How to Prevent Jet Lag

I’ve never had jet lag.

But this protector deity does.

That’s not totally true. My first time in Ireland I was a bit lagged, but compared to my then-wife it was nothing. I opted to be our driver for the first day, while she hung deliriously to consciousness in the passenger seat. Eventually we took a nap in a pasture by an abandoned church, where I found a black ritual candle. But I digress.

I have my own approach to dealing with jet lag, and that is to just never get jet-lagged in the first place.

It’s not some super power I have, it’s just the way I approach it. Think of how jet lag works: you fly six, maybe twelve hours across the world, and the time zone is completely different. Maybe your internal clock says it’s almost midnight and it’s time to go to bed, but in the world around you it’s 8 a.m. Your sleep schedule and the real world no longer line up.

If you think of sleep in terms of debt, jet lag is the waiter giving you the check while you’re still eating. There are two ways most people deal with this.

  1. Pay it now. Sure, maybe it is only 8 a.m., but you’re damn tired. You get to your hotel, throw off your smelly plane clothes, and fall into bed with abandon. But you haven’t fixed anything. You’ll wake up around dinner time, be up all night, and same again tomorrow.
  2. Invoice me. It’s 8 a.m. and you’re in a new county. Who’s sleeping? Tired as you may be, you push yourself to go onward. Brunch at a cafe… walk through a museum… fancy dinner… out to a bar… it goes on. This can get you on the same schedule as the world around you, but only through force of will. You’re half-dead and don’t fully experience your destination. When you do go to bed, you’re likely to oversleep.

Both of these are reactive solutions. I prefer to be proactive. I ask for the bill ahead of time and pay up-front. In layman’s terms, I stay up all night.

Technically, “all night” may be overkill. The night before leaving for Thailand, I got a grand total of 1.5 hours of sleep. This was intentional, and comprised both staying up late and getting up early. I let myself have the 90 minute nap (around 3 a.m.) because literally staying up the whole night is just unpleasant.

This left me enough mental faculty to get to the airport with all of my things and board the correct flight. (I got a ride from a friend, so I wasn’t a danger on the road.) But once I was on the plane, I had no trouble drifting off to sleep. In fact, almost nothing could have stopped me.

My trip comprised four separate flights. The longest was 13 hours from Chicago to Tokyo. I would wake up when the stewards came by with meals, eat groggily, and go back to sleep. I passed on coffee. What would have been nearly 30 hours of hell time for most people seemed, to me, more like 4 hours of eating and napping.

View from my plane window on the approach to Chiang Mai.

By the final flight, I was fully rested and wide awake. I arrived at Chiang Mai, feeling like I just had a night’s sleep, at breakfast time. How convenient.

I should put some caveats on this. For starters, last minute sleep deprivation and last minute packing do not mix well. I’ve gotten better about planning over the years, which has allowed me to pace myself on stressful “to do” items before departure.

Also, I got my math a little wrong this time around. My first night in Chiang Mai I went to bed around 9, so I was off by a couple hours. But being off by 2 hours is definitely better than the full 13 hour time difference between Central Time and Indochina Time.

Of course, not everyone likes staying up all night, so this solution isn’t for everyone—but sucking up the jet lag is basically the same thing as staying up all night, except it ruins the first day of your trip. I’d rather ruin packing day.


16 thoughts on “How to Prevent Jet Lag

  1. Option 3: Sleeping pills. I slept for the majority of 2 1/2 days on a series of flights from rural Western Australia to Washington DC. I had a cold so thought it would help me heal, and it did! I was better by the time I arrived in DC.

    • I’m always wary of taking something that puts me to sleep, especially in public like on a plane. But in your case I can see why you chose to do so. Way to fast forward through the cold!

  2. I think these are great tips. Even though I honestly doubt I’d ever need them. I’m more than happy exploring my neck of the woods and all its diversity in One Big Nation, than travel before I’ve gotten to experience my own home the best I can. Heck, I’ve had a friend who worked in Nunavut this past summer, and brought back a souvenir for me, all while being in the same country.

      • Nunavut is a territory north of Ontario, which has a lot of differences in culture and environment, but are both within Canada. Canada is the second biggest nation in the world and I was trying to say that I have yet to even get to know my own nation as best as I can and feel that should be something to experience first before going to other nations. Thus far I only know Ontario, and a bit of Quebec (which many consider visiting another nation as it is so different in most every way, except for climate unless you go past the tree line) Most people honeymoon within the nation as there is something new to experience but only have gotten the opportunity then – not to mention not needing a passport. Most Canadians I know don’t have one, even if they travel a lot. The next time I travel, it is going to be to British Columbia to visit family, ski on the mountains, camp on the pacific coast, sit in the hot springs (can you visit any of those in Thailand?), and hopefully whale watch, possibly even be able to all that within one day. Things I’ve never done before but can do within my own nation. That is just how I feel about traveling.

        I hope you are having a great time in Thailand, get a lot of stories to share with us, and get a few skills along the way. Many blessings to you as well, Far Walker.

        • Ah, thanks Rua, I think I misunderstood. For some reason I thought you meant never going outside of your region. Yes, Canada is huge & diverse like China or the US. You could spend a lifetime exploring that nation.

          Not sure about hot springs…. now I’m going to have to google it up!

  3. Sounds like the same techniques a lot of people use for shift work. I know that when I stopped working overnights, I stayed up the day after my last shift so that I could force my body into the transition.

    The downside of sleeping on the plane is that many people don’t find that sleep to be as restful, if they are unable to truly relax in a public area. Not a problem I’ve ever had, but I’ve heard it said.

    • You’re definitely right about the restfulness. My airplane sleep was not super restful, but then, I had maybe 20 hours of it to make up for 8 hours of normal sleep. I suppose it depends on the itinerary.

  4. This is mostly what I do, with a tweak. I set my clock to my destination time several days before departure. This way my mind begins to think in my new local time. “wow, I’m up late!” “holy moly, I slept late!”

    I find this mental shift places part of myself in my new rhythm, making the transition smoother. I also do whatever necessary to sleep on the plane, even if that means skipping the “free” meals!

    • Ahh, clever clever. I like your system Traci. I had a lot of last-minute goodbye type obligations in Milwaukee, so it would have been hard in my case, but is probably easier than pulling an all-nighter.

  5. Great post Drew. I’m kind of obsessed with my sleep habits and the rules I found is “there is no rule”. I do what I want. I like getting up early and having a nap so I usually do that even if it means sleeping less than 6 hours during the night and having 1 or 2 naps.
    When I travel I try to set myself in polyphasic mode. I get more naps and short times of sleep this way I can transform a nap time into a night time when I get to the destination. I use the Pzizz Energizer app on my iphone. It’s magic and get me to sleep in 5 minutes even in a plane. Definitely of great help to take control of my sleep. I would like to try one of those system with a probe that analyze your brainwaves and wake you up at “the perfect time”.
    Thanks again for your tips!

  6. Having recently returned from a trip to South Africa, I am intimately acquainted with jet lag. Interestingly enough, it was much better on the way OVER than the way back. I slept on the plane – using a light sleeping aid (the same stuff that is in Advil PM but without the Advil) and did just what you did waking groggily for food. We left Atlanta Georgia about 8pm on Friday night and arrived in Durban Kwazulu-Natal South Africa (with a brief stop in Johannesburg) at 8pm on Saturday. So we just lost a day.

    We were pretty awake when we arrived because our body clocks though it was earlier. On top of that, we had the adrenaline keeping us going. We took the sleep aid that first night, too, to try to get sleep during *their* night hours and it worked – we acclimated pretty quickly. There were only two things that threw me off – it is summer in South Africa (I am a very seasonally motivated person) and the sun rises at 4:45am. I am also somewhat phototropic – I tend to get up when the sun gets up but in Atlanta that is usually around the reasonable hour of 7am.

    Anyway, we adjusted very well to Durban time but the real challenge came readjusting to Atlanta time. We got home at 5:30am Sunday morning and we were wide awake. We went home, relaxed, and went to a local bar to watch our favorite sporting team. The game was over around 4pm and I was absolutely exhausted. And, I had to go back to work the next day. I was so over tired by 6pm that I couldn’t stay up – but then I woke up at 1am! It took me almost a week to get back to normal.

    But you know what – I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It was completely worth it.

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