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How to enjoy your commute

Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life. Here, he talks about how to be a happier commuter

by Psychologies

THE PROJECT The average British person spends 54 minutes each weekday commuting – jammed into a crowded train or stuck in stop-start traffic. And we hate it. One study found that the average commuter would need a 40 per cent pay rise to be as satisfied with life as an equivalent non-commuter. Could we learn to love commuting? Maybe that’s asking too much. But hate it less? Yes.

THE AIM Two crucial psychological factors account for the misery of commuting. One is lack of control; squeezed into a sardine-tin train, or at the mercy of traffic, you’re trapped. The other is unpredictability; it’s infuriating not to know if you’ll be early or late, thanks to delays. So the key is to enhance your sense of control and predictability over something – namely, what you do during it.

THE THEORY The good news is that almost any proactive decision to do something productive will feel like seizing control of your time. You could read novels on the train, empty your email inbox or learn a new expertise via audiobooks. Trains and buses are also ideal for learning to meditate: close your eyes and focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen for a count of 10 breaths, returning to one if you lose track. Or try deliberately listening to every sound – leaky headphones included! – rather than trying to block them out. If you car-share, choose a specific topic of conversation (something brain-stretching, not office gossip) in advance.

NOW TRY IT OUT

  • Be an ‘active commuter’. Commuters are happiest, research shows, when there’s a point to their commute beyond getting to work. People who cycle know they’re getting exercise, people who work on the train know they’re crossing items off their to-do lists.
  • Make specific leisure plans. If you commute so you can live somewhere pleasant, make sure you consciously enjoy that place by making plans for weekends and evenings. It’s hard to feel good about all that travel if you never leave the house.
  • Keep an ‘anywhere tasks’ list. It’s far easier to be productive while travelling if you’ve made a list, in advance, of things you could actually do on the move. You can’t clear out your garage while commuting, but you might be able to read important work documents or make phonecalls. If you have to rack your brain for something to do, you’ll end up staring into space instead.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: Istock