How to make your commute count

Animated illustration for blog post on making your commute count
Animated illustration by Gabrielle Matte

For many of us, commuting is our only discretionary time of day. In between work and home responsibilities, this margin can feel like an obstacle or an opportunity, depending on how we spend it. When you use your commute to generate energy, creativity, and delight, it can help you be more effective and satisfied in every other dimension of your life and work.

Before leaving home

A solid morning routine helps you become proactive instead of reactive. And it can set the tone for the rest of your day—starting with your commute. Try this before leaving home:

• Fill your cup
Wake up your body by stretching, meditating, doing yoga, going for a run, or fueling up with a breakfast of champions. For extra credit, you could even bike or run to work.

• Express yourself
Wake up your creativity with an activity that delights you. Write, paint, play an instrument, sing, or dance. By expressing yourself, just for the fun of it, you will become more receptive to new ideas and possibilities.

• Tend your family
Delight in your family by sharing unhurried time at the start of the day. Discuss intentions with your partner, play with your kids, pet the cat, eat a hearty breakfast together. Notice and appreciate how your work helps you provide for your family.

Don’t think you have time for anything more than grabbing a shower, a bagel, and your briefcase as you run out the door? Try setting the alarm five minutes earlier, then use that time for one new practice: meditation, maybe. Once you are doing this regularly, you could start stacking habits. Add five more minutes—to make a kale smoothie or write morning pages. And so on. Even a small investment in your well-being can help fill your tanks for the rest of the day.

Behind the wheel

With 76 percent of people driving alone to work according to the US Bureau of the Census, most of us have a wedge of solitude to leverage during our commute. Here are some ways to make good use of this white space—without compromising safety.

• Tune in without tuning out
As we hurtle through space strapped into our personal sound studios, we can listen to music, podcasts, and audio books to help us learn, get inspired, or train to be karaoke superstars—all of which energize us for the day ahead.

• Keep in touch
Use your hands-free option to catch up with family and friends by phone, make after-work plans, and schedule family appointments. Handling what matters to you personally while in transit can clear your mind for what matters to you professionally when you arrive at work.

• Speak it out loud
The car may be the only place where you can speak without being heard. Whether you need to blow off steam with some uncensored commentary, rehearse a presentation, or talk yourself down from some virtual ledge, the car gives you the privacy to say it out loud. You might even consider talking to yourself in the second or third person (“You have the chops to make a great pitch, Bob!” or “Bob is the smartest guy in this car!”), a strategy proven by research to boost confidence and performance.

• Practice mindfulness
Stillness is built into driving. And so is awareness. You can amplify both with mindfulness practice: by noticing your breath, your thoughts, your body, your dashboard, the scenery. Focusing your attention in this way helps quiet the din of distraction. So you have greater access to you.

• Get ready, get set…
Your commute can also help you get emotionally and logistically ready for your day. Whether you’re strategizing about negotiating a raise or capturing a to-do list on voice recorder, you can use driving time to visualize, intend, plan, and affirm your capacity to go get it.

• Keep it fresh
Driving itself can be a creative practice that keeps your mind stimulated. You can challenge yourself to find different routes to work that are more scenic, speedy, or direct (or that bring you to the best drive-through lattes). Or you could engage your mind by practicing math equations, recounting geological facts, or memorizing poems.

Traveling as a passenger

If you’re traveling by public transportation or carpool, you have some additional options for making your commute count. Without your eyes on the road and the hands on the wheel, you could:

• Connect with others
Are you an extrovert who refuels in conversation? Enjoy the company of the people you’re traveling with and arrive at work primed for more engagement.

• Settle in to yourself
Prefer anonymity? Public transportation is great for that. You could meditate, nap, look out the window, and space out. Headphones have the double benefit of allowing you to listen to something meaningful while communicating to others that you’re not available for conversation.

• Engage in your world
Reading newspapers, journals and blogs can keep you current about your industry, interests, and the world at large. By getting informed about issues that may impact your work and inspired about what’s possible, you can begin your day with a global perspective.

• Get ahead
The white noise of public transit can also be ideal for getting a head start on work. Some people are mobilized by handling the most difficult task first; others prefer clearing their inbox. While in transit, take on whatever gives you the greatest feeling of accomplishment, then let this momentum energize your day.

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Heading home

The ride home from work is a great time to reflect on your day, digest your discoveries, celebrate your accomplishments, and declare yourself complete. Here are some prompts to guide you in this inquiry.

• Did you meet your top three goals for the day?
• What didn’t get done, and what will you do about it?
• What went well?
• What could have gone better?
• Who and what did you enjoy?
• What are your top three goals for tomorrow?
• What are you looking forward to when you arrive home?
• What do you need to do to be fully present when you walk in the door?

You could write your answers in your planner, voice record them, discuss with your travel companion, or simply ruminate. Even if you do nothing more than shout “I’m finished working!” as you step out of the car and then do a victory lap around the driveway, you are signaling to your mind and body that your workday is a wrap and clearing the way for a replenishing evening at home.

Whether you’re getting a head start on a high-impact day or winding down from one, your commute gives you the space to reflect on where you’ve been and prepare for where you’re headed. Use this margin intentionally and creatively to cultivate the work and the life you want.

Sage Cohen is the author of Fierce on the Page, The Productive Writer, Writing the Life Poetic, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. As Chief Executive Storyteller of Sage Cohen Global since 1997, she develops communication, education, and empowerment solutions that help people and businesses change the conversation.

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