The average one-way commute in America is 26.1 minutes. Over five days that adds up to 4.35 hours. And if you have an “extreme commute,” defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as lasting 90 minutes or more each way, that’s 15 hours or more on the road (or bus or train) a week.
The upside: That’s valuable time to use to your advantage, whether it’s to catch up on work, grow professionally, or allow yourself some me time. Try one of these creative tips for a productive, happy commute.
1. Learn Something New
Need to keep your eyes on the road? Seek out audiobooks or podcasts relevant to your profession. “When I was starting a new role at work, it required some different skills so I listened to audiobooks about topics like leadership and agile methodology,” says Juliya Margolin, a director of product development at Prudential, who commutes by car from Brooklyn to company headquarters in Newark—typically at least an hour-long trip.
Ask co-workers or mentors for recommendations, and embrace absorbing knowledge on varied platforms. “Audio is a great way to diversify how I consume information,” Margolin says. “Most of the time I’m reading on a computer. Listening is a way to immerse myself in a subject in a different, enriching way.” Margolin also makes progress on the novels her book club is reading by listening to them during her commute.
2. Get a Jump Start on Your Day
When she’s commuting to Newark via train, Lizzie Tucker takes out her laptop and dives into work before she even sets foot in the office. “Having been a consultant, I got comfortable with learning to work anywhere I could set up. I’ll get caught up with emails, or may work on a PowerPoint presentation, or anything that I need to be doing,” says Tucker, who is Vice-President, Head of Early Talent Acquisition at Prudential. “It sets me up well for the day.”
3. Flex Your Travel Hours
Instead of attempting to muscle through New York City’s peak rush-hour traffic from 7:30-8:30 AM, Margolin leaves her home in Brooklyn around 8:30—and makes it to work in less time, and with far less aggravation. Despite her later start, she still gets in at a respectable 9:30 AM.
“My team is focused on getting things done and less about face time,” Margolin says. “Some days I do have to come in for 8:30 or 9 AM meetings, so of course I’m flexible when needed and use judgment as to what meetings are crucial.”
At the end of the day, Margolin uses the same strategy, leaving a little later, after 6 PM, to avoid the 4:30 to 6 PM traffic crunch. She uses that time productively too: “I go to the gym on site at work and get in my workout before heading home.”
4. Connect With Friends and Family
Commuting is a great time to touch base with the people who matter to you most, with a real, live hands-free conversation. “I catch up with my friends or my parents on the commute, using a Bluetooth headset,” Margolin says. Sometimes she makes quick stops during her 50-minute drive to see relatives who live on her route home. Maintaining those connections pays off in a big way: Studies suggest that having strong relationships can translate to better health, less stress, and better performance at work.
5. Mix It Up
Tucker drives to work some days, while on others she chooses to hop a subway to a connecting train. “The change of scenery keeps my daily commute from becoming stale,” she says. Plug in your address in your maps app for alternative routes, via car or transit, that don't tag on too much extra time, and hey, might even get you home faster.
6. Change Your Mindset
Tucker sees the positive in commuting: “I take it as time to zone out and listen to music and reflect on the day,” she says. Margolin describes her commute as “almost zen; it’s time to be with myself,” she says. “Driving in New York is challenging. That is also what makes it a great exercise on meditating, and learning how to be more at peace.”