Casually perusing mobile e-mail can be a great way to take advantage of otherwise idle time, so long as you don't let it derail your overall system for managing the bulk of your email inbox.
I generally try to touch each incoming message only once, if I can help it. So when I peruse email on my phone, I steer clear of messages that look like they might require some kind of protracted response--unless, of course, it's urgent.
Instead of bogging myself down in tapping out replies, I first skim the inbox in search of things I can just delete. Once I've whittled down the list a little, I seek out quick status updates that I can immediately archive. After that, depending on how much time I've got, I'll look for things I can handle with only a few words of response. I don't need the frustration of getting halfway through tapping out an incoherent reply to a colleague only to have to stop and hand my ticket to a TSA agent and then come back to the email later with only a vague memory of what I'd intended to say. It's far better, and more productive I think, to wait until I'm in a position to respond appropriately and give the message my full attention.
Unless your laptop has a built-in mobile broadband card or you carry a USB dongle, you'll probably spend much of your travel time searching for public Wi-Fi. While 3G and 4G data plans can seem pricey on face value, the almost-always-available connection is well forth $80 a month for a frequent traveler. For occasional travelers, however, it can be a tough call.
I've resisted buying into a dedicated data plan for years, but finally broke down and settled for a reasonable compromise: a 3G hotspot plan. For $25 a month, I can use my phone as a 3G hotspot when I need it (which turns out to be about three times a month, on average). In those rare moments when I use the service, it's well worth the minor expense to ensure that I can stay in touch and productive.
If you're prepared for the road with good offline tools that sync files from your main hard drive and a reliable strategy for connecting when you need to, you should have very little actual downtime as you flit from place to place. But should you find yourself with a few minutes to spare, use it to get on top of one of the most common mobile productivity breakdowns: receipts.
I can't tell you how many road warriors I know who are utterly inept at receipt management. I'm not being mean here; it's just a factual observation that they're not on top of it. To test whether you fall into this category, look into your travel bag halfway through a trip and see how quickly you can account for the receipts you've accumulated. If you're like most people, you'll be lucky to find all your receipts in one place. A lot of folks will find a crumpled wad of indistinguishable paper strips.
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