Commuting is often treated as a sad reality. Marooned to a car or, worse, public transit, seconds slip into the void as we wait, tired-eyed, for our turn to get where we need to be. Workers spend hundreds of hours a year sitting, standing, waiting, walking, bumping and white-knuckling their way to work. Pastimes for these moments, whether they're the culmination of a 20-mile bus ride to the nearest metropolis or a 25-minute walk around the block to your office, are seen as coping mechanisms instead of legitimate activities.
Productivity gurus and life hackers will tell you that time spent commuting is wasted by boredom, fatigue and nothingness, and should instead be rescheduled and optimized to yield more productive results. After all, an hour a day studying French on your way to work equates to roughly 261 hours studied in a year, which means you can be fluent after a year. That's how that works, right?
The reality for many is that commuting is a battleground where our own needs and desires are routinely trumped by the grind and our transit system's inefficiencies. But it doesn't have to be this way. Time commuting can be time cherished. Simple awareness can beat monotony and petty frustration until, as one great writer put it, those banal moments can be transformed into meaningful ones, on fire with the same forces that lit the stars – love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things.
The hard part isn't in choosing an activity to fill that time; it's in remembering that often our own experiences are dictated by how we choose to see them. Anyone can turn on a podcast or open a book or start cross-stitching on the subway in the name of fulfillment. But viewing the empty time spent on trains and in cars as powerful, as worth our attention, comes down to how we choose to think about that time.
My commute used to be 1.5 hours each way. It wasn't until I realized that my commute gave me three hours a day of uninterrupted time to myself that I started valuing it. When else did I have that?
Everyone knows the basic ways to survive a commute: Turn on a podcast, read a book, plan your day, assess your life goals, download a language app. But there are other things worth trying that can help shift perspective away from monotony and toward value.
Practice transit meditation
The benefits of meditation are foreign to no one. Taking time each day to create some separation from ourselves and our problems can ground us to what's important and remind us of the elements that link all humanity: breath. I'm not proposing you turn the Q train into your specialized meditation room. (However, kudos to you if you can maintain focus amid a busy commute.) Instead, transit meditation involves doing absolutely nothing on your commute.
The mind needs time and space to churn and sort things out. In an ever-encroaching world of technology and entertainment, there are few quiet moments left where life's questions (both big and small) can be pondered. Boredom, despite it being practically eradicated from our current culture, can actually provide some value.
Commuting can be treated as dead time, where your mind is free to wander into and out of all the bubbling topics from your subconscious. While not meditation in the strictest sense, transit meditation gives commuters a minute to take a breath. This is particularly effective on mass transit, as a few healthy doses of people-watching can help break things up. It may be harder to do while driving, but it's worth a try.
Call your mom
Or a family member or friend of similar importance. This is especially useful for commuters who drive each day. Cars feel like coffins during traffic jams, and calling a friend or family member means you can use that extra time to connect with someone you love. That empty time on a no man's land of a freeway can be meaningful, an opportunity to practice friendship and emotional support for someone close to you. It can also be a great way to vent about the workday.
Work on a passion project
Everyone has dreams. While your commute may not be the time to "grind on" through whatever side project you're working on, it can still be time to write, plan, organize or work on whatever side project you have on your plate. Some of the most inspired work is done, well, outside of work. J. Wes Ulm works as a medical doctor and researcher, but he writes songs during his commute home.
"When the freeway turns into a parking lot, I try to make lemonade out of lemons by writing new tracks," Ulm said. "Some of the defining songs on our debut and upcoming second EP, including an award-winning bluesy number, were written in whole or in part during these commutes."
If you truly love what you're working on, devoting your commute to your side project can be a way to decompress after work.
Take care of your body
This may sound like a weird idea, but it's actually possible to take care of your body while commuting. If you're driving, try putting a lacrosse ball between your car seat and shoulder blades. You can roll out knots in your shoulders and massage your back.
If you're on the subway or standing on a bus, you can do some minor stretching so your neck, back and legs loosen up. If you're worried about drawing attention to yourself, pick stretches that are more discreet, like a standing calf stretch. This activity, while seemingly a little weird, provides the opportunity for small daily wins that can help with relaxation and focus.
This tip, which is on par with transit meditation, involves focusing on the world around you instead of getting lost in your own thoughts. Rupert Pople, founder of Your Smart Home Guide, is lucky enough to walk each day to work. His strategy on his commute, though, proves even a casual walk each day can be treated as an important moment instead of a stressful thing to get through.
"I let my mind go blank, just focusing on physical sensations, what I hear and what I see, with absolutely no other thoughts attached," he said. "Taking a break from routine, compulsive overthinking never fails to amaze me. This daily gentle reminder lets you remember that your life and the feelings that surround it are made entirely by you, and, ultimately, painful emotions don't need to be all-consuming."
While we all may not be lucky enough to enjoy a walk to work each day, we can use Pople's strategy to get out of our own heads and be present in the world around us.
Do your best
Working is hard, and commuting is even harder. The act of choosing to view commute time differently isn't easy – some days we may not be able to do it, or we just flat-out won't want to. I realize all these theories are easy for me to write down but hard to live out. I'm convinced the only important part is trying and giving realization a chance to intercede in our life. It's so easy to fall into the slog of day-to-day routine; how can we challenge routine and take back life's seemingly unimportant moments?
If you Google "how to not hate your commute," the first result tells the story of Nataly Kogan, a writer who was inspired by a little boy on a train platform. The innocuous interaction with a child and his dad changed Kogan's perspective about her routine journey from Boston to New York City. It sparked a spontaneous conversation and allowed Kogan to appreciate the mundane wonders of modern transport, human interaction and the commonness of the commute.
It's hard to replicate Kogan's experiences for ourselves, but the fact remains: If we open our eyes and give life a chance to teach us something, we could walk away from a banal, monotonous moment with our own profound realizations.