just as itineraries and agendas, and rather as opportunities to engender ideas and sentiments that can't be brought about in any other way.

How much is THAT worth?


From: Dave Pawson (Apr 19 2008, at 01:32)

Wholly agree with the sentiment. Lots more 'green' reasons to decrease travel.

Video conferencing is ~ 80% satisfactory. Your ratios would go through the roof Tim :-)

<downside>How many conferences/meeting rooms support it</downside>

Good move on the sanity front though.


From: Alan Little (Apr 19 2008, at 01:50)

Interesting metric. I guess a lot depends on where the travel is to. I was in India on business two weeks ago - two and half days of travel for four and a half days of work is not bad.

Even some of the travel was interesting - long haul flight are maybe a bit more endurable than short haul, at least if you're flying business class. The airport-to-plane time ratio - another important metric - is more acceptable. Long haul business class is pretty comfortable, and I took the chance to catch up on movies - with a small kid at home I hardly ever go out to to see a film these days.

One of the airports was actually an Indian airforce base with a civil terminal in a shed at the edge of the base, so I got a close up look at the latest & bestest Migs and Sukhois - very pretty and impressive. And the flight back was over Afghanistan. Stunningly beautiful looking country, shame about pretty much everything that's happened there in the last generation.


From: David Parker (Apr 19 2008, at 02:08)

Really the question you are asking is: "Is it worth it?" A formula can not answer this question, because it is a subjective question, but it certainly can help you understand the problem. If you get a low number out, you take a step back and say "whoa, wait a minute" and look to see if there are any mitigating factors. For me I would add a fudge factor to the formula, because I like to travel, it would be "do I get to spend leisure time there?" which would add into the work time to increase the numerator.


From: Chris (Apr 19 2008, at 03:39)

I get the feeling that you quite like the conferences, even some of the overseas ones. Is there no opportunity to get work done on the flight? I would have thought a long stretch of uninterrupted time would be quite good for programming, assuming you had the power budget for your laptop. If so, wouldn't that alter your calculations?

To take the thought a bit further, do you have to give the same value to work time as to travel time? If you dislike travelling itself so much, maybe two hours of travelling might be worth one hour of work? Or vice-versa :-)

I concede that once we start building models we feel inordinately drawn to tweaking them, and that in the light of that observation the simplicity of your approach is all the more attractive. I always feel cautious, however, when people introduce the measurement-is-management meme, having seen dysfunctional behaviour result so often from people being set stupid targets as the result of management measuring efforts. Drunks, keys and lamp-posts, and all that.


From: IllegalCharacter (Apr 19 2008, at 08:20)

It's not at all unreasonable. Watch out for your health first and foremost.


From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Apr 19 2008, at 13:48)

I totally agree with watching out for your health, and of course decreasing travel time improves family time, but as long as we're calculating statistics:

"in the second half of my life"

is making a statistical assumption, isn't it? We can't know the midpoint until we know the endpoint -- and speaking as one of your fans I'd rather not know the endpoint right now.


From: Carolyn (Apr 19 2008, at 14:41)

Raise your price for travel, and travel less.

No metric - supply and demand.


From: Erik Engbrecht (Apr 19 2008, at 17:02)

Your missing the third factor - degradation of personal habits. I know when I travel I'm much less likely to go to the gym, sleep less, eat more and richer food, and most importantly have less contact with my wife.

Travel time is work. It may not be directly productive, but there a lot of things people in large corporations that aren't directly productive. Staying in a hotel is only a more comfortable version of sticking a cot in your office.


From: Sylvain Carle (Apr 19 2008, at 17:57)

But how do you factor in being able to do "other work" better while traveling? I know long flights between the east and west coast is such a great opportunity to empty my "answer sometime" email box...

Or taking some down time from "requests all around" and having some time to read and think... Or maybe you don't have these problems. Then, all the earlier comments about "don't do it" seems quite on the ball.


From: Mac Brown (Apr 19 2008, at 22:53)

John Cowan brings an important point: time is not an important measure in its own right -- it is only an analogue for contribution. There may be meetings for which another ratio is more important: the ratio of impact (either to other participants or to you) to time.


From: Phil Kast (Apr 19 2008, at 23:57)

That seems like a great metric for judging travel. Whitewater boaters make the same calculation. In that world, it's known as the shuttle-to-fun ratio.


From: len (Apr 20 2008, at 20:01)

Virtual worlds. Let your avatar do the walking. Services are cranking up to lease these if companies don't want to maintain them locally or in say Second Life.

Offtopic but interesting: the small room worlds will increase in the social networks such as Facebook. A small room is say 16 people. These are good for get togethers to share vids with friends, a bit of catching up, perhaps planning.

The mirror worlds are the big map worlds (Google Earth, MS Virtual Earth) and they are increasing in realism. The geography in the small (rooms) should be mapped to the mirror worlds. The market for the big map worlds and the market for the little room worlds are different markets, but they converge in ... addressing. Have we seen that before?


From: Eddie (Apr 21 2008, at 06:34)

Well Al Gore would certainly not be pleased burning up so much fossil fuel just to transport your body all over the fricken place.

Yet I hear a lot of people say, "oh, we can never replace face-to-face meetings" and "oh, we can never let people work at home" and "oh, it will never work" and "oh, some people can't work by themselves from home and need office discipline".

My response: adapt or die.


From: Doug K (Apr 21 2008, at 10:37)

Entirely reasonable, as a starting point. Obviously there is a fudge factor which will remain essentially incalculable. For example W may need a multiplicand, if the work time will be short but the perceived value extremely high: but there's no simple way to assign that value. Oh fudge.

I also add a 'family disruption' factor to the equation.

As Phil observed, we river canoeists have been making a similar calculation for years. It's always bothered me - for a muscle-powered sport, it takes a lot of gasoline.. so tend to default to multi-day trips.


From: Alan Green (Apr 26 2008, at 14:26)

W/T seems like a useful tool for judging whether to undertake a particular trip, but wouldn't you be better off with a metric that's more closely aligned to your goals of taking better care of yourself and traveling fewer times by air? For example, "I will only subject myself to the boarding process a maximum of X times per quarter", or "I will spend at least X months per year working within driving distance of home."

Knowing approximately how many trips you're asked to make each year, you now know the proportion of requests you'll need to turn down to stay in-budget. It also allows you to factor in travel for pleasure.


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