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How to Avoid Jet Lag

Inspired by some recent conversations and a post by Dave Shea, I’m going to share with you my Sooper-Dooper No-Patent-Pending DIY Anti-Jet-Lag Technique.  I used it in my trips to and from the UK, Japan, and Australia this past year, and I didn’t have jet lag going either direction for any one of those trips.  The technique is so simple, you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it first.  Unless you did, in which case you can feel all smug.

Here it is: after getting your usual amount of nightly sleep, wake up at your normal time in the target time zone.

All right, maybe it doesn’t sound simple.  What I mean is, figure out what time the day starts at your destination.  Then modify your sleep schedule to synchronize with it before you get there.  So if you always get up at sunrise, arrange things so you sleep your usual time and wake up at the same time the sun is rising at your destination.

I’ll use my trip to Australia for Web Essentials as an example.  Going there, I flew across America to Los Angeles and then had nine hours before my flight across the Pacific.  The United flight from LAX left at 11:15pm, and arrived in Sydney at approximately 7:00am Sydney time.  Perfect: that’s about when I get up anyway.  I need about six hours of sleep in a night, and the flight was 13.5 hours long.  So I kept myself awake for the first half of the flight, and slept for the second.  When we landed Tuesday, I was all ready to go.  Sure, I was tired, but I was completely synched up with Sydney’s time zone. 

Coming back was tougher, because we departed Sydney at 1:30pm and landed in Los Angeles at 11:15am the same day.  Still, I knew what I had to do: wake up around 7:30am Los Angeles time (give or take an hour; I’m not overly picky about the time I wake up).  So I slept only an hour or two the night before leaving, in order to intentionally shorten my waking time during the flight.  Part way through the flight, I went to sleep, and woke up a few hours before landing.  While I was exhausted all that day, I was in step with LA’s time zone.

As I say, I did the same going to and from Japan, and when I went over to London.  Synching to the UK was actually pretty simple, because going there was a seven-hour direct flight that landed at 7:00am.  I just made sure to sleep for as much of the flight as possible.  The return flight was a special case, as it left in the late morning and landed in the early afternoon, Cleveland time.  So I just kept myself awake until my usual bed time, and got a full night’s sleep.  Ta-daaa!  No jet lag.

It is no shame to support this technique with medication; I do it myself, in fact.  Tylenol PM works well for me, as does Ambien.  I do not, however, medicate myself into wakefulness upon arrival.  No melatonin, which never has any effect on me anyway; and no caffeine, which I basically never consume in any form.

If you use this approach, odds are that you’ll be pretty tired on the day you arrive.  Just keep going until whatever time you’d normally go to sleep, and then sleep until your normal wake time (or maybe an hour or two later, if you’re feeling indulgent).  The next day, you’ll be back up to speed and still in synch with the local time.

Admittedly, this does require some forethought and planning, but it works for me every time.

13 Responses»

    • #1
    • Comment
    • Sun 29 Jan 2006
    • 1115
    Anon wrote in to say...

    The problem with this approach for me is that I hardly ever sleep on planes — I’ve done it once, and I fly overseas fairly frequently. Medication makes me groggy for ~24 hours, which is no good when I’m navigating multiple flight changes, which I usually am.

    Fortunately, I’m still young, so my method is to stay up for 24-30 hours and go to bed at my normal time in the new time zone.

    • #2
    • Comment
    • Sun 29 Jan 2006
    • 1327
    Richard Grevers wrote in to say...

    Same here – I’ve never been able to sleep on a plane – plus I have this strange effect of not being able to sleep well the night before travelling. Not that I’ve had much chance to practice anti-jetlag methods:-)
    However, having kids seems to greatly enhance the ability to nap, so maybe there is hope.

    • #3
    • Comment
    • Sun 29 Jan 2006
    • 1410
    Adam wrote in to say...

    On a trip from the U.S. to France this past summer I did essentially the same thing. My flight left the U.S. around 9 PM and was due into Paris around 11 AM the following morning, local time. So I stayed awake the first hour or two of the flight, just long enough to eat the cardboard dinner, then got some sleep (or at least attempted to) until sunrise. The only problem was a little 2-year-old charging up and down the aisle all night long and talking quite loudly to her mother. Oh well. After I arrived, I forced myself to stay awake until 9 PM, at which time I promptly crashed and slept until a normal waking time the next morning. After that, I had no feelings of jet lag whatsoever. Forcing yourself to stay awake can be the hardest part — it’s easier if you go out to eat or wander the streets of your new location. Sitting around the hotel room is just asking to fall asleep.

    • #4
    • Comment
    • Sun 29 Jan 2006
    • 1454
    Adam Schilling wrote in to say...

    I run my own studio, and with some insane deadlines looming I’ve been trialling a new sleep technique with quite a bit of success. I sleep twice a day, for 3 hours at a time – usually once in the morning, and once in the late afternoon. I’ve found this leaves me lucid and able to work solidly for the other 18 hours of the day.

    I’ve found I can be flexible with the naps, and still be okay. So, its probably a technique I’ll try next time I fly overseas.

    PS. Yes, I’m still looking forward to getting back to my normal routine. ;-)

    • #5
    • Comment
    • Sun 29 Jan 2006
    • 1847
    FatBusinessman wrote in to say...

    …you don’t drink coffee? :-O

    • #6
    • Comment
    • Sun 29 Jan 2006
    • 2001
    sally reidy wrote in to say...

    Well, I lived out of the US for 27 years, and frequently traveled back to the US and other places. The normal commute was between 3 and 26 hours depending on where I was going. My rule of thumb was to adjust to the time at my destination, regardless of where I had been. Wherever I landed, I woke up and went to sleep when people at the destination did that. I was usually out of it for the first day, but OK the next day.

    • #7
    • Comment
    • Mon 30 Jan 2006
    • 0606
    Jeremy Cherfas wrote in to say...

    Why no melatonin? Only because, as you say, it has no effect on you? I do mostly as you say, aiming to be awake at normal waking time at my destination and to sleep at a normal hour. But I boost that with a 3mg melatonin about half an hour before bedtime for about three days, especially flying east. I can’t say for certain that it is the melatonin that helps, but when I don’t take it I don’t sleep as well.

    (I really need someone to replace my melatonin pills with a placebo without telling. On second thoughts, no I don’t. What if it really does work for me?)

    • #8
    • Comment
    • Mon 30 Jan 2006
    • 1150
    Eric Meyer wrote in to say...

    Those who forcibly stay awake upon arriving are doing basically the same thing, except doing it after arriving instead of beforehand or on the flight over. It can work just as well if you’re young or used to long periods of waking.

    Jeremy: as I said, I don’t take melatonin because it doesn’t work for me. I was also implicitly making the point that the synchronization can happen even for someone who doesn’t spur himself awake upon arriving with chemicals, so for those who use them, the benefits could be even greater.

    FatBusinessman: I don’t drink coffee, and never have. The only form of caffeine I can consume without wanting to forcibly vomit in disgust is certain kinds of tea (most especially chai, which I love). I very rarely drink tea.

    • #9
    • Comment
    • Tue 31 Jan 2006
    • 1905
    billg wrote in to say...

    When I was flying DC/NYC to Heathrow at my employer’s expense, I was driven by laziness and a desire for comfort into discovering pretty much the same thing. The best cure for jet lag is sleep. If you can grab a free day after your arrival, you’ll have time to adjust.

    Most of my colleages booked the early evening east coast flights to London. They’d sleep on the flight, arrive the morning of a new UK day and be good to go. Fine for them. I can’t sleep on airplanes, though. So, I booked morning flights the day before everyone else flew out, taking a vacation day the next day. I’d arrive, check in, and go do something. When I became sleepy, I’d return to the hotel, and sleep until I woke up. The next day — a free day — I’d play tourist or visit friends. I’d go to sleep when I felt like it, with the alarm set to meet my colleagues who were flying in. Admittedly, that night’s sleep was usually a bit abbreviated, but dealing with 4 hours of sleep is a lot easier that dealing with the more widespread weirdness of jet lag.

    Sleeping is as important as eating. Pay attention to what your body is tellig you.

    • #10
    • Comment
    • Mon 6 Feb 2006
    • 1241
    pat hayes wrote in to say...

    There’s a book called ‘how to beat jet lag’ which basically agrees with you but adds some extra technique, which Ive found very helpful. First, for caffeineheads like me, swear off caffeine for a few days before the trip as much as possible (if you must, drink it in the middle of the day only).Then on setting off, just before bedtime in the target zone, drink a big strong shot of caffeine, like 2 espressos (no joke) and then immediately put yourself to “bed”, with eyeshades and earplugs and a teddy bear if necessary, and pretend to sleep. It doesnt matter so much if you really do sleep or not, more that you go though the, er, motions. Keep still and dark, don’t talk or read or eat. Then at target wake-up time, get up promptly and bustle about, chat to people, walk up and down, etc.., but no more caffeine that day, and (important) absolutely NO cat-naps, no matter how awful you feel. A few seconds of mid-day sleep will wreck the whole thing. I know it sounds crazy, but it works. Apparently the caffeine shot helps to wipe your internal clock’s memory and all the rest is just re-training it, which takes about 24 full hours on the new schedule. I will guess that for no-caffeiners, a shot of chai tea might do the trick. Ive used this many times on transatlantic red-eyes and it works, even when there are screaming kids and drunks in the plane and the seats are like rocks.

    There is more in the book about eating right, involving protein for breakfast and carbohydrates for dinner when travelling eastwards and the reverse when tavelling west, or something, but that is all too complicated for me. The full program was originally worked out by the USAF.

    • #11
    • Comment
    • Mon 6 Feb 2006
    • 1728
    Nico Edtinger wrote in to say...

    I normally sync at the destination. Sleeping in the plane doesn’t really work for me and on a 12h flight I won’t get more than 2h sleep.

    If possible I try to keep awake as long as possible to get to sleep between 22:00 and 24:00. If that doesn’t work, because I’m already up for too long I take two sleeps, one in the afternoon and the other one at night, both around 3h to 5h so I get my ~8h sleeps in sum. This way I only lose some hours on one afternoon. Being fit after it in the new timezone makes it worth the lose.

    • #12
    • Comment
    • Mon 13 Feb 2006
    • 1034
    Michael C. wrote in to say...

    I’ve heard it told that exposing yourself to some sun at your destination will help get your body back in-sync.

    • #13
    • Comment
    • Mon 17 Jul 2006
    • 2156
    Laura wrote in to say...

    I am leaving for Spain from JFK new york on July 24 on a 11:10 pm flight. I arrive at 12:35 pm the next day. What should I do to prevent jet lag? I hear to set my clock to my destination time for about this whole week and live according to that time. Or do I just wait until the flight and try to sleep the whole flight? I am very confused!! Please write me an email at lauraEconte@gmail.com Thank you so much for your time.

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