Scott Hanselman

South Africa 2008 - Avoiding or Minimizing Jet Lag

January 02, 2009 Comment on this post [17] Posted in Africa
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We're back and we've got a little problem. Part of the family has jet lag and part doesn't. It doesn't matter who does or doesn't ;) but some of us have figured out a few basic tricks when crossing more than 4 time zones. They work for us, but YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

In this case, we were travelling from GMT-8 to GMT+2, so that's 10 time zones. Right now it's 9:05pm where I am, and it's 7:05am tomorrow morning in South Africa.

It's not really possible to completely AVOID Jet Lag. It is JET-lag, and not bicycle-lag or walking-to-fast-lag. The human body just wasn't meant to cross an ocean in a few hours. It's supposed to take a few months or not happen at all. ;)

Now, as a diabetic, I have to pay more attention to Time Zones than most travelers, but this is all pretty standard jet-lag stuff but a little attention to detail and being willing to mess with oneself psychologically can cut your jet-lag recovery time in half or better.

  • Ahead of Time: Try to work out lots, especially cardio, in the days before your trip. I'm not sure why this works, maybe circulation, maybe it makes you tired, but it helps.
  • Water: Drink ridiculous amounts of water. I try to do at least two liters a day while travelling and I keep drinking two liters a day when I'm recovering from the flight. (Really, just drink lots of water all the time)
  • Take Advantage of the Flight Time: Our total door-to-door travel time was just over 26 hours. That's 26 hours that you COULD be getting acclimated to the destination time. I move my watch, and consciously try to move my brain to the destination time as soon as I sit down in my chair. That means literally saying to yourself, "OK, it's 7am. What would I be doing at 7am?" and trying to do it. You might find yourself needing to walk briskly around the plane when everyone else is sleeping, but it's worth it. There's many travel hours that you can be using to get ready for destination time.
  • Don't sleep when the Clock says it's Day: Lots of folks say that "your body knows what it needs." I believe this is nonsense when travelling. I think that jet-lag is the one time when your body has NO idea what it needs. You need to override your body's ignorance with your brain. If you get in to Europe at 2pm and you are exhausted, really, wait until at least 8pm or preferably later to sleep, otherwise you're screwed. I've watched people wandering around at 2am, ready for dinner, because they've slept their "8" in the middle of the day on destination time.
  • Be aware of travel direction: I find that travelling West is really easy. Travelling East is the killer. An excellent explanation from Wikipedia:
  • There seems to be some evidence that traveling west to east is the more disruptive. This may be because most people have a circadian period which is a bit longer than 24 hours, making it easier to stay up later than to get up earlier.

    It may also be that flights to the east are more likely to require people to stay awake more than one full night in order to adjust to the local time zone. For example, comparing a typical schedule for a traveler flying to the East vs a traveler flying to the West:

    • Westward from London to Los Angeles, VIA BA0279, Jan 29, 2008. Time zone difference 8 hours.
    • Westward Biological clock Los Angeles local
      Departure JAN 29 - 10:05 JAN 29 - 02:05
      Arrival JAN 29 - 21:10 JAN 29 - 13:10
      Bedtime JAN 30 - 06:00 JAN 29 - 22:00
    • Eastward from Los Angeles to London, VIA BA0278, Jan 29, 2008.
    • Eastward Biological clock London local
      Departure JAN 29 - 15:59 JAN 29 - 23:59
      Arrival JAN 30 - 02:05 JAN 30 - 10:05
      Bedtime JAN 30 - 14:00 JAN 30 - 22:00

    The first scenario is equivalent to staying up all night and going to bed at 6am the next day — 9 hours later than usual. But the second scenario (eastward) is equivalent to staying up all night and going to bed at 2pm the next day — 12 hours after the time one would otherwise have gone to bed.

  • Use Daylight: This one is the most important. When you arrive, either home or away, be outside as long and as often as possible. We used this on the children. The more sun you get (don't get burned) the more your brain will be reminded that it's daytime and you should be awake. This works even if it's snowy or gray. Just get outside!

What works for you, Dear Reader, when trying to minimize jet-lag?

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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January 02, 2009 10:53
These are some good tips. I recently flew to Hong Kong and had absolutely no jet lag on the way there. Once I returned home I couldn't get onto a normal sleeping pattern for about a week or two. Since I work from home this only made the issue worse since it allowed me to sleep really whenever I want.

Next time I travel abroad I'll be sure to try this.

January 02, 2009 11:08
I do the moving the watch to the correct destination time as soon as i get on the plane and the getting lots of sun and trying not to sleep until it's dark too.

I still find it takes me a few days when i go from Australia to the US though and even after my sleep is semi normal it seems to take a whole week for my stomach to work on the right time zone!
January 02, 2009 12:57
Moving the watch as soon as I enter the plane and acting accordingly works very well for me, the fact that the environment inside the airplane doesn't have many time references anyway (except the light outside) helps. I thought this was my "little secret", first time I see other people doing the same tip...maybe it's a geek thing :)

Contrary to most people, another thing that helps me a lot is to get day flights, not overnight. I am a tall guy so I can't sleep much anyway (in a 12h flight I won't sleep more than 2h), so it's better for me to simply spend the whole flight reading and listening to stuff and sleep in a proper bed when I get there.

January 02, 2009 12:58

I would be very cautious about giving the advice 'drink ridiculous amounts of water' to a general audience. In England at least, dimwitted or naive people seem prone to killing themselves by following such advice - there was a very famous case involving a teenage girl about 15 years ago (she was following government guidance), and another one in the news a few months back where a women was on some kind of extreme diet.

'Don't get dehydrated, particularly when flying' is good advice though.

January 02, 2009 15:25
Thanks for sharing your SA experience with us - I've really enjoyed this series! I'm a fellow white geek married to a non-white South African and I've identified with much of what you've said: I'm glad to learn it's not just me who forgets what colour they are after a week of being the odd one out. :-)

Unlike you though, I don't think I'll ever stop giggling and feigning extreme excitement every time I see the warning "ROBOT AHEAD" painted on a road...
January 02, 2009 15:41
I haven't tried it, but apparently, partying and drinking "enough" alcool the day (night) before the trip helps. The body becomes in "hang over mode", you sleep your whole trip back, and you get just enough sleep to finish your day. The next night becomes a great night sleep.

Evidently, don't drink so much that you miss your flight, or can't board the plane! Don't drink on the plane either. Don't try this on kids or if you have kids with you.

Also, this trick isn't good for pilots... :)
January 02, 2009 20:47
I find that timing my meals helps alot. If during travelling I can try to eat early or later than usual and adjust my eating patterns to match the normal meal times at my destination, then I get adjusted to the destination time zone much more quickly.

And I certainly agree that it is harder to go West to East, I always have a hard time adjusting to eastern time zones. Take a look at the win/loss record of West coast NFL football teams this year that have had to travel east and play early games versus the opposite.
January 02, 2009 20:52
I personally use sleeping aid, when I arrive and night arrives at my destination, I force the body to go to bed with a nice sleeping aid pill. I have always got insync with the destination the first day so far.
January 02, 2009 22:30
On long trips I find it very useful to breakup the journey by stopping at an intermediate location for a couple of days, at least in the Eastwardly direction, which I find harder than the reverse.

I live in the GMT(-8) zone, and if I stop on the US East Coast for a couple of days, I find it much easier than one would think to recover when I am in Europe. It seems that the 3 hours gained makes a big difference; I am able to get much more done the first day, and in better spirits too.

Of course this is not always possible, but there is always something interesting to see or do in either Boston, New York or Washington, so it isn't like I am wasting the time.

And I concur with other suggestions that it is very important to expose yourself to as much sunlight as possible the first day in your new location. And STAY UP.
January 03, 2009 2:10
Living abroad I often travel 9 hours east/west. I sleep as much as possible at the plane. When I arrive I do a night out drinking with friends same day. This has never failed getting me over my jetlag right away. You force yourself to stay a wake as long as possible by having fun and partying and the loud music at the bar doesn´t hurt either (use redbull in your drink if that helps). When you get back, sleep the hangover off (doesn´t matter if you sleep in - you would have anyway if it was a hangover).
January 04, 2009 14:21
I used the "time your sleep" trick with great success when traveling to and fro Australia (from Norway). Basically I adjusted my watch to Australian time as soon as I got on my flight to Bangkok (10 hours) and just kept acting as if I were in Melbourne for the rest of the flight (27 hours in total). Took me less than 24 hours on the ground to adjust. When I returned I was woken by a phone call from a recruting agency, so 12 hours after returning I was in a job interview! And yes, I got the job :)
January 05, 2009 5:24
My advice on getting over jetlag is very simple. Use the time on the plane and whatever "free time" you may have right before or after your flight to get adjusted to the new time zone. This has worked for me every time.

As an example, when we went to Paris on our honeymoon, we wanted to take advantage of every minute we had there. We knew we would arrive during the day and would want to stay up. So we stayed up all night the night before to do the packing, slept on the two flights there and were ready to sightsee the minute we got to Paris. We used a similar strategy when coming back.

Whenever we go to India, we know we will arrive in the middle of the night. So as much as possible on the last leg to India, I try to stay awake so that I will sleep as soon as I arrive in India.

Another two pieces of advice:
1. Stay busy during the day. The more active you are the less likely you are to fall asleep. If you arrive in a new time zone in the middle of the day, have some plans to do something active, not watch TV or something like that.
2. Jetlag exists, but don't think about it or let other people let you think about it too much. Get your mind off of it as much as possible. If people start a conversation about jetlag when you get to your new time zone, just say something like "I'm hoping to get over it quickly." and move on to another topic. This is a psychological thing but it has affected me.
January 06, 2009 4:52
I wonder what would happen if you travel from "East" to "West" crossing the Pacific. I guess it's pretty dramatic for the body, especially if you depart at night.
January 06, 2009 18:42
As a serious sufferer of SAD, i have found that light treatment works just as well to reset my bodyclock for jetlag as for my wintry borked circadian rhythms.
I have a light visor for SAD, and taking this travelling one winter was invaluable. Use it first thing in the morning at your destination to pull your bodyclock back (getting up earlier) or evening to help you stay awake later.
I too also use setting my watch to destination time as soon as i board the flight. Seems to help me adjust mentally.
January 08, 2009 0:10
I always have the worst time going eastward. Last year, going from the US to Romania, I had great success with this method:

I didn't sleep at all, from when I got up in the morning to go to the airport, until I'd arrived at my destination. I stayed awake on the plane over, reading (with a small book light) and listening to music. After a good night's sleep, I was in good shape.

In the past I'd sleep on the way over, and invariably I slept fitfully and not enough, and arrived exhausted. With my new method, I still arrive exhausted, but I fall right asleep, get a good sleep, and wake up well-adjusted to the time change.
January 08, 2009 21:11
I fly London-Australia once a year which is nine or ten hours difference depending on the time of year. I find the biggest thing is getting on the timezone as soon as you can when you get there. We usually end up getting into Brisbane before lunch and the hardest thing is staying awake until evening so I always arrange to do something really fun (usually catching up with friends I haven't seen all year) so I'm forced to stay awake. Usually I get pretty incoherant by the evening but I usually don't have too much trouble after that as long as I manage to stay up until around 8pm.

Sleeping in the day is the killer. The first time I went back I napped a bit every afternoon for the first week and it took me that long to get onto the right time. I find not being able to sleep at night is the worst.

My boyfriend also starts getting into the timezone as soon as he gets onto the plane. I'm tall so I'm always miserable from the time when my knees digging into the seat in front starts to get uncomfortable until I get off the plane so I just give myself a free pass to just do whatever I feel like on the plane. :)
January 12, 2009 19:34
Since your a diabetic this is probably not possible but there is the fasting method.

I haven't tried the fast, since I only fly from Boston to London, 4 scotches and a snooze is my treatment

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.