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Back to the office? Here’s how to get the most out of your commute

You can try a few of these techniques to freshen up your journey getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’

Back to the office? Here’s how to get the most out of your commute
[Photo: Bruno Henrique/Pexels]

Working from home has lots of benefits, and primary among them is avoiding the commute. The case against the commute has always been strong, but it’s only building with record-high gas prices and millions of people who have had a taste of life without the slog to and from work over the last couple years.

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In fact, according to a study by McKinsey, 29% of people say they’ll choose to leave their employer if they have to be in the office every day. The commute is one of the reasons for their resistance to returning. And while many businesses are implementing the option to work at home part of the time, for most people some commuting will continue to be a given—at least a few days a week.

The good news is there are some research-based recommendations to make your commute better. Essentially, your commute predicts your day, and the choices you make and the way you manage your commute can reduce strain and increase satisfaction.

The conditions that matter

The organization of your time

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Overall, more time commuting is linked with lower life satisfaction. This is according to a study by the University of Waterloo. In addition, a study by the University of Montreal found a link between commuting and burnout. People who spent more time commuting were more likely to feel emotionally drained, cynical and less effective in their jobs.

The biggest factor in commuting is the time it costs. When you commute more, you will tend to feel greater time poverty and experience disappointment that you’re spending time in transit rather than doing what you’d like—exercising, socializing or volunteering for example.

The implication is that you’ll want to be selective about the employer you choose. You may want to trade off higher compensation for less time commuting, knowing the payoff will be greater life satisfaction. And you will want to ensure your employer is earning the commute with great cultures and meaningful work—and with offices that nourish you rather than sapping you.

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The schedule you follow

Another fascinating finding related to your commuting schedule. A study by Dartmouth College found when your commute is more predictable, you tend to be less stressed and more effective and productive at work.

If you can, establish a consistent schedule in commuting. Plan to commute on certain days of the week or hours of the day. This may not be possible all the time, but more consistency is better and will contribute to your happiness and fulfillment.

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The route you choose

How you travel and where you go also matter to your positive experience. When you commute through more natural spaces, you’ll tend to have better mental health, according to a study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. Aim to commute through more green and blue areas—parks and areas that go past water. These will tend to be nourishing whether you’re walking, cycling, driving or on mass transit.

For your well-being, you can also avoid routes which take you through areas with a lot of fast food or grocery stores. People who commute past these tended to have higher BMI and reduced physical well-being, according to research by Arizona State University. And if your commute requires your proximity to these, pass them by.

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In addition, you can manage your perception of the time you spend commuting. Your experience of time is based on your attention. When you’re doing things which are novel or which affect you more emotionally—and therefore cause  you to be more conscious of the experience—time will seem to slow down, and when you’re doing things which are routine or redundant, it will tend to go faster.

If you want to make your commute recede and go by without feeling like it’s taking as much of your time, you can take the usual route. On the other hand, if you want to revel in the time and enjoy it more, you can switch it up on some days—shifting your route or making unexpected stops along the way. The takeaway message: You can control your experience of your commute by being intentional about how you get there.

The type of transportation

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You can also increase your constructive experience of a commute by making it more active. The University of Waterloo and the Dartmouth studies found that commutes which included more activity—walking or cycling to work, or even more steps to and from mass transit—had a positive impact on mental and physical health as well as productivity.

So ditch your car when you can, or invest in the electric bicycle. Even parking farther away—in order to get more steps—can be a boon for your positive experience.

Making the most of it

In addition to considering the conditions for your commute, you can also make the commute itself as meaningful as possible.

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  • Be reflective: During your commute, be mindful—being present and relaxing in the time you’re spending. The Dartmouth study found when people used their devices more frequently during their commutes, they were more stressed. Put down your device and just take in the experience. Listen to music or think through the day ahead of you, or reflect on the work you’ve just completed—use the time to slow down.
  • Be friendly: When we are commuting and in other public settings, we tend to assume people won’t want to talk to us, and we tend to assume the interaction won’t be very rewarding anyway. But according to research at the University of Chicago, the opposite is true. In fact, when people interact with strangers with small talk or quick connections, they tend to feel satisfied and report they were happy to have engaged. The University of British Columbia found even superficial interactions with people around us contribute to our happiness and sense of well-being. So, make eye contact, talk with others and seek to engage while you’re commuting.
  • Be productive: Another way to enhance your commute is by making it feel valuable in your day. Instead of framing it as the time when you can’t get anything done or time waiting for other things to happen, fill it with its own meaning. Listen to podcasts or books, spend the time talking on the phone with friends or learn a language during the time you’re commuting. If you’re feeling the strain of opportunity cost—all the things you could be doing instead of commuting—you’ll be more stressed, but if commuting becomes part of the time you invest in yourself or your relationships, your quality of life will increase overall.

Your commute may be a fact of life, and it may seem like it’s out of your control. But you can gain control—a sure way to feel less stress—by changing whether and how you commute and by being intentional about how you spend your time when you’re commuting.


Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works at Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.

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