As the world eyes return to offices, the prospect of returning to a daily commute has many workers dreading the change. The average commuter spends 36 hours (about one and a half days) a year on the road—more than 100 hours (about four days) in New York and Chicago.
While people often think of the daily commute as a waste of time, it does not have to be. With a bit of planning, your commute time can benefit your mental health and job performance.
Make your commute productive and beneficial using these 10 tips.
1. Get a good night's sleep.
According to the Sleep Foundation, "sleep affects nearly every system in the body," and "the rejuvenation provided by sleep is vital for our cardiovascular and immune systems, as well as our ability to think clearly, learn new information, and manage our emotions."
A good night's sleep will make it easier for you to make your commute a value-add to your day instead of something to endure. But good sleep is harder to come by. Prialto's 2021 Executive Productivity Report found that just 44 percent of executives get the recommended 6-9 hours of sleep, down from 71 percent in 2019.
2. Eat a nutritious breakfast.
Whether at home or on the go, a healthy breakfast boosts cognitive functioning and memory and improves your ability to focus. What is healthy? Avoid refined carbohydrates and sweets. Lean protein and healthy fat provide sustained energy without sugar and carbs' crash.
3. Catch up on your inboxes.
If you take public transportation and have good internet access, commuting to and from work are ideal times to look through your inboxes—email, text, chat --and respond to messages. In fact, time blocking email correspondence at the beginning and end of each day can help you avoid the constant distraction of checking emails throughout the day. If you can set expectations with your team that you will respond first thing in the morning or at the end of the day, you can save yourself a lot of time in between.
4. Listen to podcasts.
Podcasts were born for commuters. Audio conversations between experts that you can listen to while doing something else (driving, riding the train) can help you learn new things—work-related or not. To raise your work game, listen to a productivity podcast—one of the most popular is the Tim Ferris show, with more than 700 million downloads. The author of "The 4-Hour Work Week" teaches you to get more done in less time.
5. Read books or listen to audiobooks
Longer form books and audiobooks are also a fantastic way to make your commute time more productive. You can read a physical or e-book on the train or bus or listen to books while driving.
Depending on your interest, you can read business books like "Good to Great," the latest thriller, or a cookbook. At the very least, you are constructively using the commute time—even better if it helps you reduce stress before work or decompress on the way home.
Meditation during your commute is a little controversial as most people meditate with their eyes closed, which is fine if you are taking public transportation but not while driving. The meditation app Calm has an entire section of meditations designed for commuters—drivers and passengers.
Meditation helps get you out of reacting to what is happening (cut off in traffic, someone manspreading next to you on the bus) and getting annoyed. Instead, you breathe and stay in the present moment, noticing what happens without judgment.
You can also use your commute time to catch up with friends, colleagues, former colleagues, and other contacts you want to maintain. Many of our connections unraveled during the pandemic and shutdowns.
Calling people (hands-free if you are driving, of course) to check in even if you leave a voice mail can restore those connections and strengthen ties. Studies have shown that hearing a voice provides a much greater sense of connection than reading the text of an instant message or email.
8. Prepare for the day or the next day.
Making audio or written to-do lists can help you start the day focused and productive. How often do you get to your desk, start reading emails, and find that two hours go by without much to show for it? The Ivy Lee productivity method recommends making a list of the six most important things to do each afternoon at the end of the day so you can start your day focused on what matters most.
9. Get some exercise.
Long commutes correlate with a host of health problems, including weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and strokes—in large part because you do not have time to exercise.
You can change that by getting off public transportation a stop or two before your destination and walking the rest of the way. You can do the same with a car. Park farther from the office to provide some walking time.
10. Get organized the night before your commute.
All these ideas are great if you implement them. But if you wake up late or get distracted in the morning and then, suddenly, it is time to leave, and most of these plans will go out the window.
Make your to-do list, pack your breakfast and/or lunch, make sure your podcasts, books, phone numbers of people you want to call are all ready to go and easy to access.
Staying Productive While You Commute
Prialto's 2021 Executive Productivity Report also found that 79 percent of executives want to go back to the office. A commute is not a dealbreaker for many business leaders. In fact, "better work-life balance" was one of the reasons respondents gave for wanting to return to office-based work. The separation of home and office life is preferable to many executives—working at home full-time blurs between personal and professional time and can contribute to burnout. And while commute time can be productive, it does not have to be.
There will be times in your commute when you want to zone out to music, catch up on the news, or forget about work for a while. The point is that your trips to and from work do not have to be a "waste" of time. Your commute can be time well spent, even if it means emptying your mind to release stress.