It can be tempting to view your commute as dead time: a wasted two, three or four hours in which all the jobs you could be doing nag at you. But rushing to fill that space with read-aloud email apps, rolling news and financial reports hurriedly scanned on commuter trains might not be your best strategy. In fact, it could make you worse at your job.
A new study from Dartmouth College in the US has found that the anxiety and frustration brought about by stressful commutes hamper our ability to do our best work for the rest of the nine-to-five.
‘Your commute predicts your day,’ says Professor Andrew Campbell, lead researcher of the 275-person study, in which participants were fitted with tracking devices to monitor factors such as activity levels, phone usage, heart rate and stress markers. Those who spent more time staring at their screens put in a poorer performance throughout the day, while those who found ways to get in physical activity did better.
‘Our commutes should be a chance to allow ourselves idle time,’ suggests Dr Elena Touroni, co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. That might mean giving yourself permission to read a novel, rather than an email exchange, or making time to walk part of the journey rather than rushing for the bus.
Another factor? Efficient employees were less likely to be late – or work late. ‘High performers display greater consistency in the times they arrive and leave,’ says Pino Audia, a scientist on the study. ‘This dramatically reduces the negative impacts of commuting.’ Which makes it worthwhile to set the alarm for even 10 minutes earlier.
Still stuck for ideas? A UC Berkeley study found comedy podcasts boost levels of the reward hormone dopamine. Likewise, choosing music over the news can reduce chronic stress by 60%, while a 2018 study found checking emails outside of work hours tanks wellbeing and affects our partners, too.
Dr Touroni suggests reframing your commute as ‘self-care time’, and an opportunity to find headspace before the daily grind. That you won’t have to make space for your laptop on a train tray table is all the better.
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