Hate Your Commute? 5 Ways to Use It, Lose It or Enjoy It

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 1:18 PM EST

Few things are so universally despised as the commute. Americans spend, according to recent polls, about 50 minutes each work day getting to and from work. Happiness surveys (such as this one from Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahneman) find that these minutes are pretty much the low points of our lives.
But commuting can be enjoyable, or at least I found it so when I spent a year working at USA Today in Tyson's Corner, Virginia. I lived in the Friendship Heights neighborhood of Washington DC, and didn't own a car. The commute was easily an hour. That sounds brutal, but the slog forced me to figure out ways to use those hours for good (and not just for more work, though this is an option). You can too. Here's how:
  1. Read like a student. Many of us claim we have no time to read. If you commute, you do. I worked my way through the Modern Library's list of the best novels of the 20th century while on the 8:15AM express bus from Bethesda, MD to northern VA. If you're driving, order audio books with a purpose: all the works of Shakespeare, perhaps. Listen to a tragedy. Then listen to a commentary on it. Then listen to the play again until you understand the themes. No, Shakespeare has nothing to do with your job. But listening to something higher-brow will get your brain in the game more than radio shock jocks.
  2. Carpool with someone you like. My boss drove me from the office to the Bethesda Metro station in the evenings. She battled the traffic (and looked out for me at the office) and I kept her entertained. Years later, we're still exchanging emails about our lives. If you've got a co-worker who lives near you, perfect. Try sharing rides twice a week to get the right balance of chat time and solo time. Or commute with your spouse and turn this chore into a daily date. If you're a dual-income couple with young kids, this is probably the closest you'll come to date night anyway, so it's worth going several minutes in the wrong direction.
  3. Build in exercise. Many of the station escalators in DC look long enough to suggest an entrance to Dante's Inferno. I'd run up and down them, and score the equivalent of a Stairmaster work-out. When the weather was nice, I'd walk the three-quarters of a mile from the Tyson's Corner Bus Depot to the office rather than hop on the shuttle bus. Park in the back corner of the lot, hustle like you're late and voila: you've done your daily exercise without the hassle of the gym.
  4. Strategize, meditate or pray. We all need strategic thinking time, whether it's to ponder our careers or the larger questions of our lives. Rather than flip through the radio to see what's on, consciously use your commute to plot your next move or count your blessings. This takes a while to train your brain to enjoy the silence of your car and think constructively, rather than ruminate on what your boss meant in that last email, but studies show that people who meditate become calmer and happier than they were before. Wouldn't that be nice to say about your commute? Or, of course, you can do the ultimate productivity trick during your commute and....
  5. Nix it. Not five days a week, but how about once? If it's at all feasible for your job, work from home one day a week and make a deal with your boss. She gets the time from half your commute, and you get the other half. Everyone wins.
How do you use your commute?

Image courtesy of Flickr user, Honou

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