6 Ways to Turn the Worst Part of Your Day Into the Best

If you hate your commute, research shows how to make it the best part of the day

Posted Sep 19, 2017

Production Perig/Shutterstock
Source: Production Perig/Shutterstock

You plan your day carefully and decide, among other things, how you will get to place A from place B on time. However, you invariably run into delays and feel that you do nothing but play catch-up throughout that well-planned day. Perhaps the delay has nothing to do with you, but is a function of circumstances you can’t control. There’s an accident that holds up road traffic or a commuter train that breaks down. Your kids fail to cooperate when you announce that you’ll be leaving in five minutes to drop them off at school. Your spouse or partner takes extra time in front of the mirror. You forget something and have to go back home. You’re stuck in what was supposed to be a quick online purchase, because the internet is slow. It’s possible that you oversleep, because you’re so exhausted from the prior day’s hectic pace. You might even be late, because you just plain procrastinate. All of these are ways that your best-laid plans go astray. Your commute has just turned into a nightmare.

Commuting is undoubtedly one of the most stressful parts of the day. A long or short commute always filled with delays can make you both late and stressed, causing you to start or end your day feeling exhausted. McGill University’s Charis Loong and colleagues (2017) believed that people's energy levels and punctuality would differ after their trip to and from work or school based on their mode of commute. Each form of transportation from home to work or school and back, they note, carries its own particular form of stress and potential delays. Pedestrians worry about their comfort and safety from traffic, drivers are stressed by the length of time they fear their commute might take, and those using public transportation become concerned about holdups and delays if they spend too much time waiting. Everyone worries about the weather.

Commuting can also deplete people’s energy levels. If you’re on your feet all day, a commute that involves walking will be the most physically tiring, but if you have to drive long distances, even if you’re active while at work, you’ll be mostly mentally tired. On the basis of these premises, the McGill team devised a survey of university students and employees to investigate various aspects of the commuting experience. From this study, we can gain important clues on how to stay on time as you plan your day.

The Canadian researchers obtained a sample of 6,116 students, faculty, and staff (from a possible population of 38,000), who completed online surveys in which they rated their commutes to and from the campus on a cold and snowy day, as well as a warm and sunny one. The campus is located in the center of Montreal, and the survey questions tapped each aspect of their commuting mode, including how they planned their commute and how they took into account various exigencies that could affect their travel time. 

The survey questions asked respondents to provide information on their mode of commuting (walking, driving, riding a bicycle, taking public transportation), the length of their commute, and their satisfaction with their method of commute. They were also asked to state whether they were negatively affected by their commutes either in their punctuality or ability to get to work, as well as their energy levels after getting to work. 

Supporting the original premise of the study, Loong and her colleagues found that people who cycled to work or school felt most energized and were most likely to be on time. However, given that the study was conducted in a city with many travel days impacted by winter weather, the benefit of cycling only manifested when the weather was nice. Otherwise, the cyclists felt that their energy was depleted by their commute, and they were nearly as likely to be late as were other commuters.

The problem for anyone whose travel time is affected by weather, or other adverse circumstances, is the failure to allocate enough extra time to get where you’re going. As the authors note, “Some people are not allocating enough additional time for their commute, and thereby negatively affecting their energy at work." An additional wrinkle is thrown into the findings regarding whether participants used their travel time productively. People who felt they were using their commutes in a way that boosted their ability to get something done were about three times more likely to feel energized when they got to work or school. Although the longer your commute, the more likely you are to be delayed by factors outside of your control, using that time well, rather than fretting over being late, would seem to be the best way out of the conundrum.

Clearly, then, the best way to be on time is to factor delays into your schedule, however your mode of transportation. Use that time productively by, for example, listening to an audiobook if you’re driving or taking mass transit, or working on building your fitness levels if you’re walking or cycling. Try some meditation when things really get to you. Keeping these ideas in mind, let's look now at the best way to get where you need to with the least amount of strain:

1. Don't procrastinate. 

Since travel delays do appear to be inevitable, unless you’re extremely lucky in terms of the weather or traffic, give yourself some insurance by scheduling in more time proportionate to your distance than you would need under the best of circumstances. The Loong et al. team found that delays increased the longer the basic trip. If you are late getting out the door, there's no way you'll be on time getting into the next one you need to enter.

2. Don’t think of your journey as a drain on your time. 

Reframe the time you need to spend traveling in a positive way, either because you get other things done or because you can use it to enhance your mental or physical skills. This way, you’ll be less likely to try to shorten your travel to the point where you’re almost certain to feel drained when your plans don’t work out.

3. Use available apps to help you plan.

There are enough data sources available now via travel apps so that you don’t have to be surprised when you’re confronted with a delay. Even better, travel apps give you alternate routes or modes of transport based on real-time updates, so you can decide whether to take the end run that the app suggests to you. There's no need to procrastinate when these travel apps can guide you to the fastest route.

4. Get more sleep. 

To be able to wake early enough to allow yourself extra time, you need to get to bed at a reasonable hour. If you keep procrastinating your bedtime, you’ll have more trouble getting up and will be less efficient in getting organized when it’s time to get out the door.

5. Cut down distractions. 

Keep your focus on doing all that you can to go from place A to place B. If you’d like to stop and read the paper or catch up on Facebook, that’s fine, but do so after you’ve gotten to where you’re going. If you're an inveterate procrastinator, train yourself so you'll put your energy into getting your travels underway.

6. Let others know your schedule. 

If it’s your boss who keeps you from leaving on time so you can avoid the evening rush, you need to make it clear that you simply have to go. If it’s your kids, the people in your carpool, or a long-winded neighbor, you similarly need to be able to get out gracefully. Make it clear that you’d love to stay and chat, but now isn’t the time. If your travel partners are the procrastinators, you'll need to establish some type of ground rules so you aren't dragged into being late.

The art of being on time involves manipulating a host of factors. Although there are many of these factors you can’t control, learning to make those you can control work in your favor to keep your timekeeping and your commute if not the best, then at least not the worst, part of your day. Fulfillment in life involves being able to derive satisfaction from your daily activities, as well as achieving your larger purposes. These small adjustments can help you accomplish both goals.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017.


Loong, C., van Lierop, D., & El-Geneidy, A. (2017). On time and ready to go: An analysis of commuters’ punctuality and energy levels at work or school. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology And Behaviour, 451-413. doi:10.1016/j.trf.2016.11.014