Unfortunately, It Turns out Working While You Commute Makes You Work Better

The 24-hour workday lives on.


There I am, stuck in traffic on a chronically congested freeway. Talk radio is playing in the background as I daydream about anything other than this perpetual pilgrimage and the mind-boggling work that awaits me at my destination. I consider, as I always do, hiking into the leafy hills that line the freeway, but I never pluck up the courage to enact that perpetual thought. I also remind myself how quickly those rolling hills would swallow my delicate, cubicle-attuned body.

This used to be my daily morning commute, and was in many ways, the one time each day when I was mostly free from work-related emails and house-related chores. In fact, I’d make an effort to use my commute to detach, as far as humanly possibly, from these daily stresses, hence the whole wandering into the hills fantasy.

I’ve always been under the impression that using my commute to disengage from work was a good thing. In fact, studies show that people who push work aside when they head home report higher levels of happiness and lower levels of emotional exhaustion. Plus, millennial workers like myself are constantly working, so using my commute to forget about Slacks, emails and my ever-growing list of assignments seemed justified.

But a new study throws a wrench in that pipe dream, suggesting that people who temporarily escape from work-related stresses during their commutes, especially when those commutes are long, experience lower morale, hindered productivity and heightened exhaustion on the clock. Instead, the researchers recommend taking the time to engage in what they call role-clarifying prospection, which involves forming strategies to accomplish your work-related goals and focusing on the day ahead. In other words, the basic idea is to plan your work before you get to work.

This, I say, is a ploy to take away my me-time fantasizing about being eaten by a coyote, dang it, and I’m not at all thrilled about it.

I must admit, though, that while this may be the first study to measure the effects of essentially working while commuting, productivity experts have been touting this approach for years. In a blog post about how successful people keep the entrepreneurial ball rolling, startup guru Thomas Oppong writes, “Start with the end in mind and focus on [the] process that can get you there. Define a clear goal and work at it with all the resources you can gather. You should have a clear sense of what is important to you and get to work immediately.”

There are also legions of apps created with the purpose of helping people plan their workdays while commuting. Some even use voice dictation so car commuters can make arrangements without accidentally driving into those forested hills I mentioned earlier.

Which brings up a good point: Naturally, some forms of commuting are better suited for planning your workday than others. Car commuting, for instance, provides a quiet place where you can make plans without distractions. Meanwhile, when you commute on the bus or train, you can use your laptop or planner to create an actual schedule (and possibly send out some emails).

Then, of course, bike commuting is an option, albeit one that might require more mental energy to focus on the road ahead of you (and the fact that your lungs are on the verge of collapse). The big benefit that comes with bike commuting is exercise, and since working out improves brain function, we could theorize that cycling to work is the ultimate productivity-booster. Although, chances are, doing cardio while commuting will result in you spending the first hour of the workday wiping sweat from your brow, which kinda defeats the purpose.

Working from home might also be an option for you, which obviously involves zero commuting. This can be helpful in several ways, although, speaking as someone who works from home on a regular basis (thank you again, boss), I usually end up literally working first thing in the morning, when I’d otherwise be fantasizing during my commute. In other words, working from home can easily have you working more than you might otherwise, for better or worse.

Focusing back on the study at hand, though, while I can certainly see how preparing yourself for the workday ahead might make it more seamless, I also think the underlying notion that workers, rather than their overbearing employers, should be the ones doing the work of improving their work-induced mental health problems is plain wrong.

In which case, while prepping for the workday during your commute could be worth trying, remember this: It’s your commute, and you can do whatever the hell you want during that time. Even thinking about how long you’d survive in the nearby wilderness.