Stay Chill in Traffic

What do Harvard research, Buddhism, and smartphones have in common? They can all help make your daily commute into a time for self-improvement.

Disclaimer: This is for the drivers


9 days. 


It may not sound like much out of context, but this is how long the average American spent commuting to work in 2018


That’s the equivalent of over a month’s work at a full-time job. And the numbers are getting worse.


This is a problem. Longer commutes are linked to a lower sense of well-being. A 20 minute increase in commute time is equivalent to a 19% reduction in pay, in terms of job satisfaction.


But what can you do? 


Most of us are left shrugging our shoulders with a dismissive “It is what it is.” After all, you’ve got to get paid. 


Here’s the good news: your drive to work can be a lot more than passive-aggressive lane changes and insults yelled for no one to hear. It can actually become a space for productivity that sets you up for a better work day (and a better life).


Following are 3 strategies to turn your daily bumper-to-bumper fiasco into an empowering (and slightly less obnoxious) bit of “me time.”


1. Transition into Work-Mode


A recent Harvard study focused on the importance of differentiating home vs work roles and using your commute as a space to fulfill this transition. 


Switching from one role to the other isn’t as easy as walking into the door of your office. It requires time and intention. Your drive to work provides the time. 


All you need to supply is the intention. 


The study calls it “role-clarifying prospection.” Instead of distracting yourself with music or letting your mind wander, you focus on goals for the day and what specific tasks you’d like to accomplish.


Researchers tested the effectiveness of this strategy with two groups of commuters. The first engaged in whatever activity they normally would, and the second group practiced role-clarifying prospection.


The results showed that the second group reported higher job-satisfaction and a lower intention of quitting their job. Intentionally thinking about how’d they approach their work day before arriving at the office helped to lower their work related stress.


How to Do It


Role-clarifying prospection is easy to make a part of your commute. Just follow these three steps.


  1. Visualize your workday: Mentally go through your plan for the day, from the first cup of coffee to the last email you send

  2. Set your goals and priorities for the day: Rank your duties in terms of what is most pressing and plan on tackling them first

  3. Review the top three tasks you want to accomplish: Focus on how you’ll approach each task and what specific steps you’ll take to get them done


Even if something unexpected changes your plan, the mental preparation gets you into work-mode before you sit down at your desk. You’ll be better able to handle whatever comes your way.


It’s just as important to transition into your home-role after leaving work. Spend the commute back visualizing your evening at home. This might be planning dinner, reviewing any chores to get done, or simply reflecting on how you’d like to unwind.


But how can you deal with the infuriating drivers you encounter on your drive?

2. Practice Non-Attachment


Non-attachment, or detachment, relates to how we engage with our emotions. The idea is a central concept in Buddhism.


Attachment stems from our desire for things to be, or not be, a certain way. You want the traffic to be light. Inevitably, it isn’t. This dissonance between your desire and reality produces emotions, like anger or frustration. Stress is increased.


By practicing non-attachment, you can mitigate this emotional response. Instead of mentally fighting things you can’t change, you accept it and move on.


Easier said than done. But the effectiveness is clear. People with higher levels of non-attachment have been shown to have reduced stress and increased empathy.


Empathy is a critical component here. Non-attachment is often conflated with ambivalence, with people thinking it means we cease to feel emotions and stop caring about anything. This is not the case.


The purpose of non-attachment isn’t to quiet your emotions. The purpose is to recognize that they are passing sensations and not actually who you are.


It’s not your emotions that define you; it’s how you react to them.


Take this scenario: an aggressive driver cuts you off and forces you to hit the brakes. You get angry, even aggressive yourself (maybe you’re angry just reading this). 


Your expectations for how things should be is broken, and the result is a negative reaction.


Through non-attachment, you can still feel that initial negative emotion, but instead of acting or dwelling on it, you let it pass.


Again, not easy. But these strategies can help you incorporate the power of non-attachment into your commute.


How to Do It


1. Recognize your emotions

When you feel angry, frustrated, or stressed, really feel it. What sensations do you experience in your body? How does your breathing change? What specific thoughts go through your mind? 


By observing the way you react to emotions, you gain insight and control. This critical distance gets you closer to an objective view of the situation. So some jerk just cut you off. Let them be a jerk. 


There’s no reason someone else’s selfishness needs to ruin your drive.

2. Count your breaths

A common meditation technique, deep breathing is extremely helpful in controlling emotional reactions. It’s been shown to reduce heart-rate, blood pressure, and stress.


Breathe in slowly through your nose while counting to six in your head. Hold the breath for one second, then exhale through your nose while again counting to six.


You’ll relax your body and be better able to detach from your automatic emotional response.


3. Practice Compassion and Empathy

You and your fellow commuters are in it together. They are as frustrated as you. 


Recognize that every car you encounter on the road has a unique individual behind the wheel, each with their own anxieties, stress, and ways of dealing with emotions.


A less self-centered view of the world is at the heart of non-attachment. A congested commute isn’t just happening to you.


Take the time to reflect on this as you drive to and from work. You might end up seeing some beauty in traffic, even if it has a tragic hue. 


However, sometimes you need a little distraction from brakelights. Why not make that distraction something intellectually stimulating?


3. Make Your Drive a Space for Education


Learning, whether done in a formal setting or on your own, has been shown to delay cognitive decline, improve memory, and reduce stress. It also prepares you for economic shifts of the future by expanding your skill base.


But how can you make learning a part of your commute?


Thanks to smartphones and streaming services, you are no longer confined to your car radio for in-car entertainment (not to say there aren’t quality radio programs). 


That means access to an insane amount of resources to learn about whatever you desire. Podcasts, online videos, e-books, and educational apps are all at your disposal. 


While listening to music is always an option (and it has been shown to reduce stress while driving), educational content engages your mind in a deeper way. Instead of passive listening, you’re actively engaged with what’s coming out of your car speakers.


The act of learning something interesting keeps your mind busy. You’ll be less likely to get wrapped up in the inanity of crawling traffic and other people’s driving.


Safety Tip: Save yourself from a fender-bender. Set up a queue of what you want to listen to before you start driving. That way, you won’t have to fiddle with your phone when a podcast or video ends, as the next item you selected will automatically start playing. Also, make sure your in-car learning is strictly audio based. Apps that require you to read and press buttons on the screen won’t do.


How to Do It


Here are a few tips to make your learning productive.


  • Set defined and realistic goals: You may want to learn a new language. Great. But your goals need to be more specific. What level do you hope to reach, and by when? Will you listen to only language learning podcasts, or some authentic content in the target language?

  • Be consistent: Learning anything requires repetition and long-term engagement. Make a point of incorporating what you’re learning into every day’s commute, even if it’s for a short amount of time.

  • Repeat what you learned: After you finish, state out loud what you learned. You may be surprised how difficult it can be to articulate ideas you seemed to understand in your head. Also, stating ideas out loud improves how well you retain that information. Throw on a headset if you’re worried about looking crazy.


Suggestions for Free Learning Materials

If you want to learn a new language, the Coffee Break Languages podcasts are an excellent resource. They’re free to listen to and available for French, Spanish, Italian, German,  and Chinese.


If it’s an interesting and educational podcast you crave, check out these suggestions.


For free audiobooks, these websites offer thousands of options. That’s more than enough books to keep you learning on your daily commute for years.


Reclaim Your Commuting Life


For most of us, our drive to work takes up a significant portion of our lives. But that’s no reason to fall into an existential crisis. 


By using your commute as a space for role transition, non-attachment, and education, you can change it from the most dreaded part of your day to an opportunity for personal growth. That’s a big difference.


Try these techniques the next time you hop into the driver’s seat to start the long stop-and-go to work. You’ll be a better person (and employee) for it.

© 2020 by Daniel Orozco Allan