Returning to work after maternity leave was not easy. I still shudder at the memory of carting around a breast-pump briefcase and spending my lunch breaks using it in the tiny, basement bathroom at my job. But surprisingly, motherhood greatly improved another aspect of my workday that I once dreaded: the commute.
Before I had a baby, the 45 minutes I spent each day traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan felt like a flagrant waste of time—time that could be better used doing things like sleeping in (mornings) or staying out (evenings). But after the kid came, those wasted minutes suddenly transformed into "kid-free bonus time." Nowhere else in the world could I be totally free of parental concerns except on that often very crowded F train—and yes, I’m including our apartment’s bathroom.
At first, I would just luxuriate in the opportunity to sit, or even stand when I didn’t score a seat on the subway, without anyone asking a thing of me. Gradually, as my kids grew older (and I became less exhausted), I began to use this auxiliary commute time in other ways, all of it feeling like gravy on the rails.
There are nearly 130 million commuters in the United States today. Although the average commute time hovers around 28 minutes, for many of us it’s significantly longer. Along with about a quarter of the nation’s commuters, I use public transportation; the other 75% of American commuters drive alone in their cars.
I polled a broad range of commuters all over the country who spend 30 minutes or more traveling each way to work for tips on using the time advantageously. There were, of course, respondents who detested their commutes, like one mother of two from Chicago who wrote "I commute on the CTA for 1.5 hours twice a day and mostly spend the time dreaming of killing people." I’m sending her the following list distilled from my most helpful responses ASAP:
One of the first things to vanish from my life after becoming a mother was time to read the newspaper. Then one day I downloaded the New York Times app for my phone and everything changed. I was able, once again, to open my mouth at a dinner party and discuss something besides organic applesauce or how I’d lost feeling in my hands because of being so incredibly exhausted. Don’t despair if you have to both eyes on the road; in addition to the New York Times audio digest, Audible offers audio editions of a number of smarty-pants periodicals (including Fast Company!) to keep your brain safe from atrophy.
A young L.A. mom who spends, like all Angelenos, countless hours stuck in rush-hour traffic, relies on prepared activities to make her car time not just tolerable but enjoyable. One recent project: buffing up her karaoke repertoire. "Lately, I’ve been polishing my new karaoke song, ‘Smile’ by Lily Allen," she says. "I really hate not having a karaoke song, so it’s also a constructive use of my time."
Makes me almost wish I commuted by car. Plus, a Harvard study indicates that singers live longer. That makes for one productive commute!
I’ll be the first to admit that biking or jogging to work is not for everyone. I want to go all Amsterdam, but not only don’t I have the courage to face off with NYC drivers while on a bike, I also can’t imagine an entire day working amid the "glow" of a sweaty commute.
On the other hand, after a full day of work it’s nearly impossible for me to get to the gym. With two kids at home, there’s no room in my day for another activity that involves a change of venue and outfit. So I had to get creative, and these days I often get off the train about a mile or so before my stop and power walk the rest of the way to work. If you drive to work, try parking your car some distance away.
Put that voice recorder on your iPhone to work and get organized. One busy mom wrote, "I find myself constantly making plans on the fly. So, on my commute home I download my brain and dictate everything into my voice recorder. It’s like one more place to put things I’m likely to forget. Often, just talking it out will remind me of others things I’d wanted to keep track of. Then, when I have a chance at home I sit down with my calendar and organize everything for real."
Oh mighty podcast, what did we commuters do before you? Ted Talks, Bret Easton Ellis interviews, "Stuff You Missed in History Class"—all of it can turn a dull commute into a fascinating half hour of discovery. Check out Stitcher's top 100 podcasts if you're looking for something new.
If you still prefer the printed to spoken word, apps like InstaFetch and Instapaper will save anything you want from the web and then read it back to you with text-to-speech technology.
Who said that being productive always means being mentally active? Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is just to space out and think about nothing. Hey, if it’s good enough for Buddha...