How to Revamp Your Commute So It Doesn't Suck
It's no secret that how you begin your day can create a domino effect that impacts how you take on the rest of it. If you're unlucky enough to get it started with an awful commute, the fall of that domino can feel even faster.
According to the U.S Census Bureau, the average American spends 26 minutes commuting—and 17 percent of the population has a commute that lasts longer than 45 minutes. Simply put, the daily schlep, be it in the car, on a bike, train or foot, can easily feel like an exasperating, uncomfortable waste of time.
But according to time management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours, minutes spent on the move can also be prime time to multi-task and organize your busy life. "If you can turn your commute into personal time, what feels like 'me' time, you can make it so much better," says Vanderkam.
Here, 6 tips to help you find the silver lining that might just take the snooze button out of your morning routine.
1. Reframe Your Time Spent Commuting
First thing's first, Vanderkam recommends tracking how long it takes you from door-to-door to help put your commute in context of the bigger picture. "If you commute 40 minutes on average each way, that sounds like a lot, but it's less than seven hours total of your week, and a week has 168 hours." In other words, shift your perspective to think about how much free time you do still have left, rather than focusing on the time lost.
If you find you're always frazzled during your commute, try this easy trick: "I like to set my clocks forward by five minutes at least so that I am early," says Amanda Kloots, fitness expert and creator of the Rope class. "I find that when I'm commuting and notice that I'm going to be late I instantly get stressed out and start looking for other things to blame when I know it's my fault," she says. Consciously making a point to give yourself a few extra minutes can make all the difference in starting your day on a stress-free note.
2. Turn Your Commute Into a Workout
If you do have a hellishly long commute, try splitting your travel up if possible to gain time exercising that you may not normally be able to squeeze into your schedule. "Maybe you can bike to a train station a few miles away on nice days, and then head to work on the train, versus driving the whole trip," says Vanderkam. Or, if you're only going a few miles, try running to work instead of taking the crowded subway. (See: How and Why I Run Commute to Work.)
If you commute by car (according to the U.S Census Bureau, over three-quarters of Americans choose this mode of transportation), then you may feel like the above advice doesn't apply to you. But as it turns out, that time you probably spend staring out the window daydreaming about the weekend could also be spent squeezing in an efficient seated workout, says Lisa Corsello, creator of Burn, who spends two hours every day wading through notoriously awful Bay area traffic.
"My hips and my lower back get really tight if I'm in traffic, because of all the starting and breaking and starting and breaking. But there's this technique I learned from my massage therapist where you squeeze your thighs together—these little contractions really working your muscles and firing your adductors." To try it, draw your knees and thighs together while keeping your heels apart and then squeeze, she says.
3. Find a Reason to Be Excited to Wake Up— Every Day
"Think about kids on Christmas morning. They're not hitting snooze! That level of excitement might be hard to match, but there's probably something that would make you really happy about getting up," says Vanderkam. Meditation, a 20-minute walk, journaling, splurging on your favorite coffee; any of these things create a motivation to get you out the door in an upbeat mood. It's all about finding what's right for you.
Even developing a simple morning self-care ritual can help. Equinox cycling instructor and meditation teacher Lindsey Gaterman drinks a glass of water and writes in her gratitude journal as part of her morning routine. "If you wake up and it's raining, your gratitude list doesn't have to be a long drawn out list of things. Appreciating the fact that you have a job, that you have a car, that you are healthy enough to walk; these things can make all the difference," she says.
4. Use the Time to Strengthen Your Brain
While your daily commute is a great time to just mentally unwind or plan your grocery list, if you spend your whole commute scrolling through Instagram, it may feel like lost time. That's why Vanderkam recommends being intentional about your commute—plan out what podcasts or audiobooks (you can rent from your local library or try companies like Audible) you plan to listen to so your commute suddenly becomes intentionally spent "you" time.
"I listen to Dan Harris' podcast every week, 10% Happier, because it lets me simultaneously learn as a teacher but also feel fulfilled because it's something that I love," says Gaterman. You could also learn a new language with apps like Duolingo, or download an audiobook from Audible that relates to your career. To make each week feel new and exciting, you can even set themes—"for example, one week listening to lectures on religions you don't personally belong to, all the plays of Shakespeare, or all of Beethoven's Symphonies. Call it 'car schooling' rather than commuting," says Vanderkam.
5. Find Your Zen
A walking commute is a great chance to clear your mind and connect with your surroundings, says Gaterman. "Headspace and other meditation apps have walking meditations where you basically just take in your surroundings. Sometimes when I find myself lost in my head and not even realizing I've walked a mile, I'll turn that on. It's just a voice in my head that guides me back to the present moment," she shares. (Related: The Best Meditation Apps for Beginners)
Turning off your phone completely may be your best bet to finding inner calm. "If you're biking or walking, there's really no need to listen to something, because you're in the world, with all the experiences of sights and sounds and sensations which you don't get in your car," says Vanderkam. (Related: I Tried Forest Bathing In Central Park)
6. Network Your Way In
"If you can combine your drive with someone else, you can have some social time, save on gas, and the non-driving party could do some work, too," Vanderkam says. Getting your day started with a little conversation with the right person, can likely stimulate your brain to be more functional and awake throughout the day, plus it could have career perks. "I had a manager once who drove me home most days—I tried to keep her entertained, and she mentored me. It was great," says Vanderkam.
Taking the time to catch up with friends or family over the phone could also be a fun use of your time while allowing you to fully touch base with that friend you keep forgetting to text back.
But Wait, What About Working from Home?
"Work to live, don't live to work," or so the saying goes. "If you truly have a long commute, you might want to negotiate to work from home one day a week. My suggestion is to ask for Wednesday. Your boss might suspect that asking for Friday is about leaving work early, but no one leaves early for the weekend on Wednesday. And if you do have a horrible commute, by working from home on Wednesday, you never have to do the commute more than twice in a row!" Vanderkam suggests.
Bottom line: Taking time for your mental health should be a priority, suggests Gaterman. "It's important to focus on what you want to do in the moment versus what you should be doing in the moment. If it's going to make you feel good to work on the way in, then do it, but if it's going to cause you more anxiety and stress because you're always trying to get ahead of the rat race, then pull back," she advises.