For many of us, commuting feels like a hassle, a waste of time, or worse. But if you travel to get to work, then the good news is that you already have a consistent block of time built into your day that you can use to build all kinds of healthy habits.
You might already have a solid routine—reading books or listening to podcasts, for instance—but even so, giving new activities a try can keep you excited about your day and help you make sure you’re using your time as well as you can. If you’re looking for ways to make travel time a more positive part of your day, try out some of the following options to shake up your commuting routine.
1. Learn something new using apps
If you take public transit to work, maybe you already spend some of your commuting time scrolling through social media or playing games. Why not devote some of that screen time to self-care or skill-building instead? You might find that doing so helps you arrive at your destination more refreshed and focused.
There are lots of apps that can help you build this productive and rejuvenating habit, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Language apps like Babbel or Duolingo can help you brush up on a foreign language or work toward speaking a new one.
- Mindfulness apps like Headspace, InsightTimer, or SimpleHabit are great ways to make your days calmer and more focused.
- Education apps like Brilliant or Coursera can give you tools to learn anything from coding to leadership skills.
When taking up a new hobby or skill, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find out about yourself. "All aspects of our core self need nurturing and support," says Amanda Mitchell, a therapist in Chicago who specializes in using the mind-body connection to alleviate stress and burnout.
After all, as humans we have various needs, ranging from emotional to physical and spiritual, and attending to each can help you gain a positive sense of balance, fulfillment, and growth. "Starting your day with something unrelated to your job can help you stay connected to other aspects of your self, your values, and the things that make you uniquely you," she adds.
2. Start a gratitude journal on a notebook or phone
A growing body of research indicates that actively cultivating gratitude in your day-to-day life may help you feel more satisfied with your life. Using your daily commute as a prompt to focus on gratitude can be a great way to make sure you’re taking time to give thanks and focus on what’s going well in your life.
If you take public transit to work, you could consider carrying a physical notebook to use as a gratitude journal, or start one as a note on your phone. If you drive, bike, or walk to work (or for whatever other reason can’t write on your way there), you can still make mental lists of things you’re grateful for and then write them down once you arrive. (Or just keep them in your head—even a little time contemplating what you’re grateful for can be helpful!)
Not sure where to start? Try out these prompts to practice reflecting on gratitude:
- What kinds of pleasure are your senses picking up right now? Maybe you’re wearing a soft sweater, drinking a good cup of coffee, or enjoying nice weather.
- What was a happy surprise you remember experiencing recently?
- Who is someone you’re glad to have in your life? What makes this person special to you?
- What are you looking forward to this week or this month?
Mitchell adds that this "attitude of gratitude" helps you set a positive start to your day, which can have a ripple effect as well. When you refocus your thoughts towards positive experiences, you promote awareness of your successes – in personal or professional life – and perpetuate the belief that you will prosper. This, in turn, expands your ability to identify your strengths and resources.
"Simply put, connecting to gratitude allows you to connect to the emotions of what you do have, and the belief that more is coming your way, versus focusing on what you feel you do not have (yet!)," says Mitchell.
3. Listen to a new audiobook
With busy lives, it can feel impossible to find time to read a lengthy news article, let alone an entire book! The great news is that there are hundreds of bestsellers that are now available as audio files, meaning that you can learn from them while you drive to work or ride the train.
Picking a book that feels particularly indulgent will help you really look forward to, and cherish, your commute time each day.
4. Gain wellness insights from a mental health podcast
Podcasts are already a staple for many folk’s commutes. However, listening to the news or the details of a hot startup may not be providing the respite you need on your way home after a long busy day.
Below are a few of our favorite mental health-oriented podcasts, which can help you frame your morning for compassion and success or insightfully decompress from your day.
- The Happiness Lab: This podcast is dedicated to arming listeners with tools to build and maintain happiness in every aspect of our lives. In The Happiness Lab, Dr. Lauri Santos, a professor at Yale University, curates actionable take-aways from cutting edge research and dispels countless myths about what keeps us healthy and happy.
- Hannahlyze This: If your commute has turned into a lonely time of anxious reflection on your workday, this honest and informal podcast could be the perfect thing to lift you up! Hosts Hannah Hart and Hannah Gelb discuss how they are navigating stress, pressure, and pain in their work and personal lives. Their stories and insights are sure to make you feel in good company, and empower you to keep going, even when things feel impossibly hard.
- Spiraling: This podcast feels a little like group therapy – in the best possible way. The hosts Katie Dalebout and Serena Wolf talk about how anxiety shows up in their work, friendships, and love lives, sharing candid self-doubt and tips along the way. Tuning into Spiraling on your commute will help normalize your circling thoughts at the end of the day, so you can spend your evening relaxing or getting involved with the people and activities you love.
5. Replace your regular Instagram feed with uplifting mental health handles
If you often find yourself scrolling through social while you ride the subway, you know how easy it can be to get swept away in comparisons to the photos of glamorous trips and dinner dates – and how they can feel especially out of reach when you're feeling drab and crammed on the midweek commuter train.
Instead, try filling your feed with more positive, encouraging handles that will set an upbeat tone and fresh perspective for your day. We put together a list of nine Instagram accounts that we recommend visiting on the regular!
6. Practice a walking or seated meditation
"If your commute could be a 30-minute walk or less, then I highly recommend doing so," says Dhvani Lindsey, a therapist in NYC who specializes in work stress. "Fresh air, exercise, and sunlight are a great start to your day." And to make your walk extra invigorating, try making it a moving meditation:
- Intentionally give gratitude to: Your physical capabilities for movement, the view around you, a good night's rest, etc.
- Ground yourself by focusing on your feet and legs as they move.
- Pay specific attention to each of your senses; the aromatic waft of a bakery you pass by, the rumble of the train overhead, the sip of coffee in your travel mug.
- If helpful, recite a mantra or phrase that encourages or motivates you – such as "I am enough," or "I am grateful for all that I have, and all that is to come."
Even if your commute mostly entails sitting, you can spice it up with mindfulness practices. For example, if you're sitting on the subway, bring your attention to the vibrations that reach your feet as the train moves. If your mind wanders elsewhere, simply bring it back to the physical sensations and continue focusing for a few minutes.
7. Learn to observe your emotions — without reacting to them
Commuting can be stressful for all kinds of reasons: the crowds, the traffic and delays, the looming to-do lists of the workday ahead.
It’s normal to feel a whole range of emotions during commuting, but giving in to these feelings right away can lead to negative consequences both little (feeling distracted at work, maybe) and big (like conflicts with other commuters).
If this sounds familiar to you, try borrowing a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to acknowledge your emotions without feeling overwhelmed by them in the moment.
Think through these three simple steps when you feel yourself getting worked up:
- What is the intensity of the emotion I’m feeling? Try rating this on a 1-10 scale.
- What is the name of the emotion I’m feeling? Maybe it’s fear about getting in trouble if you’re late to work, or anger that someone on the subway pushed you.
- How does this emotion feel in my body? You might notice a tightness in your chest or a hot sensation on your skin.
Then, take 30 seconds or so to just breathe, thinking about your answers and adding any details that come to mind.
After that, try re-rating the intensity of your emotion—you may be surprised at how quickly you can reduce the discomfort of an emotional experience, simply by noticing it and describing it to yourself.
Practicing this technique doesn’t just make your commute better, either; it’s great practice for keeping your cool in all kinds of situations!
No matter what you choose to do on your commute, adds Lindsey, strive for making the most of it. "I think you should find whatever peace you can on your commute, and do something you enjoy. I love to put on my noise cancelling headphones, reduce that MTA chaos, and really engage with my music, audiobooks, or podcasts." Happy traveling!