Tips to Help You Survive Your Long Commute

By Robert Half on November 5, 2019 at 7:30am

Every workday, millions of people with a long commute ahead of them feel stressed before they ever get to the office — and they can pay a steep price for a drive or ride that leaves them feeling strained.

According to new research from Robert Half, 50% of the 2,800 workers surveyed said traveling to and from the office is stressful. In addition, professionals said they spend an average of 48 minutes commuting each day, and nearly one in five respondents said their travel time exceeds an hour.

Katie Acosta, a director in marketing communications who works for a technology company in the San Francisco Bay Area, has what is considered an extreme commute — defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as taking more than 90 minutes to travel to work, each way. Acosta drives two hours to and from her office, for a total of four hours a day, five days a week. 

Acosta says it’s tough, but the career opportunities, salary and overall job satisfaction are the reasons she’s willing to take on an extreme commute each day. “The best job opportunities happen to be in Silicon Valley, where my job is, but I prefer living in a more peaceful area and don’t want to give that up,” says Acosta. “I don’t mind the commute because I’m still at home with my family every night and morning. I also love the fact that I can separate work life and home life.”

Ed McNamara deals with a challenging commute on the opposite coast. McNamara, director of communications and marketing at SHI International in New Jersey, has been driving his current 35-mile commute to work for 12 years. Most days, it takes 60-75 minutes to get there, and 45 minutes to get home. However, on bad days the commute can be as much as 90 minutes each way. 

Over the years though, he’s learned to make the best of it.

“I don’t get angry or surprised anymore,” says McNamara. “There is no sense. I love both my job and where I live, so I am okay with the choices I have made. I completely understand that driving 70 miles every day in a densely populated area is going to come with challenges.”  

If you face a long commute every day, here are seven tips to help turn your daily pain into something closer to contentment.

1. Leave 15 minutes earlier

Let’s say your commute takes an hour. If you spend nearly all of those 60 minutes worried you’re going to be late, you’re going to be exhausted before you walk into the office. Why? Because you’ve just put your body through a stress-induced wringer. Your heart rate goes up, your breathing gets quicker and shallower, and you might even start sweating. It’s kind of like a workout, except it doesn’t improve your health — or your mood.

It can be hard to master the habit of leaving 15 minutes early rather than at the last possible second if, like many, you’ve been operating that way for quite some time. If that’s the case for you, consider heading out sooner as a trial for a week. And when you arrive at work, take a minute to notice how your mind and body feel compared to the days you race the entire way. It may just be the motivation you need to change old patterns.

2. Don’t turn your long commute into a drag race

You think you’ll get to work faster if you constantly change lanes and speed past your fellow drivers. But how much time do you really save in the end — and at what cost?

If you do the math, you might be surprised. You’ll probably find you’ve significantly increased the wear and tear on your car — and frayed your nerves — just to get to work only a few minutes quicker.

“When I am in stop-and-go traffic, I get in the left lane and stay there no matter what. That way I only have one side of the car to worry about,” McNamara says. “It’s much less stress, compounded over hundreds of commutes.”

3. Be strategic

McNamara says he used to take a toll road to work and a non-toll state highway home, saving $250 a year. Eventually, he decided the $250 he was saving was not worth the extra 10 minutes spent away from his family every day, and he started taking the faster but more expensive route. 

Also pay attention to which days have the heaviest traffic on your route and plan accordingly: “If I want a long weekend, I take Monday off whenever possible because Fridays are the best days to commute along my route,” says McNamara.  

Acosta agrees that the best commuting day is at the end of the week: “Fridays are a breeze! Thursday nights are the worst,” she says. It’s worth considering the best and worst commute days when planning days off or after-work gatherings, or if you have an opportunity to work from home. 

Here’s another tip for long commutes: McNamara also schedules appropriate internal business calls during his commute to help optimize his time in the office. 

Plus, he found a way to eliminate one rush-hour commute a day. “I go to the gym almost every day after work and it saves me almost three whole days in the car over the course of a year — and I feel better,” says McNamara.

If your company has a fitness center, take advantage of it. Or mitigate your long commute by joining a sports team near your office, such as a recreational softball, soccer or basketball league. “It’s more fun than sitting in a car, and you might form some great friendships along the way,” McNamara adds. 

4. Tailor your environment

You can’t control other drivers, but you can control what happens inside your car. For some, blasting rock or rap music makes traffic more bearable. Maybe for you, it’s Mozart, waves crashing on a beach or the silence to entertain your own thoughts.

“Listening to podcasts is what helps get me through the commute,” Acosta says. She also uses the time to catch up on calls to friends and family.

McNamara uses his commute to check in with family as well: “Twice a week, I call my parents on the way home and talk with my retired dad about what he saw on the news that day. It’s like having my own interactive podcast in my car, and he loves it,” he says.

McNamara adds that if he could go back in time, he would have started learning a foreign language while in the car. “The 15,000+ hours spent on the road would have made me fluent in something besides the potholes along my route,” he says. 

5. Pack snacks

An afternoon traffic jam is that much more infuriating if you’re starving or parched. Some commuters keep protein bars or bottles of water in their trunk or desk drawer so they can fetch a quick pick-me-up before plopping down in the driver’s seat. Others make a ritual out of stopping for a latte and a snack. In short, don’t drive hangry.

6. Leave your car at home (if you can)

If public transportation is an option for you, give it a shot — even if it means spending a little more time and cash upfront. The benefits can be substantial. 

Like many Bay Area firms, Acosta’s company offers a commuting bus that she can catch about 15 minutes away from her home. She tries to take it once or twice a week, although it doesn’t always align with her scheduled meetings. “The bus doesn’t always give me the flexibility I need, but I love taking it when I can so I catch up on email and other work items during the commute,” she says.

Besides reducing anxiety levels, you also free up your hands and mind for more productive activities. You can plan your day, read over that report or, like Acosta, get ahead on work emails. Alternatively, you can just sit back and take some deep breaths.

7. Minimize screen-staring

Most of us spend much of the day in front of a screen. If you commute by public transit, you may be tempted to spend that time texting friends, checking social media, reading news online, watching cat videos … whatever. In other words, even more screen time, which can contribute to mental fatigue. 

Instead of always defaulting to your phone, arm yourself with non-digital media — a book, a magazine or even an old-fashioned crossword puzzle.

Again, music and podcasts are good because they don’t require you to stare at a screen.

If you keep arriving at your job feeling frazzled, try to think more deeply about your mental and physical responses to your commute — in other words, learn how to practice mindfulness — and how you might alter them for the sake of your sanity.

Feeling tense at work too? Read our tips on how to help reduce your workplace stress.

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