During the pandemic, millions of people were able to trade in their long commutes for a short walk to their laptops. Now that companies are welcoming remote employees back to the office, the thought of facing rush-hour traffic or mass-transit crowds can leave workers mentally and physically drained before they even leave the house.

Why? As more people return to the office, commute times are ticking back up. According to INREX, a Seattle-based research firm, the average commute has increased from pandemic lows to more than 50 minutes each day. 

If you think traveling 4+ hours a week is an inconvenience, consider employees who have doubled down to take on an extreme commute – defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as traveling 90 minutes or more one-way to work– to gain better work-life balance. Those who choose extreme commutes say it’s tough, but it’s a trade-off they’re willing to make in return for access to better career opportunities, higher salaries and overall job satisfaction. A longer commute also allows them to enjoy a lower cost of living and better quality of life farther away from the urban areas where they work.

Want your employer to cover gas costs for commuting? See these tips. 

Seasoned extreme commuters accept that traveling many miles a day in a densely populated area is going to come with an ever-changing set of challenges. They have learned to make the best of it and focus their energy on doing a job they enjoy. But whether a long commute is by necessity or choice, it can still add stress that negatively affects your physical and mental well-being.

Read about workplace wellness trends to help employees improve their mental and physical health.

If you’re re-joining rush hour every day, a few days a week or are completely new to the daily grind, here are some tips to help re-imagine your long commute and turn it into something closer to contentment.

1. Leave 15 minutes earlier

Spending your entire commute worried about whether you’re going to be late will leave you exhausted before you even walk into the office. Why? Because you’ve just put your body through a stress-induced workout that doesn’t improve your health or mood.

Get in the habit of leaving 15 minutes earlier than usual and you’ll arrive at work in a better frame of mind. Gather up everything you need to take with you the night before to avoid last-minute hold-ups. If you’re not a clock-watcher, set a timer to remind you to get moving. And when you arrive at work, take a minute to notice how your mind and body feel compared to days you race the entire way. It may just be the motivation you need to change old patterns.

2. Be strategic

Experiment with driving different routes and commuting at different days and times. Pay attention to when traffic is heaviest and plan your route accordingly. If you have the option to work a flexible remote or hybrid schedule plan your commute to the office for off-peak days and times. 

You can also reduce your commute time by avoiding rush hour altogether. Run errands, go to the gym or company fitness center or join a recreational sports team near your office after work. You’ll get some exercise and you might even make some new friends! 

3. Take control of your environment

From the location of cup holders to the temperature settings to the angle of your seat, adjusting the surroundings to your comfort level can help make the drive more enjoyable. It’s your car – blast rock or rap music or listen to Mozart if makes traffic more bearable.

Instead of cursing the other drivers, you can also use this time to check in with friends and family (hands-free), listen to a podcast or even learn a foreign language. Or schedule appropriate business calls during his commute to help optimize your time in the office.

4. Pack snacks

Don’t drive hangry! An afternoon traffic jam is that much more frustrating if you’re starving or parched. Keep protein bars or bottles of water in their trunk or your desk drawer at work and fetch a quick pick-me-up before plopping down in the driver’s seat.

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

In some areas walking, biking or public transportation can get you there faster and with less stress than sitting in city traffic. If any combination of these is an option for you, give it a shot – even if it means spending a little more time and cash upfront. Many companies encourage employees to take public transportation and even offer incentives to help commuters offset the costs.

Besides reducing anxiety levels, public transportation can help free up your hands and mind for more productive activities. You can plan your day, read over that report or work through emails. Alternatively, you can just sit back and take some deep breaths.

Keep in mind that taking mass transit typically adds more walking to your day which benefits you physically and mentally. And if you’re counting, you can get up to 30% more steps than car commuters.

6. Minimize screen-staring

Most of us already spend a good part of our day in front of a screen. If you commute by public transit, try giving the screen a rest. Work other areas of your brain and reduce fatigue with non-digital media like a book, magazine, or even an old-school crossword puzzle. Or just listen – take in a podcast, music or relaxing sounds to clear your mind.

7. Keep a regular schedule

Constantly changing up your commute to accommodate a flexible work schedule can be hard on your mental and physical health. Keep a regular schedule to help make the adjustment easier. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on days when you don’t commute, and try going into the office on the same days each week until you find the least stressful schedule for you.

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