When I started this job at Fabric, my new daily commute was the biggest change: I’d spend a solid hour on public transport (bus to train to another train to a walk, thanks very much). With a four-month-old baby at home, every minute feels more valuable than ever before. I don’t want to waste precious travel time that I could otherwise spend with my daughter.
So I’ve made it my personal mission to make the most of my daily commute and maximize that travel time.
“This is a problem in so many people’s lives,” says Laura Vanderkam, time management expert and author of Off the Clock. “There are different approaches to take. Some people want to get work done during their commute. For other people it’s a way to get ‘me time’—a transition from office to home in the evening.”
Here are her best tips for making your commute work for you:
Vanderkam says, “Recognize that this is time and think about it intentionally.” She recommends setting a real appointment with yourself to think through your commute for the week, maybe on Friday as you’re winding down or on Sunday as you’re gearing up for the week ahead. Once you’re already driving a car or underground on a subway, you’re likelier to simply turn on the radio or scroll through social media, unless you’ve set yourself up for something grander.
“Most likely, you’ve got ten of these commutes in your week,” Vanderkam says. “So what are you going to do with those ten units of time? If you think ahead, you can take care of the logistics to help you reach your goals for that time.”
That might mean downloading audiobooks in advance, or deciding (and downloading) all those podcasts you’ve been meaning to listen to. If your goal is to answer emails from your phone or plan out a presentation while you’re on public transport, make sure you have the documents and supplies you need to make that happen.
Try reframing your daily commute not as time away from your beloved child, but as precious time to be by yourself. Busy working moms and working dads don’t often get the opportunity to focus on self-improvement and emotional wellbeing, so this is a chance to pause and focus inward.
First, you can use the time to learn something new. In addition to listening to audiobooks or podcasts, you might download college courses or TED Talks that you can listen to in the car or on the bus. “Edification takes various forms,” she says. “College courses, lectures. Listen to plays! What if you used your commute to go through the works of Shakespeare?”
Additionally, Vanderkam says, commuting is a great time to practice—whatever that might mean to you. “I often practice speeches in the car,” she says. You could practice a language you already know by listening to audiobooks or podcasts in that language, or by listening to language courses if you’re more of a beginner.
If you can close your eyes while on public transport, you might slip on headphones and try to meditate or take a nap (set your alarm so you don’t miss your stop!). And if you can’t, Vanderkam says, “you could concentrate your focus by creating a gratitude list.”
For example, in the face of extreme traffic, you might list out everything you’re grateful for in your professional life: I’m grateful for a earning salary to support my family, I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk with this colleague I think is awesome, I’m grateful for my Tuesday brown bag lunch with my three work friends every week, I’m grateful my commute is 40 minutes rather than an hour and a half.
“Commuting is actually a great time to pray,” she says, “or to practice some other spiritual discipline.”
“The thing that bedevils office workers is that everyone wants something from you once you come in, so you don’t get much uninterrupted time,” Vanderkam says. “If you have a train commute, then you could give yourself an assignment requiring focused work, get out your laptop, and draft that memo or outline that presentation.”
Similarly, you might load up your Kindle with documents you need to read or email yourself files that you need to review on your phone. If you have a driving commute, you might get creative and try downloading a read-aloud app that can read your emails or other files out loud while you keep your eyes on the road. The key is setting yourself up ahead of time.
Although it’s tempting to take care of phone calls while you drive, Vanderkam isn’t a fan: “Even if you’re using Bluetooth, the other person doesn’t know the road conditions you’re dealing with. If someone is physically in the car with you and a tense traffic situation arises, he or she will instinctively shut up and let you focus on the situation. If that same someone is on the phone, they might keep asking you questions while you’re dealing with a road snafu. Most people don’t have the mental ability to completely ignore what’s being said while there’s a developing road situation, so it becomes easy to drive badly.”
Most of us can focus better during a morning commute rather than on a return commute, Vanderkam says, because we’re tired in the evening: “You might want to be intentional about using the morning commute for productive tasks or things that tap your brain. Maybe you listen to Shakespeare or take that course on your way to work whereas you just jam out to music on your way home.”
“I know people who will take different trains so they can get a seat,” Vanderkam says. “Someone I interviewed once sussed out different routes and had a choice between a 25-minute train ride with no seat and a 40-minute train ride where he did get a seat. He could either completely lose 25 minutes or add 15 minutes to his daily commute but make it all worthwhile time, since he could pull out his laptop and work.” Think about your different options when it comes to routes, or even whether your job has the flexibility for you to commute earlier or later—maybe you leave an hour earlier to avoid traffic but sign in for an hour when you get home.
Try experimenting. “Maybe the 7:57 train is completely full,” she says, “but the 7:37 isn’t or the 8:15 isn’t, so maybe you plan to be on those instead.”
Have you ever considered carpooling, not daily, but just occasionally, with someone you’re trying to have a meeting with? “This could be a chance to get to know someone better,” she says. “For instance, maybe you’re mentoring a younger colleague, so that person is willing to work with your schedule. If that person lives anywhere near you, you could probably drive in together one day.” Maybe it’s not convenient to commute in with your spouse every day, but “if you share a ride to work together every two weeks, even if it’s a little out of your way,” that’s a chance to connect. “In young families, the biggest complaint is that the parents never have kids-free time to talk. Driving together is not the most romantic date, but it is one.”
As for me? I think I just might try to take the train to work with my husband next week.
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Allison Kade is the Editorial Director of Fabric. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg, Travel + Leisure, The Fiscal Times, Consumers Digest, Forbes and more. Follow her at @amkade.
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