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Salaried workers in commuting

This is a guest post by Sarah Landrum, a Penn State graduate, marketing specialist, and freelance writer. She is also the founder of Punched Clocks, a career and happiness blog. For more tips about growing your career and boosting your productivity, follow Sarah on social media and subscribe to her newsletter! You can find her tweeting daily @SarahLandrum.

Whether by car, subway, bus, or train, our daily commute is usually not our favorite part of the day. The average worker spends 25.4 minutes traveling to work, then turns around and does it again to return home. And if you happen to live in any of the cities known for their congested traffic, the time you spend on the road could be even longer.

Unfortunately, commuting can take a toll well beyond the daily frustration and stress it causes. A UK study spanning multiple countries revealed that, even when satisfied with their job, approximately 18.5% of employees consider leaving their current position due to a lengthy commute — and that number rises steeply to 25% for those who travel more than an hour one way.

One of the reasons employees tend to defect from jobs that require lengthy commute times is the realization that this transit time is killing their productivity. Let’s look at five ways your commute diminishes your effectiveness and four things you can do to make that time work for you.

  1. You’re Drained Before You Even Start the DayBusinessman with his head in his hands sitting in front of a desktop PC

Have you ever had one of those days where nothing seems to go right? The boss is on you about everything, the copier broke down while you were getting ready for an important presentation, and another client is threatening to jump ship. By the time you leave for the day, you’re exhausted and just glad to go home and put it all behind you.

A lengthy commute is much like having a bad day. Whether you’re trying to find a seat on the bus or you’re stuck in traffic agonizing over the hundreds of productive things you could be doing, any positive energy you possessed is slowly ebbing away and being replaced with feelings of irritation, stress, and frustration.

By the time you get to work, you’ve already experienced the equivalent of those bad days that send you reeling back to the tranquility of your peaceful abode. The difference is, your day is just starting and you have to do it all over again to get home.

  1. You May Be Working Fewer Hours

Studies have shown that long commutes contribute to fewer working hours in several ways. One of the main impacts is an increase in absenteeism. A study from VU University in the Netherlands showed that a longer commute raises absenteeism by about 16%. They also found that workers were more likely to arrive late and leave early, substantially decreasing their productivity.

They speculated that this may be due to the desire for more leisure time or the decline in health experienced by those with longer commutes. Another reason may simply be the opportunity to skip rush-hour traffic. But no matter the reason, decreased hours equal decreased output.

If you use public transportation, you may try to convince yourself you can work on the way, thereby adding extra hours to your day. While this may be true, there are a lot of variables in that equation, and banking on an absence of the distractions associated with public transportation may give you an exaggerated sense of that additional time.

  1. Your Health May Be Suffering

Back pain

As mentioned above, one of the proven effects of a long commute is an increase in health-related issues. A variety of studies continue to show how commuting adversely impacts your health, both physically and mentally.

For instance, according to the University School of Medicine in Saint Louis and the Cooper Institute in Dallas, if you drive more than 10 miles each way you run the risk of increased blood sugar levels. Even if you never develop diabetes, high blood sugar can wreak havoc on your energy and put a serious damper on your productivity.

Other adverse effects include higher cholesterol, heightened depression and anxiety, high blood pressure, and backaches. Health problems are a major factor in absenteeism and overall declines in productivity.

  1. Your Sleep Patterns May Be Affected

The global Regus Work-Life Balance Index for 2012 reported that a commute longer than 45 minutes per day creates issues with sleep quality, which can lead to exhaustion. According to Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, people who are sleep deprived have slower response times, and the longer they’re awake, the more their work production is hindered.

Prolonged sleep deprivation progressively reduces performance, which doubles at about the third week, so you may not even notice it at first. This could eventually contribute to increased mistakes and even injury.

  1. You May Experience a Lower Level of Life Satisfaction and Happiness

A report put out by the UK’s Office of National Statistics showed that any commute time has a direct effect on your levels of happiness and life satisfaction. If you have to take a bus to work and it takes 30 or more minutes to get there, you’re probably suffering from the lowest levels. Even for those who bike to work, the satisfaction level decreases as the commute time increases.

Another reason your commute may lower your happiness level is the stress it puts on your relationships. If your daily commute is over 45 minutes, your marriage is 40 percent more likely to end in divorce or separation.

According to a Healthways-Gallup Well-Being index study, there is a distinct correlation between employee happiness and performance. If you’re unhappy, you’re seven times more likely to miss work and experience a loss of productivity due to the phenomenon referred to as presenteeism — that is, being at work but not fully functioning.

These are just five reasons a long commute can kill your productivity. Obviously, the best way to ward off these production predators is to decrease your commute time. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option for most people, so it’s important to find ways to counteract the damage your transit time does and turn it into a constructive part of your day.

There are many available options, and thanks to technology, you can now access information anywhere. Think about all the things you’ve wanted to accomplish but never had the time to do. With everything accessible at the touch of a button, you can learn a language, catch up on the latest industry news, stay current on your favorite social issues, or just listen to soothing music. You can find unlimited topics and use these resources as a way to make your commute more productive.

Technology can also help you just relax and enjoy your time if that’s what’s needed. Being productive isn’t always about doing something. Sometimes it’s about maintaining your sanity, so you can be more productive when the situation calls for it.

  1. Tune into Podcasts

Podcasts are digital audio files you can download from the Internet directly to a computer or portable device like your phone or tablet. Podcasts provide up-to-date information on a variety of current issues. They’re presented in several formats, from a solo monologue to a more conversational multi-host presentation, an interview, or even a video option. They can be a short, five-minute daily newscast or a weekly exploration of educational, social, or political topics. They can even provide entertainment value in the form of comedy and pop culture.

Here are a few of the most popular podcasts that offer a wide variety of information:

The Productivity Show is a weekly podcast that teaches you tips, techniques, and habits for fighting procrastination, staying motivated, managing your email, inbox zero, eating that frog, and the Pomodoro Technique. They also share which productivity apps, tools, systems, and platforms experts (such as David Allen, Tim Ferriss, Merlin Mann, and others) use to stay productive and efficient. You’ll learn the best way to set goals and organize your todo list, calendar, and  files.

Stuff You Should Know is an invaluable source of how-stuff-works-type topics. From mass hysteria to freak shows and more serious topics like complex substances, this one has something for everyone. If you’ve ever wanted to know how something works, your daily travel can provide you with the time to find out.

Planet Money is an NPR podcast that offers information pertaining to money and the economy, presented by regular people to help you understand today’s global markets.

TED Talks is another diverse collection of information that covers pretty much everything. Whether you’re interested in increasing your business knowledge or taking the next step toward self-improvement, there’s probably a TED Talk just for you.

The Dave Ramsey Show is known for its cutting-edge personal finance advice. If you’re interested in learning to spend wisely and manage your budget, this is probably the one for you.

99% Invisible also offers a diverse assortment of information. An independent radio show that emphasizes architecture and design, they provide behind-the-scenes information on everything from interesting architecture to fish cannons.

Freakonomics Radio introduces guests from all walks of life and includes a selection of topics like politics, social issues, and economics. This series is hosted by Stephen J. Dunbar, who is known for his Freakonomics books.

The Joe Rogan Experience is for those times you just want to relax and be entertained. Hosted by comedian Joe Rogan, this podcast has the honor of being voted best comedy podcast of 2012.

  1. Listen to Audiobooks

Young woman enjoying audio

One thing that productive people can’t pass up is the chance to learn. Unfortunately, they don’t always have the time to sit down and read a book. Audiobooks help you take advantage of the trip to and from work by letting you tune in to an audio version of your favorite self-help guru, educational text, or work of fiction.

Using more than one of our five senses during the learning process has been shown to help us retain more of the information being presented. By listening to audio versions of a book you’ve already read, you can reinforce the information and recall much more of the content.

Unlike a paper book, you can use audiobooks anywhere and even set the pace of your learning. And if you’re not a reader, audiobooks can give you the opportunity to explore the world of literature on a completely different level.

Here are a few places you can get audiobooks. Some are free, while others are pay-per-book or subscription-based.

LibriVox contains close to 10,000 public domain texts, read and recorded by volunteers around the world. All of their audiobooks are free and can be downloaded from their website or other digital library sites across the Internet. The books are sorted mostly by topic, though you can scroll through pictures of the books as well.

Founded in 2005 by Hugh McGuire, their goal is to provide free books for everyone. Most of their books are in English, but they do offer some non-English works as well.

Librophile offers over 100,000 classic books and many newer releases free of charge. They also offer audiobooks that can be purchased. The site is well-organized and offers several search options, including popular, latest, and genre categories, as well as a tab that allows you to select only the free or paid options.

Audible is a membership-based site available through Amazon. With the membership fee, you get one book per month that’s yours to keep. They currently offer a 30-day free trial with a free audiobook, or if you have Amazon Prime, you can get a three-month free trial. Audible has over 180,000 titles to choose from.

  1. Take Advantage of Apps

The development of apps has opened a whole new world of possibilities for busy people. Because there are so many out there, it may take some digging, but you’ll eventually find something that suits your needs.

Apps are a great way to take advantage of the downtime your commute provides. If you’re driving to work your options may be limited, but here are a few that may be useful once you work through the learning curve.

ASAM by AgileSpeech is a hands-free app with voice command recognition that lets you connect with the web no matter what you’re doing. This free app will read your email or other web content to you, and is fairly accurate. You should be aware that it does read everything, including disclaimers or anything else that’s in the text.

ASAM also allows you to dictate emails, though it requires a bit of practice to become comfortable with the commands. It can also be a bit irritating if you need to correct something and have to re-record the entire message.

Dragon Dictation is a hands-free app that allows you to dictate your thoughts and transcribes them for you in any setting. You can use it to send notes to the clipboard or post updates on your social media accounts. Dragon Dictation is available for iOS devices.

Apps like Dragon Dictation are a great way to create an audio journal. Journaling helps you process your feelings, understand your failures, and preserve your accomplishments. This can go a long way toward self-growth and your future success.

iSpeak is an MP3 language program that is compatible with the iPod and most MP3 players. It’s a pretty basic program that includes 1,500 words and phrases with visual cues, but it doesn’t teach grammatical or conversational skills. It’s a good way for a beginner to get an introduction to a language and to make your commute time work for you.

If you use public transportation, there are a number of organizational apps that can help you get a jump on your day:

Any.DO, available for iOS, Android, and the web, is a time management app that lets you schedule your day, manage projects, and dictate notes. It also gives you customizable recurring tasks and allows you to add attachments to your to-do lists.

  1. Other Ways to Be Productive

 As mentioned earlier, being productive isn’t always about doing something. Sometimes, it means taking care of your need for self-time, reducing your stress levels, or just plain letting go and enjoying yourself. You can use your commute to learn new stress management techniques or simply relax. Take the time to do something you’ve always loved, but have never been able to fit into your busy schedule.

When you’re stuck in traffic, break out your favorite soothing music or that audiobook that serves no purpose other than to make you happy. Sing songs that make you smile, make a list of all the things you’re grateful for, or teach yourself some breathing exercises to help keep you grounded. Even using the time to avoid checking emails or to disconnect from the things that cause stress will give you a sense of freedom and release.

As simple as these things seem, they can all be opportunities for learning and mechanisms to ease stress, increase your patience, and improve your happiness and life satisfaction levels.

Remaining productive is a necessity — not only for continued job security, but also for personal satisfaction. Commuting, a necessary evil for many people, is best mastered by learning to control the pressure and using the time to practice productive habits.

Instead of seeing your commute as wasted time, look at it as precious self-time that can actually add hours to your day and give you an opportunity to finally check off some to-dos you’ve been thinking about, but have never had time for.

This is a guest post by Sarah Landrum, a Penn State graduate, marketing specialist, and freelance writer. She is also the founder of Punched Clocks, a career and happiness blog. For more tips about growing your career and boosting your productivity, follow Sarah on social media and subscribe to her newsletter! You can find her tweeting daily @SarahLandrum.


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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. I think one relaxation item was overlooked and I think it’s important especially for certain personality types. This overlooked item is music. Yes audiobooks are interesting but I honestly have a hard time note spacing out on them while driving (not a good thing to do while driving lol) and podcasts aren’t bad but can get a bit tedious and repetitive. Music, though, can speak to a persons soul. It can get you pumped up for work or relaxed for that evening slog with dinner, dishes, bathes, and story time. There are free options, there are paid options, and there are podcasts that are entirely music based. (mostly techno/house music like Armin Van Buren and others of his ilk). My iTunes is filled with an eclectic choice of music for my many moods and needs whenever I’m in the car (or as is sometimes the case, my office). It’s pretty basic and doesn’t have the coolness of diction apps and audiobooks but for me life without it would be most horrible.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for a great post
    Can you please advise what is the best way to take notes on podcasts/audiobooks when travelling in public transport

    Thank you
    G.Senthil Kumar

  3. Hi Sarah, I totally agree with what you have to say.
    I feel drained every time I go from places to places, especially during peak hours where the jam is terrible.
    And like what you have suggested, I listen to courses and audiobooks when I’m driving. I listen to courses from Les Brown and Brian Tracy, they help a lot.
    Thanks for sharing.. :)

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