Coping with jetlag: evidence over intuition

"Christopher Barnes, Business Faculty in Paccar Hall"

Christopher Barnes


It’s an unfortunate inevitability for the modern business traveler.

But Christopher Barnes, an associate professor of management at the Foster School of Business, has some learned advice.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review blog, the eminent scholar on sleep and fatigue offers strategies—based on empirical evidence, not intuition—for coping with jetlag and mitigating its negative effects on performance during a business trip.

“It may be tempting to assume that you can tough your way through jetlag,” Barnes writes. “However, this belies the powerful physiological mechanisms at play.”

He’s referring to your circadian clock that regulates sleep. This internal cycle can adjust naturally about one hour per day. But cross any more time zones and your circadian rhythm becomes mismatched with your schedule of activities. “In other words, you will have a hard time sleeping when you want to sleep and a hard time staying awake when you want to be awake,” Barnes says. “The greater the time change, the greater the mismatch.”

The trick is to counteract the effects of mismatched time on your ability to perform your job effectively.

Drawing from his own and others’ research, Barnes offers several strategies to cope with jetlag. Among them:

  • Partially and gradually pre-adjust your sleep and waking schedule to your destination time zone in the days prior to travel.
  • Arrive one or two days early, if possible, to give your body time to adjust to the new time zone.
  • Help your body adjust to the new time zone by staying active and exposing yourself to sunlight when you need to be awake or suppressing blue light (from digital devices) when you need to be sleepy.
  • Try to schedule your most important meetings during times you would be most alert in your home time zone.
  • And, if all else fails, apply caffeine as a short-term solution.

To read the Barnes’ complete HBR blog post, click here.